Rogue Empire

MurdocksWorld

The first thing you notice reading through Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires by David Folkenflik is that all of your preconceived notions about Rupert Murdoch and Fox News are correct, almost.

  • Yes Australian-born media mogul Rupert Murdoch is politically conservative and uses his media empire to promote his world view.
  • Yes, any similarity between Fox News and a serious news source is purely illusionary.
  • Yes, “Fair and Balanced” is a catch phrase only, and is not meant to be taken seriously.
  • Yes, Murdoch media enterprises do specialize in hyped and slanted offerings with the aim to help their (and Murdoch’s) friends and to do damage to their enemies.
  • Yes, serious reporters working for Murdoch enterprises are pressured to slant the news, and numerous individuals inclined to resist the pressure have left voluntarily or under duress.
  • Yes, Murdoch enterprises do resort to nefarious methods, well outside legitimate journalistic practice, to convey false information.
  • No, Murdoch is not strictly rogue politics and anti-science, and he does from time to time come down on the right side of serious issues.

At 386 pages, Folkenflik’s work is a serious read. The level of detail is impressive, leaving the impression of deep and massive research. Reference notes start on page 307, 65% into the book. The book provides a telling account of the rise of Rupert Murdoch (and his empire) from backwater Australian journalism to the headwaters of world power. But the story starts by recounting what must have been the lowest points in the billionaire’s life:

THE MAN AT THE CENTER of the maelstrom sat across from the parents of a dead girl, his head cradled in his hands. He rocked slightly. I’m sorry, he kept saying. I’m so sorry.

Folkenflik, David (2013-10-22). Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires (p. 1). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

The dead girl was Milly Dowler, thirteen years old at the time she vanished on her way home from school in Walton-on-Thames, Surrey, England on 21 March 2002. Her remains were not discovered until September. On 23 June 2011 a man was found guilty and sentenced for the crime. During the time intervening the case became a major news story, the bait for every scandal sheet in England, which unfortunately included Murdoch’s News of the World, in existence since 1843.

Prior to the closing of the case in 2011 a number of sources had revealed that News of the World employed shady, even criminal, means to obtain leads for items on the Miller Dowler story. On 4 July of that year The Guardian, a rival to Murdoch’s paper, dropped a bomb shell:

On July 4, 2011, the Guardian carried a sprawling front-page headline that could not have been more damning: “News of the World Hacked Milly Dowler’s Phone During Police Hunt.”

The Guardian’s blockbuster story alleged a series of grievous wrongs: her voice mail messages had been hacked by a private investigator working for the paper; those messages had been deleted by the same PI because her in-box had filled and he wanted others to leave juicy nuggets to mine for stories; the activity involving her messages gave her parents false hope and impeded the ability of police to track her down; the police in Surrey were aware of this hacking and did nothing.

Folkenflik, David (2013-10-22). Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires (pp. 136-137). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

The upshot was the revelation that various of British publications engaged in such practices, additional ones being part of Murdoch’s empire. The 168-year-old News of the World was shuttered, its staff fired, and several prosecuted for criminal activity, including editor Rebekah Brooks.

Over the past decades I watched with interest the flowering of the Murdoch empire in this country. Without knowing his name, I observed his acquisition of the venerable 20th Century Fox motion picture production company. Following that came expansion into television broadcasting and the branding of the Fox network of stations.

The story ends in 2013, shortly after the death of Elisabeth Murdoch, mother of Rupert, at the age of 103. Murdoch is, himself, on the verge of death or retirement, the question being who will succeed. He has three children in a position to take over. The oldest is Lachlan, who quit the family enterprise in 2005, but has remained active in its oversight. James Murdoch was badly scorched by the British scandals, but remains a contender, as does daughter Elisabeth. Rupert’s most recent wife, Wendi Deng, was shucked off in 2013.

The saga of the Murdoch empire is ably viewed through excerpts from Folkenflik’s book. Here are a few. All should be self-explaining:

Paul Barry, who has written periodically for Murdoch’s Daily Telegraph in Sydney, pointed out that the livelihoods of an overwhelming number of Australian journalists depend on the whim of a single media conglomerate and the sensibility of a single mogul. “Ultimately, he’s the bloke they have to please,” Barry said. “And so, while they may not actually get an order coming down saying, ‘You will run this headline, you will do this story, you will take this point of view,’ they know what sort of things are going to play well.”

Folkenflik, David (2013-10-22). Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires (p. 17). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

“Most [Australian] Labor politicians hated Rupert,” said one former senior executive who witnessed the parade of supplicants. “But they all came to New York City to kiss the ring. Prime Minister [Julia] Gillard among them.”

Folkenflik, David (2013-10-22). Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires (p. 19). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

Under Chris Mitchell, the paper’s current editor for more than a decade, the Australian has favored smaller government with fewer regulations on business, vigorously supported the invasion of Iraq, treated increased immigration skeptically, and displayed active concern about issues affecting Australia’s Aboriginal peoples. The paper’s positions actively drive news coverage, not just editorials. And the Australian sets the tone not only for News Ltd’s other papers but also for the debate on talk radio, blogs, and TV, including Sky News Australia.

Folkenflik, David (2013-10-22). Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires (p. 21). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

Robert Manne was once a favorite of the political right, and hence the Murdoch press, as an anticommunist magazine editor. No more. In fall 2011, he took direct aim at the Australian with a lengthy critique in the periodical Monthly. He said the paper was intellectually dishonest and run by political bullies and climate change “denialists.”

Folkenflik, David (2013-10-22). Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires (pp. 22-23). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

MacKenzie boasted that the stories he published were too good to confirm. He once told me that the only story he ever double-checked involved Elton John, not yet out of the closet, paying for sex with a male prostitute. Even so, it wasn’t true. The paper had to apologize and pay damages of £ 1 million. Double-check? MacKenzie sputtered: Never again!

Folkenflik, David (2013-10-22). Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires (p. 26). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

The News of the World, the Sun, and other papers routinely failed to inform their readers which sources they had paid for information and how they obtained other damaging material.

Folkenflik, David (2013-10-22). Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires (p. 30). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

Former reporters for the News of the World said editors screamed at them, or worse, sacked them, if they failed to deliver three promising leads at each Tuesday’s story meetings. One young reporter fainted under the pressure, according to the former News of the World reporter Graham Johnson. Johnson’s account of his own time at the paper involved fabricating stories and sources, staging photographs, and manufacturing stings, not to mention major bouts of drug abuse and faked expenses.

Folkenflik, David (2013-10-22). Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires (p. 31). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

Much of the time, reporters manipulated the subjects— targets— of their stories into talking. Johnson later claimed that he had “blackmailed” a soccer star, Steve McManaman, into admitting his mother’s incurable cancer. Editors at News of the World frequently horse-traded with the PR handlers for the celebrities they intended to expose. If your soccer star admits he was sleeping with a stripper, we’ll omit the part about cocaine that would kill his endorsement deals.

Folkenflik, David (2013-10-22). Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires (p. 31). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

Once the deal went through, Murdoch inevitably, and swiftly, recast the New York Post in his image. The Post became punchy, with front-page headlines that were crass, if provocative and amusing. The Post did not offer topless models— but did feature bathing beauties on excuses as flimsy as their garb. And it sold papers through the introduction of Wingo, a numbers-based game, a bit like bingo and a lottery, promising riches to lucky readers, as Murdoch had in Australia and the UK. Chandler joined the paper as an editor. “He’d worry about Star magazine in the morning, and in the afternoon he’d be on the phone to Australia— the sun never set,” Chandler recalled. The paper cultivated two generations of conservative writers on its opinion pages to allow them to refine their voices and shout down liberal pieties.

Folkenflik, David (2013-10-22). Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires (p. 40). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

“When I look back at some of the stuff we did, I cringe,” Chandler said. “There was no question it was homophobic.” The paper singled out AIDS victims for particular scorn, he said, and treated people of color poorly. “The only time you had a picture of a black person was when they’d been arrested or done something horrible,” he said. “The pictures of the celebrities were almost all white. The only blacks were in the sports section. There was that

Folkenflik, David (2013-10-22). Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires (p. 42). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

Murdoch believed it was important to take out Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in 2003. Pundits making the conservative case for war in Murdoch’s Weekly Standard and New York Post were often reproduced in the Times of London, the Sun, the Australian, or his Aussie tabloids. A headline in the Post characterized the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” for voting against the US position at the United Nations (the reference came from The Simpsons). Another headline called France part of the “Axis of Weasels.” Murdoch called British prime minister Tony Blair three times in the week leading up to a House of Commons vote to deploy UK troops to Iraq, promising the support of News International’s newspapers. And the fervor was shared throughout Murdoch’s other titles as well, including Fox News. Murdoch told Fortune magazine the time was ripe: “The whole world will benefit from cheaper oil.”

Folkenflik, David (2013-10-22). Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires (pp. 43-44). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

Murdoch’s World has not been rigidly anti-liberal:

And yet the New York Post endorsed Barack Obama in the Democratic primary. Senator Clinton’s election would presage, the paper held, “a return to the opportunistic, scandal-scarred, morally muddled years of the almost infinitely self-indulgent Clinton co-presidency.” Obama, the paper wrote, was an intelligent man with a record as a conciliator with whom it rarely agreed on substance, but he still appeared the better choice.

Folkenflik, David (2013-10-22). Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires (p. 46). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

And that’s only up through page 46. Since the book’s press run, events have moved on. This year Murdoch’s enterprises acquired National Geographic magazine:

Ever since it was launched from the temple-like headquarters of the National Geographic Society in Washington in 1888, National Geographic magazine has illuminated the world’s hidden places and revealed its natural wonders.

On Wednesday, the iconic ­yellow-bordered magazine, beset by financial issues, entered its own uncharted territory. In an effort to stave off further decline, the magazine was effectively sold by its nonprofit parent organization to a for-profit venture whose principal shareholder is one of Rupert Murdoch’s global media companies.

In exchange for $725 million, the National Geographic Society passed the troubled magazine and its book, map and other media assets to a partnership headed by 21st Century Fox, the Murdoch-controlled company that owns the 20th Century Fox movie studio, the Fox television network and Fox News Channel.

Detractors immediately set up a howl, predicting a respected science journal now reshaped to deny anthropogenic global warming, even biological evolution. For example:

MurdochNationalGeographic-512

Much the same went up when Murdoch acquired The Wall Street Journal in 2007. There should have been little concern, since the Journal‘s editorial policy tended to the right of center anyhow. The big issue with the Journal was the news section traditionally worked independently of, and often at odds with, the editorial board. Much tension required settling as Murdoch’s influence gripped the paper.

Liberal readers might be surprised. A chapter is devoted to “The Greening of Murdoch.”

Yet just a few months after Hamilton’s speech, in May 2007, Rupert Murdoch appeared to make a striking reversal. At the Beacon Theater in New York City, he addressed his nearly 50,000-strong workforce in person and by satellite and made a pledge that delighted many of his liberal critics and astonished many of his fellow conservatives.

Murdoch cited the markedly below average rainfall in his hometown of Melbourne and drought in his native Australia. He promised his company would, on balance, emit no carbon within five years. The plan would combine energy efficiencies, the use of renewable energy sources, purchase of carbon offsets, and other strategies.

Folkenflik, David (2013-10-22). Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires (p. 92). PublicAffairs. Kindle Edition.

What will become of Murdoch’s World post Murdoch? The world can wait.

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