Today's Murdoch Installment: Nixon, Clinton, and Netanyahu

I hadn't looked for a long time at my 2003 story for the magazine, "The Age of Murdoch." I've just looked at it again now, on the assumption that Murdoch news will be with us for a while.

Some the story involves choices and controversies no longer relevant. Also, at that time Fox News had not fully evolved into its current political role. But a lot of what I learned about Murdoch himself seemed connected to what we've recently seen. A few examples:

Life on the edge:

>>[A] constant in his career is its embattled, roller-coaster quality. [Rupert] Murdoch is said to be popular and admired within his own organization, rather than resented, mocked, or gossiped about behind his back. But with business rivals he is always in feuds and showdowns, and not only high-profile ones like that with [Ted] Turner. He has taken big risks (one associate describes Murdoch's making, in a matter of minutes, the billion-dollar decision to back Fox News "the way you or I might order lunch"), and his business has suffered serious reverses. In 1990, in an episode vividly described by [William] Shawcross, Murdoch was nearly forced to liquidate News Corp after a bank in Pittsburgh refused to roll over a small but crucial portion of his corporate debt. Although admirers compare him to Bill Gates or John D. Rockefeller because of his appreciation of technology and his instinct for strategic advantage, Murdoch is perhaps best compared to Bill Clinton: his nature keeps getting him into predicaments from which his talent lets him escape.<<

The media/politics combine:

>>Political involvement has been one more constant in his career. The simple view of Murdoch, especially among liberals who fear him, is that he is a dangerously obsessed conservative propagandist--Richard Mellon Scaife with a job. This is imprecise...

His associates report that he has never met George W. Bush, hard as it may be to believe. He has, though, developed a respectful relationship with Bill Clinton. Each has lunched at the other's office in New York, and Murdoch came away impressed by Clinton's ability to discuss impromptu almost any issue arising almost anywhere on earth. Associates of both say that despite the political differences between the men, they clicked because of complementary personalities: Murdoch loves to listen, and Clinton loves to talk....

The real difference between Murdoch and an activist like Scaife is that Murdoch seems to be most interested in the political connections that will help his business....<<

After the jump, the management culture of News Corp.

>>Media organizations are dens of bitterness, intrigue, and insecurity, but News Corp seems no worse than most. Despite some fallings-out and notable firings, Murdoch's management team has been stable. The mood at Fox News seems positively jaunty, as the organization steadily overtakes CNN in the ratings with a much smaller staff. All of News Corp has an on-the-rise feel. The people I know who work at Fox News complain less than my friends in other news organizations. Murdoch will say "Sorry for interrupting" before coming into an employee's office. He is said not to yell or throw tantrums when things go wrong.

I heard several tales meant to illustrate Murdoch's reluctance to micro-manage in his empire--but I heard them in circumstances that make it difficult to determine whether they are true. Several people would, however, vouch for this incident: Benjamin Netanyahu, a longtime friend of Murdoch's, was booked on a Fox News Sunday talk show. But he got there late (offense No. 1 for a live show) because he was taping another Sunday show on another network (offense No. 2). The Fox News producers decreed, No more Bibi on our airwaves for a while! Netanyahu went to Murdoch and asked him to fix it. Instead of bigfooting, Murdoch told him to work it out with Brit Hume--the head of the Washington bureau. Netanyahu did, and the loyalty of the Fox staff increased....

Murdoch is known to be in close touch with his children, and he often gives James and Lachlan, the two with major management positions, life coaching on the phone. "Well, darling, it's okay," he might say, after one of them has described a recent problem, and then go on to impart what he has learned from similar challenges....

He loves political gossip and is always calling officials to ask what they've heard, what's new. He is far more likely to use the telephone or talk in person than to send a memo. He rarely bothers with e-mail but is always interested in the details of new technology--especially the sort that can affect his business, from satellite to broadband.... What Murdoch does pay close attention to is his divisions' finances....<<

And finally for now the Orthogonian Billionaire:

>>He is unlike Richard Nixon in seeming basically happy rather than tormented, but like him in believing that the "intellectual elite" is permanently scheming against him. Murdoch lives not on the Upper East Side but in a TriBeCa penthouse. One associate told me that Murdoch would rather be tortured than spend a weekend in the Hamptons. He is hypersensitive to criticism of his business judgment but laughs off complaints about his political or cultural role as mewls from the chattering classes.<<

Offered for the record.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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