In Praise of Rupert Murdoch

Say what you will about the conservative media mogul, his first love is journalism -- and journalists.

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Reuters

When News Corp slashed executive bonuses this month and attributed that to lousy executive judgment in its core business -- in contrast to widespread detachment of performance from compensation -- I was reminded why I converted the Gospel of Rupertism, which is less about money than product. To someone like me -- a recovering journalist whose job as a national fellowships director involves helping a new generation find its footing in the quaking bog where digital and "old" journalism meet -- Murdoch's concentration on what is being delivered to readers, rather than how, or at a predetermined profit margin, is as refreshing now as ever. Especially now, when the news about him and his company is unremittingly bad.

I interviewed him only once, in 1969. The Sun, a rambunctious London tabloid complete with a topless "Page Three Girl," was considered a goner. Murdoch bought it anyway, prompting much punditry about even lower "standards" en route to failure in a crowded market. My piece in Time reported all that. Most if it panned out, but not so much the kaput part: The Sun became Britain's biggest daily, with a circulation of 2.6 million.

Murdoch assumed unfriendliness from "the liberal establishment press" and he surely wouldn't care about my unlikely conversion, which was inspired by his large, unrequired check to someone else.

In the summer of 1985, a late pal of mine named David E. Davis, had noisily resigned as editor and publisher of Car and Driver after "the suits [CBS] bought it," to avoid being handcuffed to the nearest cost-cut. He was the most influential journalist covering the world's largest industry, and had every reason to expect supplicant publishers to trample the grass to his door. Instead, "I mowed the lawn three times a week," as he described months of joblessness.

When his home phone finally rang one morning at 7.30, he told me, a soft voice said "'Good morning Mr. Davis. I'm calling for Rupert Murdoch. Mr. Murdoch wants to start a magazine about automobiles and would like you to be editor. Would you consider meeting him in New York at 10 tomorrow morning?'"

After 30 minutes with Murdoch, Davis called Jeannie, his wife and business manager. "'It was the shortest meeting of my life,'" she remembers him saying, "'and I'm not sure but I think we have a deal.'" The contract, a few lines on a single page, including this unforgettable passage:

"'If the magazine loses one million dollars in its first year, you will be fired. If it fails to earn one million dollars in its fourth year, you will be fired.'" Other than that, Davis had been told, he would hear very little from Murdoch.

Automobile became a New Yorker of automotive journalism. Instead of traditional gearhead engine specs, it carried narratives by the likes of Jim Harrison, David Halberstam, P.J. O'Rourke and Bruce McCall. Davis was a brave editor. The National Automotive Press Association drew a collective gasp when Davis concluded a keynote address with, "Ladies and Gentlemen, we stand on the shoulders of midgets." He was speaking of the industry, but few missed a reference to then-GM Chairman Roger Smith, who symbolized Detroit's decline and stood five foot, six inches tall. Canceled GM advertising cost the magazine $500,000. Murdoch said nothing.

Presented by

Charles R. Eisendrath is a University of Michigan professor and directs the Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellowships and the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists.

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