Murdoch, by William Shawcross, New York: Simon & Schuster, 492 pages, $27.50
A few months before William Shawcross's biography of Rupert Murdoch appeared in the United States, The New Yorker fired a warning volley. The blast took the form of a personal assault, an unsourced story accusing Shawcross of journalistic compromises of the most unsavory sort. The hermetic world of publishing was atwitter. Some cynics saw an act of pre-emptive revenge: In his book, Shawcross draws an unpleasant portrait of a former Murdoch colleague who happens to be married to Tina Brown, The New Yorker's editor. Brown demurred. Although the book would not appear in America for several months, she insisted the attack had news value. And why? Because Murdoch "was much discussed in the Hamptons this summer."
A curious standard of news judgment, this Hamptons chatter. Will The New Yorker now run stories about Ben Bradlee's tennis elbow and Mort Zuckerman's war against stinkweed? It would be a shame, in any case, if The New Yorker's sleazy slam obscured the value of Shawcross's book, for he has written a fair-minded, comprehensive guide to one of the great figures of the age, a media mogul who bestrides the world like a combination of Colossus and Dennis the Menace.
Murdoch's empire stretches across four continents. Several hundred million people are within reach of either a newspaper or a television station that he alone controls. And many people, not all of them married to Tina Brown, think this is a very bad thing.
Shawcross himself is admirably ambivalent. His talent for excoriation—which he brought ferociously to bear on Henry Kissinger in Sideshow, his controversial account of the war in Cambodia—seems to have been silenced by the sheer magnitude of Murdoch's achievement. The New Yorker's ideologues notwithstanding, his book is the better for it. For any honest observer has to admit: Rupert Murdoch is a difficult fellow to figure out.
His father Keith was a famous newspaperman in Australia, and Murdoch watchers from the 1950s onward have seen Rupert's career as an ambitious son's attempt to one-up the old man. His entrepreneurial gift showed itself early; as a boy he sold water rats and manure from the family farm, good training for the future publisher of the New York Post. While still a student at Oxford, Rupert inherited from Keith a provincial Australian newspaper, the Adelaide News. It became the kernel of his empire.
Murdoch's motto, like Oprah's and our president's, has been "expand or die." From the start bankers were solicitous. Their money in pocket, he gobbled up papers first in Australia and then, beginning in the '60s, in England. His excellent cash flow carried him to the United States, where he at last built his ultimate dream: Fox Television, America's fourth network.
Contrary to popular image, Murdoch fitted his papers to the tastes of his desired audience, whatever they might be. His tendency has always been down-market, but he understood that the bare-breasted "Page Three Girl" of his tabloids would never do for the Sunday Times, unless she was Mrs. Thatcher. His politics were similarly changeable: The Oxford Leninist evolved into a conventional leftist during the Laborite ascendancy of the '60s, and the rise of the conservatives shaped the right-wing populist so reviled by the forces of virtue today.
What excited him, above all and always, was the deal, the acquisition, the steady expansion of his reach and power. His methods were his own. As a rule, for example, newspaper conglomerates seeking new properties look for the easy buy-out in a one-paper town. Murdoch lusted after secondary papers, wheezing old organs like the Boston Herald or the Chicago Sun Times, in hopes of attracting the readers that their competitors, fat with journalism-school pomposity, had neglected or disdained. His approach to magazines, satellite TV, and publishing houses was similarly unorthodox. Some gambles paid off, others didn't. Their cumulative effect—a debt the size of Ecuador's—almost sunk him in 1990.
But Murdoch keeps bobbing along. It is a remarkable odyssey, filled with some of the most daring maneuvers in recent business history, and readers of this biography may find themselves worrying that Shawcross will replay the details of every last one of them. The author's research is prodigious—superhuman, even—but it is offered up entire. The MBA student may be rapt at the contortions required to buy a minor paper in Australia, but the popular reader will not be.
The accumulation of business detail fails in the end to illuminate the man. But you can't blame Shawcross for trying, and on the whole readers will be glad he did. Murdoch has always been a man of contradictions: the Oxford student who railed against the class system from a Rolls Royce; the anti-elitist who got Daddy to fix his visa through powerful friends; the promoter of Page Three Girls who disapproved of women wearing slacks in the newsroom; the faithful family man, personally and (he says) politically conservative, whose television network airs the stupidest (Studs) and the most decadent (Married…With Children) shows in history.
Even so, it is hard to dislike anyone the Columbia Journalism Review calls "a force for evil." Some facts about him are plain. He is humorless, unreflective, and obsessed. He is also courageous, enormously intelligent, and even visionary, able to foresee opportunity and satisfy millions of ordinary people while his enemies fumble around without a clue. He is, in short, a great man. Whether he's a good one too is a question for America's moralists, of whom there are many.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior writer for Washingtonian magazine.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Crazy Like Fox".