Saturday, July 11, 2009

Murdoch Comes To America by Michael Wolff

There's levels and levels of editing", Murdoch will tell me incredulously after an early tour of the Wall Street Journal's newsroom. "Every story gets edited about five times. Then it goes down to Princeton, where they put the paper to bed, there's 150 people there and they say, 'We do everything in the final edit to make sure everything is absolutely right and check the sources and stuff.' And I thought. 'Oh my God, it's a wonder anything ever gets in the paper or on time."

This has been a consistent disconnect- what American journalists think of when they think of the news and what Murdoch thinks about news. To Murdoch, even the word tabloid is misunderstood. "Tabloid" in the Murdoch context is an idea of immediacy, sharpness, efficiency, and emotion- it's news at its most visceral and powerful and entertaining. The craft, and it is a high craft, is compression. Necessary and vital compression: The tabloid tradition in Britain and Australia derives in part from newsprint rationing after the First and Second World Wars...

"Tabloid" in the modern U.S. context- to most people at the Journal , certainly- is about celebrities and gossip. It's faux news. Tabloidism is a modern journalistic illness, a virus spread most of all by Murdoch himself.

But Murdoch is, more accurately, not a modern journalist but the last representative from an era when a newspaper was its own advertisement, when it had to sell itself. Newspapers as sellers of news- as loud, unsubtle, rude instruments, as midway-type entertaiment (games of chance, horoscopes, funny pages)- were, of course, the American form too. The Hearst and Pulitzer empires were built on such papers. Any city with two or more papers fighting it out was certain to have a version of carnival news: cheaper (cheaper to produce, cheaper to buy), blunter, louder.

Then American papers- American news- turned orderly and genteel. This happened as newspapers, feeling television's competition, figured out a new business model: monopoly (largely by absorbing secondary papers). And then the big chains- Gannett, Knight Ridder, Tribune Company, Advance- replaced local owners. What's more, the American city as a working-class redoubt was transmuted into ghettos and suburban flight. The newsstand, and with it the battling urban evening newspaper, died. But a newspaper controlling its geographic position- not so much the city as its piece of the great expanding suburbs- had a monopoly on local ads. In a single-newspaper market, local advertisers often had no alternative but to advertise in the single paper. So a newspaper's best strategy was to be sedate, mannerly, uncontroversial- to offend no one, and not to call attention to the fact that it has monopolized the market, which it would certainly do if it screamed and bullied.

The dominant news voice in the United States has become a network television voice. News is now a serious, weighty, basso profundo affair, delivered by men of impeachable integrity and, relatively speaking, zero personality. News, bland news, self-important news, suddenly defined a kind of respectability and upward mobility. For the middle class, Walter Cronkite rather than Willian Randolph Hearst or a chain-smoking city editor came to represent the news...

Arriving in New York in the early seventies, Murdoch- whose papers are in markets where television news is hardly a factor, and are are still staffed by working-class reporters- is struck by one overpowering sense of the market: American news is lazy, stultifying, pickle-up-its-ass, boring. This suggests, to a man who has spent twenty years selling news in some of the most competitive news markets in the world, great opportunity.

Murdoch himself may have soured on and been disaffected with Britain, but Britain embraced his Sun. Its tone is pitch perfect. It is so spot-on that it effectively revolutionizes the form itself- in modern Britain, the tabloids become the most powerful media, breaking stories, setting the agenda, electing politicians, changing the culture. To question the form means you're standing on the sidelines. Questioning it, turning up your nose at its cultivated noxiousness, its calculated down-marketness, would make you something like an intellectual arguing against television, or a sixties parent decrying rock and roll.

The Sun and the News of the World are what he somehow hopes to bring to the United States. The size of his dream is disconcertingly huge- to be able to create a national tabloid with the success and impact of the Sun on a U.S. scale would be massive. And yet, judging by the incredibly boring newspapers in the United States, it seems almost like a no-brainer

Such sales as the Sun and the News of the World are having in the United Kingdom are dependent, however, on working class men (ideally with the same interests, i.e. soccer) who buy papers, and newstands where they can buy them. The absence of those factors in the U.S. market is an indication of how little Murdoch knows...In a car culture, in the great rolling suburbs, the only place the middle class gets to truly eyeball the cover of a periodical is in the supermarket. And all the middle-class people doing this eye-balling are women.

The Murdoch formula- his tabloid magic, his working-class insouciance, his badgering and bullying- is for men. The aggressiveness, the girls, the sports, the jokiness, the news- is for men.

Supermarkets in America do not really sell newspapers. Supermarkets sell magazines. And tabloids, aka "the tabs". In the seventies, the American tab is a magazine's newspaper hybrid- it fits into the supermarket checkout rack- that merges two publishing genres: the fanzine (with slavish attention to celebrities) and the fantastical (accounts of aliens and grotesques and deviants with only the barest pretense of being factual). Murdoch's idea of a tabloid as a media property that could become a powerful working class institution comes face to face with the American reality that a tabloid is a product that defines not only its readers' lack of standing but that of its owners. This is confounding and frustrating to him- and significantly, an entirely different business and cultural climate from any he's ever been in. He has no background in soft celebrity gossip targeted at women.

It's important to keep in mind how pre-modern Murdoch is. He's a fifties guy. A guy's guy. From an era when guys talked about guy's stuff.

Now comes the stubbornness and the relentlessness and the conviction that he can do whatever it takes. That, going forward, is the important thing. You set something in motion and then you try to control it. Doing it is what defines you. He remains committed to the tabloid model, unable to see beyond it, believing that the visceral impact of tabloidism has to prevail- and, indeed, finally will, on the Fox network and on Fox News.


  1. In the end, so much of News Corp. is not very memorable. It is a company that has refined the profit margins on the third-rate. But Fox News is original. It has taken the News Corp. formula of the on-the-cheap and the third-rate and turned it into a culture-changing, paradigm-altering, often jaw-dropping spectacle. About this, Murdoch is proud.

    Roger Ailes is Murdoch's monster- but a very profitable one. If media success is its own justification- the essential principle Murdoch's own career has been built upon- then Ailes is not only justifiable but untouchable. He is the one person with News Corp. whom Murdoch will not cross.

    And this is not because he's blind to what Ailes is doing, or to what Fox News is. In steady, discomforting ways, Murdoch shares the feelings about Fox News regularly reflected in the general liberal apoplexy. Everybody outside Fox News and inside News Corp. suffers Fox News. Everybody outside Fox News and inside News Corp. is afraid of Roger Ailes. Furthermore, everybody outside Fox News and inside News Corp. thinks there is a bit of insanity at Fox News. Murdoch, Chernin and Ginsberg are routinely- as often as every day- peppered with complaints by friends, family, business associates, and people of great influence about Fox, and none of them can do anything. It is some bizarre testament, really, to editorial freedom. It's uncontrollable.

    Even witin Fox News, under Ailes, there are people who have become so powerful that they can't be controlled. It is not just Murdoch (and everybody else at News Corp.'s highest levels) who absolutely despises Bill O'Reilly, the bullying, mean-spirited, and hugely successful evening commentator, but Ailes himself loathes him. Success, however, has cemented everyone to each other. Within Fox News, the two PR executives Brian Lewis and Irena Briganti- famous through media for the violence with which they attack anybody who attacks Fox News- are themselves feared by everybody else, even the most senior people at Fox and a News Corp. Lewis is one of the few people who scares Ailes because he has notes of many conversations that should never have occurred..

  2. The Man Who Owns The News; Inside The Secret World of Rupert Murdoch by Michael Wolff, Broadway Books, 2008

    The focus of this narrative is how Rupert Murdoch came to but Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal.

    'It was not without cause for some concern or self-scrutiny that Murdoch was willing to sit for extensive interviews for this book, something he had done only in a begrudging and limited fashion in the past with would-be biographers.

    Possibly his willingness had something to do with his perception that I regarded many of his enemies- particularly the journalistic priesthood- with some of the same contempt with which he regarded them. Uncomfortable talking about himself, he was never-the-less immediately animated when it came to talking about his various nemesis. To the extent that I had written about what had long seemed to me a fatal flaw among many anti-Murdoch journalists- namely that they were increasingly part of an anemic and dwinding business, that they had lost the ability to make people want to read what they had written- I was, he seemed to think, on his side."

  3. Gossip is Rupert Murdoch's world, he lives in the world of gossip 24/7. In any business deal he often ends up knowing more about those engaged on the other side then they know about themselves. This is one reason, besides his partial deafness, he seems so distracted and inarticulate in the abstract. His days are filled rounding up gossip. Needless-to-say, then, a biography like this is bound to be filled with juicy tidbits of insider gossip.

    "Alastair Campbell in his diaries described a dinner with Tony Blair, Murdoch and his sons James and Lachlan early in 2002. "Lachlan" noted Campbell, "seemed a bit shy of expressing his views whereas James was anything but." Murdoch gave his usual, and deeply felt, defense of Israel, and James, from across the dinner table, told his father that he was "talking fucking nonesense." Murdoch went on, saying that he failed to understand the Palestinian complaints, and James replied, "They were kicked out of their fucking homes and had nowhere to fucking live." Murdoch then said he didn't think James should be talking like that in front of the Prime Minister- who later said how impressed he was that Rupert let his sons do most of the talking."