David Folkenflik: Rupert Murdoch's rules

NPR's media correspondent discusses the tycoon's politics, his broken promises and how he changed the media

Published October 27, 2013 10:59AM (EDT)

Rupert Murdoch                  (Reuters/Lionel Bonaventure)
Rupert Murdoch (Reuters/Lionel Bonaventure)

In his new book, “Murdoch’s World,” NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik takes on Rupert Murdoch, the Australian business magnate who is probably the most powerful media figure ever. While American audiences know him best for Fox News and his subsequent purchase of the Wall Street Journal, Murdoch’s properties in the U.K. are probably even more ubiquitous, despite the recent phone tapping scandal.

Folkenflik talked to Salon about Murdoch’s “Archie Bunker” mentality, his legacy and how competing with him has changed the New York Times. Readers can also find an excerpt from Folkenflik’s book, about the birth of Fox News, here. This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

What about Rupert Murdoch would Salon readers find most surprising?

He’s not as uniformly and as reflexively conservative as people often characterize him. He started out in college at Oxford as actually being pretty far left--an idealistic kid on campus in Britain--and had a bust of Lenin in his rooms--somewhat for sport but, you know, showing his sympathies a little bit. He had what were considered to be fairly progressive views on, say, aboriginal people of Australia in the '60s and '70s.

The Australian newspaper, which was his creation in--I believe--1964, has done some very intensive and thoughtful reporting on the treatment of aboriginals--their conditions, their place in Australian life and culture--in a way that Americans who think of Murdoch simply from the front pages of the New York Post or the top rated shows of Fox News might find hard to believe. He’s more complex, I think, in terms of his own political instincts--and at times more self-contradictory than people fully realize.

His business instincts don’t seem that contradictory.

His business sense is based on his gut instinct. What he cares most about are the newspapers, even though they’ve faded from their financial prominence. And his sense for the newspapers--his insight--was that he felt that a center-right, populism, punching-up-at-elites, identifying-targets-of-derision-and-trying-to-take-them-down would sell. [He mixed it with] a lively diet of entertainment news and all kinds of coverage of sports, and the treatment of politics often as sport--at times as bloodsport--in a way that people you might once have described as Reagan democrats found appealing. You know, the New York Post has never been a money maker, but there is certainly a sense that it appeals to what a former New York Post editor and publisher described to me as the “Archie Bunker mentality” in the outer boroughs of New York as well.

We’re all familiar with the current media environment, and in the U.K. it’s the same sort of thing with their tabloids--but was this a revolutionary idea, or did he just execute better than everyone else?

In the U.S., Murdoch changed the very nature of the New York Post. He made all kinds of promises to Dorothy Schiff, the owner of the New York Post in the 1970s, when he sought to acquire it and did, and he convinced her it would be sort of a much more sedate, somewhat left of center publication. That all went out the window when he took it over. And who would think he would maintain and own it to be somebody else’s publication, really?

In the States, there have always been gossip publications and tabloids and scandal rags, but there was really a division between what was seen as the “proper press” or the “mainstream news media” and tabloid journalism. In this country there’s always been a split, and Murdoch’s insight was to say there’s something in the center of that that can do both--you can cover enough of culture high and low, you can cover politics, you could cover business and finance--you’d get a lot of people in Manhattan that way--and yet you’d still go after the celebrities as though they are targets in a video game. That was, I think, his insight.

The New York Daily News had always been the photo newspaper, and so certainly gossip and crime and scandal were part of the media diet in big cities like L.A., like Chicago, like New York, like Boston--if you think back to the years of Hearst and Pulitzer, competing a century ago, they certainly had times when they would descend to the lowest common denominator. So, I wouldn’t say that Murdoch invented it;  I would say that in some ways he purified and perfected the mix.

It sounds like you think he feels a lot of this sort of Archie Bunker populism, although he was born into comfortable circumstances and has obviously succeeded beyond imagination.

He was born into a very affluent, influential family--his father had been an executive in newspapers in the second-largest city in Australia and was able to leave his mother this enormous estate outside Melbourne, and to leave him the small newspaper in Adelaide as a starting point. Now, Murdoch was always upset that he felt his father had been screwed out of a couple of papers that he’d gotten an ownership stake in just before his death, and was always angry about that, and it was a moment of triumph when he was able to buy back those papers over the years.

And, as you say, he absolutely built up an empire and a vision of what could be achieved far beyond what anyone could have imagined--including his father. But if you read his Twitter feed, which his aides at times roll their eyes at -- but their feeling is “You be the one to tell him not to tweet”--there’s a real visceral personal expression of what he’s thinking at any time.

He’ll go off on the BBC and the Guardian in the U.K., and if Prime Minister Cameron meets with the family members of victims whose phones were hacked by his former tabloid, News of the World, he will often rail against what he calls the “toffs”--the wealthy, privileged types in Britain who are meeting to try and close down press freedoms. Now, there’s a very legitimate argument to be had about the kind of regulation of the press that’s being proposed by various figures in the UK in the wake of the hacking scandal. But the idea that Rupert Murdoch, the son of a successful newspaper executive, who’s himself a billionaire many times over, a graduate of Oxford, and a guy who’s got world leaders on speed dial, is somehow being shut out by the privileged and the wealthy and the elite -- the idea that he has not created his own establishment that has forced these other guys to bend to his interests -- is preposterous.

I was struck by what you said about his promises to Dorothy Schiff about the New York Post. He made similar promises to the Bancroft family with the Wall Street Journal. Why would anybody believe what he says?

If you’re asking why anybody would believe what he says, I would say, well, two things: There’s nothing in his record to suggest that if he makes promises, that he will be hands-off in the running of a news organization, or particularly the running of a newspaper, that he would keep such promises. You can look back to the New York Post. You can look to the Times of London and the Sunday Times. You can look to the Wall Street Journal.

Each and every time he has installed people who either slavishly adhere to how he looks at the world or are at least conscious enough of it that it works well. Now, he does have a different approach to his broadsheets--to his prestige papers--than to his tabloids. He’s much more hands-on with his tabloids on a day-to-day, week-to-week basis. But there’s no reason to believe any such promise; he’s just proven time and again that he’ll do what he needs to do to get the transaction done.

That said, it’s not clear to me why people would want to believe such a promise. If somebody buys a newspaper he or she is entitled to have influence over how that newspaper is run. I don’t understand really the concept behind it. The Bancrofts made a decision: they would solve a couple of decades of tension over ownership, over diminishing returns during terrible, wrenching times for the newspaper industry. They wanted to sell out, and yet they wanted to feel that they’d still maintained the traditions of the Journal and of Dow Jones--and they wanted it both ways.

His promise was the opportunity for them to cling to something, for them to say “It’s going to be okay.” Now it’s one thing in the sense that the Journal is still a terrific newspaper, and it’s got a hundreds of journals doing wonderful work on a daily basis. On the other hand, as I think my book demonstrates, reporters and editors inside the Journal--both current and former--have told me about many instances in which it appeared to them as though influence was exerted to pull the paper to the tone that was to the right of where it was when Murdoch and his camp arrived.

Now, I think that Robert Thompson, the CEO of News Corp. and the former top news executive at the Journal, and Gerry Baker, [managing editor of the Wall Street Journal] would argue that it was a little reflexively liberal. And so they feel they’ve pulled it to a true center.

But there are instances--I found, I think, maybe a dozen or two dozen--where some of the journalists felt were not fair. That’s a source of concern for one of the nation’s top newspapers. The real question in some ways is whether the institutions are true to themselves--newsrooms have cultures, and it’s very hard for Murdoch to come in, for a newspaper that wants to retain a certain kind of brand and a certain kind of reputation, and completely change it.

At the prestigious newspapers, he doesn’t quite do it that way. But the Times of London is probably a better paper, in many ways, than it was before he took it over. But it’s also a paper that has to take certain kinds of political realities into account in a way that’s different from before it was owned by such a big political player.

Do you feel like News Corp. was able to thwart you in meaningful ways while you were reporting for this book?

This is not a book based on exceptional access that the Murdochs granted, because they didn’t really want to help this book in any way, and have discouraged others from participating. But I don’t feel thwarted at all. I talked to--give or take--a couple hundred folks over the years with an intense focus in the last couple of years. Between, I’d say, the generosity of people I’ve spoken to--both current and former News Corp. and 21st Century Fox employees, journalists, officials, associates of various Murdoch family members, people who have been close aides to them, people who have been top journalists for them on both sides of the Atlantic, a lot of folks down in Australia--I was able to get a picture that may in some ways be more complete.

You always want to hear from the principals themselves, but this was not a book that they were able to define or limit. This was a time where, between the years of reporting I’ve done on various elements of the News Corp. empire and also the incredible window opened into how they operate behind the scenes by the scandals in Britain--the testimony, the incredible richness of the documents offered--there were a lot of revelations that came rapid-fire at various points in 2011 and 2012 in particular. But it was like little tiny shards of a kaleidoscope, right? It was hard to see the full picture.

What I’ve tried to do is give readers the full context and understanding of the richness of this man; of his genuine accomplishments, which I think are many; his incredible strengths; and his incredible flaws, which may have blinded him to the perils, or to the implications of the kinds of culture that he was so involved in creating throughout his company.

Can you elaborate on that a little bit? How did that hurt him?

His personality flaws are such that, for example, if a newspaper screws up, there’s not a lot in the way of the Murdoch empire of apologizing--the Journal is different. You look at the Post, you look at his tabloids, and they basically insist on their version of the truth to a great extent and apologize only when they’re forced to.

Think back to the bombings in Boston, the New York Post had that front page photograph where I believe the headline was “Bag Men,” and it was a high school runner and his coach--a picture had been distributed by federal agents, who said “we just want to know who these guys are.” The culture [at the Post] was not to apologize. They said, “well these were people who were sought for identification by the feds--why would we apologize for that?” That kind of arrogance is something that I think is borne of the tabloid culture that Murdoch created. There’s not a lot of introspection, there’s not a lot of self-reflection, there’s not a lot of guilt, and that is a very Murdochian quality.

What do you see as Murdoch’s legacy, in terms of the company and the sort of culture he created?

It’s a complex legacy. I think he did some admirable things in, for example, subsidizing newspapers that were not profitable simply because he loved them. And he forced American and, to some degree, Australian, and certainly British broadcasting industries to open up. There’s no reason there should’ve only been three [American] networks. He basically forced his way into the creation of a fourth network in the 1980s by sheer will, and I think most Americans would think we’re the better for it.

Similarly, a lot of his offerings have given viewers a deeper range of options. And even in some of the conservative outlets and figures that your readers may or may not find of interest, he’s allowing the ventilation of a vast range of opinions, and it’s hard to argue against that-- that’s fundamentally a good thing.

I think that his true legacy, however, has been a crueler and more punitive form of journalism in this country. He has affected so much of the current media landscape. I intentionally used the subtitle “Last of the old media empires.” If you think of the mainstream, or so-called mainstream, legacy news outlets: MSNBC is not what it is without Fox News. It found its way and its profits in opposition to Fox News.

The Wall Street Journal, the largest circulation daily in the country, one of the two most respected newspapers in this country and perhaps the world, has Rupert Murdoch setting the sensibility and the interests from the top of the corporate hierarchy.

If you look at the New York Times, you see [editor in chief Jill] Abramson and, to a greater degree, I think, [her predecessor] Bill Keller, talking about how there is a certain urbane sensibility, a certain New York state of mind that carries across the country, and they hope across the world as they try to extend the brand, that the Times speaks to and captures. That is something that [Fox News president] Roger Ailes and Rupert Murdoch [see] as a liberal newspaper: [Abramson and Keller] are saying that they are, perhaps, a reflection of the taste and the sensibility of the nation’s most populous city.

But you probably wouldn’t hear that expression had Murdoch and Robert Thompson under him not fought so hard to make the Journal a direct competitor to the Times--to tag them, in a certain way. The Times is having to react to that. It’s a head-to-head market, and they’re trying to compete on their journalism, on their offerings, and also on their sensibilities. Abramson’s articulation of that, I think, comes in response to how the Journal has made that challenge.

By Alex Halperin

Alex Halperin is news editor at Salon. You can follow him on Twitter @alexhalperin.

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