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Murdoch: Up close and impersonal

A new book wonders what makes Rupert...Rupert.

By Richard Siklos, editor at large
December 5, 2008: 3:39 PM ET

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LOS ANGELES (Fortune) -- To use the oldest media mogul cliché in the metaphorical book, a just-released biography on Rupert Murdoch sets out to answer the question of what exactly is the media tycoon's Rosebud. That is, what has fueled Murdoch's astonishing global media conquest over the past half-century and where does his purchase last year of The Wall Street Journal fit in?

In "The Man Who Owns the News: Inside The Secret World of Rupert Murdoch," Michael Wolff claims extensive access to his subject and his intimates, yet confesses early that it's impossible to fully answer the question. Among other things, Wolff finds some of his interviews incomprehensible, a combination of Murdoch's Australian accent, tendency to mumble, and maybe a hearing problem. But, perhaps more importantly, the News Corporation (NWS, Fortune 500) chairman has little capacity for, nor interest in, self-examination.

As a result, although Murdoch agreed to sit for a series of interviews with Wolff over a nine-month period in New York, it's not clear how far into Murdoch's "secret world" the writer got. Maybe this explains why there is in, fact, very little of Murdoch - at least as far as direct quotes and anecdotes go - in "The Man Who Owns the News." But maybe that is a good thing, because Wolff's forte (as seen in his columns for Vanity Fair) is not so much reportage as essay-writing with a keen but narrowed eye.

The result is a perceptive and atmospheric take on Murdoch and his empire that sometimes captures him perfectly but doesn't offer enough evidence to support some of its bolder conclusions. There are also illuminating, vivid moments when Wolff zooms down from 100,000 feet. The details of Murdoch's dance with Dow Jones and its dysfunctional controlling families are well told with fresh detail. And Wolff visits separately with Murdoch's four grown children and derives especially good material from his encounters with Rupert's 99-year-old mother, Dame Elisabeth, and 39-year-old third wife and mother of his two younger children, the former Wendi Deng.

It's established that Murdoch sees himself as a newspaperman above all, which helps explain his $5.6-billion offer-they-can't refuse for Dow Jones, the Journal's owner. But Wolff goes further: His Murdoch is only truly happy when newspapering and has discomfort, disinterest or disdain for much else in his vast empire, including the Fox TV network and Fox News Channel, both of which he built from scratch and are arguably his crowning achievements. MySpace gets glancing mention.

There are nits to pick along the way. The New York Times has already refuted Wolff's contention that a letter from News Corp. during Murdoch's Dow Jones pursuit "so cows the Times" that it canceled the rest of an investigative series on him. As the recipient of that letter when I worked at the Times, I can attest to this statement's falsity. I also doubt that Murdoch covets the Times above all, which is one of Wolff's repeated contentions, though Murdoch undeniably has said fanciful things about it. (More insightful is Wolff's passing thought that in buying the Journal, the mogul "might be getting ready to shed his most elemental identity": the money-losing New York Post.)

Elsewhere, Wolff writes that the senior representative of Canada's Thomson family, in the midst of merging its namesake business information company with Reuters, advised one of Dow Jones' controlling shareholders that if they waited longer, Thomson (TRI) would be back with an offer "a helluva lot better" than Murdoch's. ("Not true," the executive, Geoff Beattie, told me in an e-mail.)

The seismic moment that the purchase of Dow Jones represented - not just for Murdoch, but for the newspaper business and journalism broadly - already feels like ages ago. Amazingly, the deal's closing will mark its first anniversary in just over a week. News Corp. stock is down 60% during that time, pummeled along with the rest of the world but taking extra lumps for an acquisition Wolff postulates "was surely an exercise of pure fantasy." News Corp., like every other big media company, is now in the throes of the economic slump. Also, Peter Chernin, Murdoch's number two (and for whom Wolff shows little affection) is in the midst of contract negotiations, raising once more the "don't go there" question of what happens to the company when News Corp.and Murdoch, now 77, are no longer synonymous.

Because of the breadth and duration of his activities, Murdoch is a monster of a subject to tackle, and Wolff does the material justice by framing his story around Murdoch's life in newspapers and the Dow Jones acquisition in particular. Wolff does not conceal his admiration for Murdoch, and also points out that his family has ties to Murdoch's empire - Wolff's daughter was hired as a reporter by The New York Post and his wife once did legal work for a News Corp. law firm. But nothing in the book suggests Wolff was holding back. (Unless I missed it, the author does omit to mention that his last book was published by News Corp.'s HarperCollins. And while on disclosure, let me add that some of my columns have appeared in the Times of London.)

Wolff posits that Murdoch let him in the tent because "I regarded many of his enemies - particularly the journalistic priesthood - with some of the same contempt with which he regarded them." The reader never hears Murdoch directly on this - or a whole lot else.

There are places where you might wonder if Wolff has transposed his own somewhat cranky worldview onto his elusive subject. When writing about Murdoch's sudden about-face in selling DirecTV after finally getting it after years of pursuit, he concludes, with what comes off the page as affection: "You don't really have to offer many excuses or justifications when you've come to believe you live outside and above everybody else's fairly contemptible world." To top of page

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