Author Michael Wolff says Rupert Murdoch made a mistake in talking to him
It may be a measure of the mystique behind News Corp. owner Rupert Murdoch that I was so excited to talk with the journalist who spent 50 hours interviewing him over nine months, Vanity Fair columnist and media entrepreneur Michael Wolff (at left).
But more likely it was the jaw-dropping observations Wolff makes in a matter-of-fact tone about the most powerful media mogul of our time, including:
He has never read a book to the end. He has never sat through an entire movie. He is an “absolute, complete Luddite” who doesn’t understand technology and needs his 40-year-old wife to read his e-mail.
And he never should have agreed to the interviews with Wolff that laid the groundwork for his gripping new book, The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch.
“I don’t know why he did this . . . I think he made a mistake in doing this,” said Wolff, a columnist for Vanity Fair magazine and media entrepreneur, of the way Murdoch not only sat for endless interviews over nine months, but also encouraged friends and family to speak out.
“His idea was, ‘Oh (we’ve bought) the Wall Street Journal, we should celebrate, I’m in an expansive mood . . . (but) he doesn’t know what the process is,” said Wolff, in a dry, rueful tone. “He got ahold of an early draft and called to yell at me . . . He says he’s furious because the whole book is about him. Well, it is a biography. And he says, ‘But it’s so personal.’”
As a media junkie who loves good gossip, I enjoyed lots about this book, which attempt an insider's analysis of the man who owns everything from Fox News Channel to the New York Post, HarperCollins book publishers and MySpace. So I agreed to spend about an hour last week getting personal with Wolff for a feature to run in the Sunday Dec. 28 Latitudes section of the St. Petersburg Times. Here's a partial transcript of our conversation:
Wolff: Rupert Murdoch and the times in which he lived were extremely compatible. And I think one of the perfect examples of that is that he not only rode the conservative zeitgeist but he certainly helped create it. And, you know, I think it’s important to remember, Rupert Murdoch is a newspaperman -– first, last and always -– and I think that gives him a very fine antenna for the times that he’s working in. That’s what . . . you know, if there’s any main mission for Rupert Murdoch, it’s to have been on the wavelength of his times and to have some shape to his times, you know, his newspaper has really shaped those times as well as benefiting from those times.
Is he the last media mogul?
Wolff: Well, we can certainly say, incontrovertibly, he is the last press mogul and I think in terms of the media business as we know it, the consolidated, multi-platformed, synergistic, megalomaniac bunch of baloney, yes, Rupert Murdoch is probably the last of such men to create such companies.
And how did a newspaper guy wind up at the top of this heap?
Wolff: I’m not sure that I can quite explain exactly what made Rupert Murdoch the exception. Certainly he has no feeling whatsoever for the pop culture business. Rupert Murdoch, as far as I know, has never sat through a movie. When they screen movies at News Corp. headquarters on Sixth Avenue in New York, he sits down, he watches the first 10 minutes and then he goes up to the city room at the (New York) Post.
He’s not interested in television. He likes television news but, you know, the prime time schedule he could care less about. Technology itself –- the man is an absolute complete Luddite –- knows nothing. So why should it be that he sits on top of this kind of absolutely modern media enterprise? The only real answer I can give you is that he just . . . that he applied a fundamental newspaper model to this, which is that he . . . the newspaper business model, the classic one, is that you always have to take on another guy -– a newspaper war. And Rupert has always looked at everything as a newspaper war, so he started Fox News, he had to take on CNN. He started BSkyB in the U.K. and had to take on the BBC. The New York Post, he had to take on the Daily News. And these are wars to the death. Likewise now, you know, with the Wall Street Journal, he’s taking on the New York Times, and I think that has been something that has worked incredibly well for Rupert.
In the book you note that he has gone after acquiring things it didn’t make any business sense to buy -– most recently, the Wall Street Journal. Do you think that’s one reason why he has landed where he has -– because he has made many decisions that more conventional businessmen would not have made?
Wolff: Rupert Murdoch -– one of his main motivations is to do what he wants to do regardless of what people think that he should be doing, regardless of what his shareholders think he should be doing, regardless about what anyone . . . it’s a kind of monomania –- I want what I want. Having said that, I think that he realized that there’s a certain kind of compartmentalization with Rupert in which he is . . . in one compartment he’s impulsive, passionate, in which he is a risk-taker, disregards caution and just pursues the things that have . . . in front of him, that have captivated him. In the other compartment, he’s the man who is building a deliberate business, incredibly disciplined, fundamentally conservative, profit-driven businessman, so that compartment lets the other compartment operate. But it’s very rare to have these two things in one person.
So, I guess sort of the ultimate question regarding Murdoch is, is he the future of media?
Wolff: I think this period of the media industry and sort of, you can probably chart it . . . from 1980 to now, you know, is a period created by Rupert Murdoch. Everybody else has operated in his image effectively. You know, I think the primary question if you’re in the media business for the last 30 years has been, what would Rupert do? And then you try to do that. But I think we are coming to a point in which we have certainly gone to the limits of that model and I think that that model, first thing, depended upon these larger-than-life figures, whether it’s Ted Turner or whether it’s Sumner Redstone or whether it’s Rupert Murdoch. And all of those guys have passed from the stage except Rupert . . . or Sumner Redstone, who is still on the stage but he’s walking into walls. So I think when those guys passed and also I think what leaves with them is the will to create these companies, and not to mention that I think the business has come face to face with the fact that these companies really didn’t work very well.
Right. So what keeps News Corp. afloat?
Wolff: Well, you know, News Corp. is a fundamentally good company. I mean, they have good properties, good brands because of the way Murdoch operates -– kill the other guy –- they have basically . . . as positioned against their competitors, they’ve been in pretty good shape. You know, BSkyB in the U.K., which is the satellite television network there, is extraordinarily profitable. Likewise, in their pay-television operation in Italy, a big bonanza. Their operation in India, also a big bonanza. You know, not to mention here, Fox News -– still very profitable. The Fox studio’s probably the best-run studio in Hollywood, so this is a company that’s in relatively good shape.
Now that the book has been out and there’s been some coverage, I’m wondering: have you heard anything from Murdoch? How has he reacted to it?
Wolff: Yeah, I mean, I don’t know why he did this. I mean, I think he made a mistake in doing this. The truth of the matter is that Rupert Murdoch has never read a book in his whole damn life. So, you know, he doesn’t know what this is really about. He doesn’t know what this whole process is about . . . I think that Murdoch, as I said, having never read a book, had just assumed that this would be a kind of chronology of, you know, of News Corp. deals and financing structures and major events, and et cetera, et cetera. The idea that somebody would really sit down and say, you know, who is this guy? I want to get to the character here. It’s just not something that would have crossed his mind 'cause, as I say, he hasn’t read a book ever.
You wrap the grand story of his life in very intimate details -- how he bought a $44-million townhouse or how his facelift has fallen. Was that necessary to pull people into the story?
Wolff: Well, I think it was what I wanted to know. I mean, there’s been a number of other biographies of Murdoch and they’re all relatively, in their way, estimable but the thing that I found that’s missing from those biographies is Rupert Murdoch. So I wanted to know who this guy is –- what’s the character? By the time you finish this book, I want to say, okay, yeah, I got a good idea about who this heretofore pretty shadowy figure is. And also I’m in fact pretty captivated by the guy. I mean, I think it’s really interesting. I mean, who he is is really interesting and quite compelling, so I thought, you know, hell, let’s follow the character instead of the money.
What I thought was interesting about it is that since he’s not introspective, you may be discovering who he is for him, too.
Wolff: Well, yeah, and that also became the kind of interesting challenge here. There must be a guy underneath there, so let’s ferret it out. And he provided me all the wherewithal to do it. I mean, not that he knew this. You know, when I said to him, Rupert, I’m going to Australia. I’d like to see your mother. And he said, well, why do you want to go see my mother? And then he answered the question for himself. He said, Oh, I guess you need a little color. You know, which is like an old newspaper, an old city editor. Yeah, Rupert, I need a little color, thanks.
It’s kind of a trite question but I am interested in what you thought some of the biggest misconceptions about Murdoch were going into this book?
Wolff: Well, I mean, I think the misconceptions that people have about him are, No.1, that he’s a grand visionary, a master plotter and strategist and, you know, he has set out to achieve world domination in a Machiavellian way. I think that none of that is true. I don’t think Murdoch has a vision, I don’t think that he is particularly Machiavellian. I mean, I think he’s actually incredibly straightforward and his way of doing business is not with an over-arching strategy. It’s like what’s in front of his face. It’s like it’s every day’s a new day, he gets up in the morning, you know, okay, what’s the fight we can have today?
He is very much like a city editor. Yesterday doesn’t exist. Tomorrow is irrelevant. You know, what’s on the plate today? And he responds like a city editor. What’s the best story? What’s the biggest fight? What’s the most commotion we can cause today?
The other point is, you know, Rupert Murdoch is seen, especially in the era of Fox News, as a fundamental proponent of right-wing conservatism, you know, a pillar of the right-wing conspiracy, of a guy who is ideologically driven in an almost pathological way. I think that’s completely untrue. I think Rupert Murdoch’s politics are skin-deep. This has partly to do with the fact that he’s never read a book perhaps. You know, he’s just not that interested. I think that conservative politics -– you know, he recognized that that was an interesting story. I mean, I think that he probably found Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan to be characters that his newspapers could identify with. I think it’s also true that it’s always about his pocketbook so, you know, that’s the thing that propels him, but does he fundamentally have a conservative point of view? I don’t think so.
I mean, I think he fundamentally has a kind of “‘50s-Dad” point of view but I think the politics is, again, you know, incredibly thin. And certainly when I said to him during the primary season, and I said, during the New York primary, and I was really undecided who I was going to vote for in the Democratic primary and I said, Rupert, I’m gonna give you my vote. What should I do? And he kinda gets, you know, RRRRR, and he goes, “Obama. He’ll sell more papers.” And I think that that is ultimately that Murdoch political philosophy.
Right. I always thought he was sort of a conservative as far as his business ventures and he had positioned himself so that that worked for him in America.
Wolff: Yeah, the other interesting thing is that he’s a kind of a hen-pecked guy. At home he is under the thumb of whoever he’s married to. And his second wife was incredibly . . . a kind of classic Catholic conservative, very serious about it. His present wife, who’s obviously much younger than he, is relatively liberal, certainly friends with a lot of liberals, which has kind of changed . . . so both of these wives have had great influence on him.
Normally, when somebody undertakes a book like this, doing a biography of somebody powerful who’s still alive, the biggest hurdle is getting sort of truthful access to that person. And Murdoch took care of that for you. He talked to you a lot with few preconditions and encouraged all his friends and family to do the same. So what was the next biggest hurdle for you in terms of just completing this biography?
Wolff: Well, I think it was interesting that suddenly you get . . . you know the guy says, yes, I’ll talk to you. I’ll tell you . . . I’ll answer any question you want to ask me. I’ll tell you anything that you want to know, but then the guy . . . it turns out that he knows nothing, that being without an iota of self-awareness or without any interest in self-awareness, in his own motivations, that’s kind of like, you know, you’ve been handed the keys to the fortune but you find out the box is empty.
And I realized that the trick was not to ask him questions –- at least not to ask him questions about the past or about his motivations. You have to get on his wavelength, which was today. So you have to get into the office, arrive there in the morning and say, Rupert, what’s on your mind today? You know, what’s in the newspaper, which is always where he would begin. And that kind of thing . . . so you were kind of operating exactly in the space that he was operating in -- today -- and the immediacy is incredibly powerful. I mean, you could and certainly I did on a regular basis . . . you know, you would engage with him in the conversations that all his executives were engaged with him in. So, you know, you almost become a part of running that company for the day. And then, of course, because he gave me access to everyone around him . . . you know, everyone around him has an obsessive perspective on Murdoch ’cause it’s the only thing that they really think about.
It sounds like the lesson is, this guy’s a singular figure and once he’s gone, that model’s gone.
Wolff: Well . . . yes. I would probably say that that’s exactly the case. I mean, if I were looking at Murdoch, however, as a management example, as a business figure and what does he do and what has he done and what can be instructive, you know, I’d say that this guy has had more fun than anybody else, that he has . . . that the really interesting thing here is that he’s not a very corporate guy at all, that actually almost everything that he has done has contravened the usual management baloney. You know, he has done absolutely what he’s wanted to do. He’s really listened to nobody ever. You know, he has just followed this singular passion that he’s had, which is for newspapers. And the rest of the world truly, truly, be damned.
And what do you think is the future specifically of Fox News in, you know, the Obama world?
Wolff: You know, I think the jury is really out on that and I think Murdoch feels this very keenly. He doesn’t know. You know, on the one hand, it could be good for Fox but, on the other hand, and I tend to think that Murdoch would be inclined to think this way also, that there’s gonna be a big shift, that Fox is suddenly on the wrong end of a zeitgeist shift.
Can you look at what they’re doing now and see early signs of them trying to cope with that? I mean, it seems to me like they’re kind of doubling down on the conservatism by jettisoning out Alan Colmes and bringing in Glenn Beck.
Wolff: Well, I think that that’s probably true. I would say, from a political standpoint, in the internal News Corp. political standpoint, this is Roger Ailes’ show. It’s Roger Ailes’ baby. It’s Roger Ailes’ business. You know, Murdoch really can’t interfere too much in this because Ailes won’t listen, No. 1; No. 2, because Ailes has told me that he has certain contract provisions that keep Murdoch out of his hair. I talk in the book –- a piece of the book that’s gotten some attention –- about this meeting that was arranged between Murdoch and Obama, and Murdoch brought Ailes to the meeting. And one of the reasons he brought Ailes to the meeting is so that Obama himself could dress down Ailes. So, I mean, it was a real setup on Murdoch’s part, so Obama confronts Ailes and says, why should I even waste time talking to you? So I think that Murdoch is looking for ways to begin to suggest to Roger Ailes that the times have changed.
Well, good luck with that.
Wolff: Yes, good luck with that.