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Review: Michael Wolff digs deep into Rupert Murdoch in 'The Man Who Owns the News'

Get Michael Wolff talking about the mega mogul he has spent years deconstructing, and within seconds he unleashes a tide of jaw-dropping observations about the owner of one of the most powerful media companies in the world, News Corp. founder Rupert Murdoch.

Murdoch 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 50 hours of 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," said Wolff, a columnist for Vanity Fair magazine and media entrepreneur, of the way Murdoch, 77, not only sat for endless interviews over nine months, but also encouraged friends and family to do the same.

"His idea was, 'Oh (we've bought) the Wall Street Journal, we should celebrate' . . . (but) he doesn't know what the process is," said Wolff, in a dry, rueful tone. "He got a hold 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.' "

Murdoch's $70-billion News Corp. commands a breathtaking proportion of the media landscape, from the New York Post, London Times and British Sun newspapers to the Fox network, cable TV's Fox News Channel, HarperCollins book publishing and the MySpace online social networking site.

To flesh out the man behind the media machine, Wolff talks to a wide range of sources, from Murdoch's 99-year-old mother to his third and current wife Wendi Deng, providing as complete a portrait of the Australian-born mogul as anyone has. But the centerpiece — time spent with Murdoch himself — turned out much differently than the author expected.

"The guy says, 'Yes, I'll answer any question you want to ask me,' but then it turns out the guy knows nothing," Wolff said. "He's without an iota of self awareness and without any interest in self-awareness. That's like you've been handed the keys to the fortune, but you find out the box is empty."

Wolff's book casts Murdoch as an old-school newspaperman who still marks up editions of his papers in red pen to nix stories or tighten headlines. Devoid of friends, infamous for double-crossing allies and rapacious in building the first trans-global media company, Murdoch is a media business shark, always moving forward, focused on whatever he wants in that moment.

In Wolff's book, he is not the future of modern media but the last titan of a fading age, holding together a disparate media company with the force of a personality that obliterates conventional business concerns. "One of his main motivations is to do what he wants to do, the rest of the world truly be damned," the author said.

Detailing the man's life with gossipy, New York-centric prose — there are pages on his decision to spend $44-million on a Manhattan apartment — Wolff uses the inside story of Murdoch's successful bid for the Wall Street Journal's parent company as the backbone of his narrative.

The goal: to penetrate the avalanche of facts and expose Murdoch's inner life.

So readers learn about Murdoch's love for his children, but also his unwillingness to leave power, which has led to constantly undercutting his heirs within his own company. Though he has been branded an arch conservative, Murdoch's political views, Wolff postulates, are shaped mostly by what's good for his newspapers and what his wife at the time believes. (Second wife Anna was a conservative Catholic, current wife Wendi is more liberal, he says.)

A voracious consumer of gossip about those who own media and an astute judge of a rival's weaknesses, Murdoch is shown manipulating the family that owns the Wall Street Journal's parent company Dow Jones by exploiting the ignorance of owners who didn't know their business. (They failed to recognize, for instance, how not having a response ready for the public revelation of Murdoch's ridiculously high $60 per share purchase offer would create enormous pressure to sell.)

In Wolff's hands, Murdoch's story is uniquely New York and uniquely personal, a tale of money, class, social striving and outsized personalities competing for supremacy.

Besides Murdoch himself, several high-profile detractors have emerged to take shots at the book, including jailed former London Telegraph publisher Conrad Black (whose current incarceration in a Florida prison is curiously missing from his tart review alleging inaccuracies on Wolff's part) and fired HarperCollins executive Judith Regan. Described by Wolff as someone who unleashed "a level of vulgarity and fury perhaps never before seen in the book world," Regan has threatened a lawsuit.

But Wolff has chosen his targets well; when bona fide bullies such as Regan and Black complain, it's mostly taken as a sign he has touched a nerve.

"These misconceptions people have of him — that he's a grand visionary, a master plotter and strategist set out to achieve world domination — I don't think that's true," Wolff said of Murdoch.

"I think he's incredibly straightforward. . . . 'What fight can we have today?' Yesterday doesn't exist, tomorrow's not on the plate. . . . I'd say this guy has had more fun than anybody else . . . and he's really listened to nobody, ever."

Eric Deggans can be reached at deggans@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8521.

The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch

By Michael Wolff

Broadway Books, 464 pages, $29.95

On the Web

Read more of this interview with author Michael Wolff on Eric Deggans' blog, The Feed. Go to blogs.tampabay.com/media and see the entry posted on Dec. 18.

Review: Michael Wolff digs deep into Rupert Murdoch in 'The Man Who Owns the News' 12/27/08 [Last modified: Saturday, December 27, 2008 3:30am]

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