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The daily beast

Books As the latest in a long line of biographies of Rupert Murdoch hits the shelves, Akiva Gottlieb wonders whether we'll ever understand the world's most conspicuous influence peddler.

Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch (1971 vintage):
Murdoch, Rupert Murdoch (1971 vintage): "His only real personality trait seems to be a superhuman capacity for pain."

As the latest in a long line of biographies of Rupert Murdoch hits the shelves, Akiva Gottlieb wonders whether we'll ever understand the world's most conspicuous influence peddler.

The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the world of Rupert Murdoch Michael Wolff Broadway Dh108

Rupert Murdoch does not make sense. "It is almost impossible to say a single conclusive, summing-up thing about him," John Lanchester once wrote in the London Review of Books, but there I go. We expect our latter-day wizards, maestros and robber barons to sport a simple set of everyday principles, to be able to reveal their tricks as a series of can-do bromides. This is why Warren Buffett has such a dedicated fan base and why one new book by Donald Trump probably outsells the collected works of Donald Barthleme in a single hour. Even Bernard Madoff makes sense. It's only fair, one would think, to demand the same of Murdoch.

But the diversity of his holdings is so staggering - from American Idol to The Weekly Standard, MySpace to the Sunday Times - that Murdoch's standard operating procedure must be the product of whimsy. His political ideology is chameleonic at best, and the notion that profit motivates his every move is undercut by the fact that a number of his flagship publications consistently operate at a loss. His only real personality trait seems to be a superhuman capacity for pain, manifest in his ability to successfully wage brutal wars of attrition. Chances are, Rupert simply wants your newspaper more than you want your newspaper.

Despite his status as the universe's most conspicuous influence peddler, Murdoch did not crack the top 100 on Forbes's 2008 list of the world's richest people. Si Newhouse, chairman of Conde Nast, and apparently the only man in media Rupert actually likes, sits a few notches above his pal on the Forbes list. Yet, according to the New York Times, Newhouse "is so unassuming that he rarely draws attention to himself or gives a direct order." About Conde Nast there is no mystery: Newhouse sells a ton of advertising, and then spends extravagantly to create quality magazines. There's a method and a discipline to his multibillion dollar empire - and nobody outside Manhattan can tell you what he looks like. He's not Rupert Murdoch, CEO of News Corp.

Put otherwise: there is no thriving cottage industry built around Trying to Understand Newhouse (or any number of media moguls richer than Murdoch). By contrast, Murdoch has already been the subject of at least 10 biographies and probably a million articles. And we're still no closer to solving our Murdoch Problem.

In 2007, around the time he began steeling himself for the most improbable manoeuvre of his career - more on which later - Murdoch made another gamble. The man who publishes 175 newspapers, dominates television in Britain, Italy and major sections of Asia and the Middle East, who owns a major American movie studio, television network and 24-hour cable news station, who has suppressed dissent in China, abuses tax loopholes around the world and rallied the US and England to war in 2003, would put all his cards on the table. He decided to give Vanity Fair's Michael Wolff complete access. Wolff could sit down behind closed doors with the mogul's kids, his wives, his business partners and his enemies; yes, he could speak to The Man Himself. Even those who know little about Murdoch (or Wolff, for that matter) might suspect the project of being little more than a PR coup. Wolff will inquire and inquire, write and write, and in the end give the master manipulator what he wants - a legacy so burnished that his stewardship of the Wall Street Journal, the world's most revered business newspaper, will be seen as nothing less than a necessity.

Wolff, of course, has his own ideas. "Possibly [Murdoch's] 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." The authorised biographer currently stewards the online aggregator Newser.com, a site that promises web-surfers a chance to "read less - know more". His scorn for America's Eastern Establishment is unconcealed, and it seems that he relishes the chance to shoot fish in a barrel from Murdoch's lofty Sixth Avenue perch. In an early, gleefully indiscreet moment - like something out of Page Six - Wolff recounts a conversation with Newsweek's Jonathan Alter: "'I hope you're going to use your access to Murdoch,' he said without preamble, 'to really screw him.' 'So that's how we do this job,' I said - mordantly, I hoped."

But even if the author accepts the impudent (and possibly immortal) King of News Corp at face value, The Man Who Owns The News is still a brazen, giddy kick, something akin to the first hour of Oliver Stone's Wall Street before it curdles into a liberal revenge fantasy. Wolff's book betrays a contagious fascination with its subject, and you'd have to be a wetter blanket than I not to succumb. The trick to reading this gossipy biography is identifying Wolff's blatant conflicts of interest and axes to grind, and then teasing out the myriad ways they dovetail with Murdoch's own. In the introduction, the author describes how he had a colleague walk his recent-graduate daughter's resume into the office of Murdoch's New York Post - "there is no newspaper as wonderful to work at," Wolff advises - which promptly hired her as a junior reporter. What our reporter does not relate is that he sees himself as an entrepreneur in the Murdoch mould; a few years ago, Wolff made his own quixotic bid to purchase New York magazine, itself a former Murdoch holding.

The merger of personas is so complete that it's often hard to tell whether Wolff is being nasty or merely transcribing Murdoch's own thoughts. (Strangely, these one-on-one interviews do not yield much in the way of actual dialogue from the mogul, though his jittery, inarticulate son Lachlan is quoted in full - ums, you-knows and all.) The New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr, for example, is simply described as "attention-seeking, immature, verbally out of control". Is that Murdoch speaking, or Wolff? It's impossible to say, and Wolff presents it as just another factual description based on his own careful analysis.

When Murdoch made his interest in Dow Jones and its Wall Street Journal plain as day in 2007, otherwise sober media reporters fell over one another in describing the menace of Murdoch's monopolistic mindset. The man made famous (and wealthy) for his trove of trash - for Fox News' wingnuttery, the Post's "Headless Body in Topless Bar" sensationalism, The Sun's bosom-baring page-three girls - now wanted the keys to one of the only remaining strongholds of independent, enterprising and resolutely un-tabloid journalism. Plus, Murdoch's absurdly generous offer of $60 a share - a 67 per cent premium on the market price - made zero financial sense. Who the hell wants to buy a newspaper?

The Man Who Owns The News tells another side of the story. Structured as the account of an elaborate newspaper heist - with Dow Jones' Bancroft family playing the feckless victim - Wolff's book explores the "perversely honourable" second-generation media mogul's inherited, retrograde love of newsprint, and chronicles his late-life bid for journalistic legitimacy. Wolff knows that Murdoch's urges cannot be ascribed to a simple capitalist ethic - after all, the Post loses its owner between $30 million and $50 million a year, and is possibly the most unprofitable media enterprise in history. But as David Carr of the New York Times noted back in May of 2007, "the deal would give him something that, for all of his stellar business achievements, he's never achieved in this country: a seat at the gentleman's table." Nodding in agreement, Wolff treats the $5.7 billion Dow Jones takeover as Rupert's Man On Wire moment: a selfish, imprudent, but beautifully realised crack at something beyond human comprehension. On a primal level, the boldness of this carnival act invites sympathy for the devil.

Or it might, so long as we're willing to forget the real question: Can the Journal survive the stewardship of the man who gave us Fox News, the loud, raunchy, Bush-administration propaganda wing that has so badly corroded American political discourse for the past decade? In one of the book's trickiest sections, Wolff dissects the content of Rupert's conservatism, and concludes that the politics of the former schoolboy Marxist and middle-aged Thatcherite are more contrarian than conservative. And yes, this larger-than-life cynic professes to be embarrassed by the partisan hit parade of Fox News. "In steady, constantly discomfiting ways, Murdoch shares the feelings about Fox News regularly reflected in the general liberal apoplexy." So why does he willingly suffer the shame of this propaganda machine?

According to Wolff, the Fox News president 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." Here, the biographer, who has already pointed out that the Journal's notoriously reactionary editorial pages hew exactly to Murdoch's worldview, and that Murdoch is happy enough to run publications at a loss - bends over backwards to describe his beloved subject as a bottom-line pragmatist.

By forestalling further inquiry into Murdoch's equivocations, and ceding ground to the idea of Murdoch as postmodern folk hero, The Man Who Owns the News is essentially a book as amoral as its subject. Murdoch might privately refer to Fox News as his bastard stepchild, but it was until recently a more consequential agent of influence than any other enterprise he owns. To let this man off the hook for the Bush years, and all their attendant horrors, is to wilfully blind oneself to the all-consuming power of media. And Murdoch's crimes go back much further; this is a newspaperman whose major business coups were the result of freshly busted unions, and whose Sunday Times once laboured to prove that HIV did not cause Aids. But in a true insider's style, Wolff is more obsessed with the game than with its consequences. At one point, he even lets Murdoch pick who should get his vote in the presidential election. "Obama - he'll sell more papers."

The thought of Rupert supporting Obama, cynically or otherwise, is less than farfetched, thanks in part to his 1999 wedding to a Chinese television executive over 35 years his junior. The baron himself is a nervous, impatient, asocial creature, harbouring his petty resentments and plotting takeovers; his third wife Wendi Deng is the beautiful, savvy, openly liberal social butterfly who lends her husband some Establishment party-circuit cachet - and even sways his politics. But buying into the idea of Murdoch as a man remade by love means forgetting that he left his wife of 32 years and soured his relationships with their three children. Wolff's treatment of The Wendi Situation is a true test of his resolve as a biographer; here we have the tabloid king caught in the most tabloid-ready scandal of his life.

With some metafictional awkwardness, Wolff first tells the tabloid version of the story - Deng as ravenous social climber - then doubles back to offer an uplifting, Wendi-as-Dickensian-orphan-with-pluck interpretation, then simply throws up his hands: "OK," he writes, referring to Wendi's plot. "Let's assume that there is design." Just to get into that same spirit, let's give in to the assumption that there is design behind The Man Who Owns the News as well. Murdoch and his biographer are surveying a dying market, where fewer and fewer doorsteps are regularly whacked with an early morning brick of broadsheet, foreign correspondents are a thing of the past, and America's Paper of Record is selling off its brand-new building. Why not leave the entire industry in the hands of a man who at least pretends he understands nothing but success?

If this book is any indication, we could all do worse than cosy up to the man who will one day own us all. Wolff even provides a few lessons, oversharing that "a little flirtation, like a little gossip, softens" our hero. "I certainly came to look forward to these interviews, and perhaps he did too." Back in real life, what does the immediate future hold for Rupert Murdoch? His line of succession - with four independent-minded children from his first two marriages, and two young children with Wendi - is still in a state of controlled disarray. Despite his evident mastery of media, News Corp is considered, in Wolff's words, "the most retrograde, technologically resistant company in the media business." And according to a just-released quarterly earnings report, the company's operating income declined 42 per cent in the past year. In the current economic climate, an antiquated enigma without a business strategy does not make any sense. But sense is clearly not what Rupert Murdoch is after. He wants us to stay tuned, and knows that we will.

Akiva Gottlieb's writing has appeared in The Nation, the Los Angeles Times and the Village Voice.