I don't think of Rupert Murdoch as a particular obsession of mine. He casts such a long, cold shadow over the world of communications that no one who ever labored there can fail to be acutely aware of him.
Many loathe him, many fear him—many envy him, of course. Some few may love him. And some with no emotional investment have made a lot of money betting on him. To call Murdoch one of the most influential men on earth is to commit a pale understatement, like calling Karl Rove a scoundrel or Donald Trump a fool.
God knows I've never met the man, though perhaps I've come closer than you have. We have a history of sorts, Murdoch and I. The first time I remember mentioning him in public was in Moscow in 1985, at a glasnost-inspired "exchange of ideas" with some Russian scholars and journalists. One comrade held up a copy of the New York Post with a banner headline so belligerently anti-Soviet—and menacing—that it made Khrushchev's "We will bury you" sound like "Shall we dance?" (The exact words escape me. "Nuke Moscow Now!" catches the spirit of it.)
"Why do Americans claim to be offering an olive branch to end the Cold War," the young man asked me, "when you threaten us like this?" Accustomed to the news as dispensed by Pravda and Izvestia, where every item was generated or approved by the Kremlin, Soviets of that time had little grasp of the concept of a free press. I tried to explain that headlines in the Post weren't authorized by the American government or even by an American citizen, but in this case by an Australian billionaire who had made his fortune selling naked women, celebrity gossip, right-wing politics and saber-rattling, shrink-wrapped chauvinism to downscale Anglos from Melbourne to Manhattan. "Who is this Murdoch?" asked Ivan or Ilya. I answered as well as I could. But the basic philosophy of tabloid journalism, where truth is expendable filler and each story and photo aims to titillate or inflame, was a difficult one for my Russian friends to comprehend.
Ours was an imperfect but useful exchange of ideas. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, journalism has been liberated substantially in Russia, in spite of an autocratic government. In the democratic societies of Great Britain and the United States, journalism has deteriorated substantially, thanks in no small part to one Rupert Murdoch. A few months after my conversations in Moscow, the insatiable Aussie became a naturalized American, not out of passionate attachment to our way of life but to satisfy our legal requirement that only citizens can own television stations. His citizenship opened the door for Fox Broadcasting and the gruesome success of Fox News, an alleged news medium founded on ideology and single-party allegiance.
Created for Murdoch by the nefarious Roger Ailes, truth-twister for Nixon and Reagan (and producer for Rush Limbaugh), Fox News erased the last thin firewall between broadcast journalism and talk-radio demagogy. Fox awarded prime-time pulpits to reactionary ex-DJs with attitude, paraded disgraced, discarded right-wingers like Ollie North and William Bennett as sages and statesmen, and crossed some final frontier of partisan indecency by lining up Republican presidential candidates as salaried commentators.
Long before this last, epic outrage—but way too late to make any difference—every media critic to the left of Ayn Rand had tried, like a suicide bomber, to throw himself and every word at his command into the path of this culture-crushing Murdoch juggernaut. I was no exception, and a peculiar turn of events linked me once again to Rupert Murdoch. We even made the cable news channels.
A young man who was observed reading my jeremiad against Fox News, headlined "Weapons of Mass Stupidity," had been turned in to the FBI by an idiot informer. This was in the post-9/11 days of widespread paranoia. The young man, a Jewish freelance writer with a beard and long hair, looked like an Arab terrorist to some fool in a Caribou Coffee shop in Atlanta. When two FBI agents paid a sinister call at his parents' home, the police-state implications afforded us all an hour in the spotlight. My essay found a wider audience; the suspect, a lawyer's son and a stringer for Time magazine, published his own articles about the War on Terror and taking care what you read in public.
The closest I ever came to Rupert in the flesh was in New York, twice, at Christmastime. One of my college roommates, a die-hard Democrat, in fact, had become a ranking executive on the business side of Murdoch's News Corporation. We were taking our wives out to dinner in the city, and my friend mentioned casually that he was stopping by the boss' apartment for a holiday drink or two before meeting us. "Take me there," I begged. "I want to see the devil before I die." He declined, possibly because he knew my politics and was afraid I might embarrass him. In fact, of course, old boys of my vintage are impeccably respectful of our elders, as long as we still have elders. I would have called Murdoch "Mister" and smiled at him like Santa Claus, all the while wishing I could hurl him off the balcony into the Park Avenue traffic.
It's only fair to mention that my old roommate never disliked his boss. He portrayed Murdoch as a ferocious, wily old competitor who couldn't bear to lose, but good company at times and never personally mean or overbearing. The rapport between them encouraged me to fly up to New York for my friend's retirement party last Christmas—this time I was sure I'd meet the old bastard and look the man who murdered my profession square in the eye. But again Rupert eluded me; his tribute to my roommate was delivered on videotape. It was at this party that several News Corp. employees came over to ask me if I was the one who wrote those terrible things about Fox News. When I confessed, they congratulated me. It seems that a lot of them don't care for Roger Ailes or Bill O'Reilly either.
Perhaps I'll never meet the old man, the legend I once described in intemperate but prophetic words: "Murdoch is an insatiable parasite, a vampirish lamprey who fastens himself to English-speaking nations and grows fat on their cultural lifeblood, leaving permanently degraded media cultures in his wake." I was very angry when I wrote "Weapons of Mass Stupidity."
I'm less angry watching Murdoch, at 80, finally called to account for the sins he committed and encouraged in his role as the secret King of England. The kind of power one corporate overlord can accumulate, illustrated by Murdoch in Great Britain and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, ought to be a warning to every democracy to legislate protection against concentrated ownership of its media. But the means employed by News Corp. to acquire its stranglehold on the British, as revealed by this hacking scandal—the scope and moral leprosy of these operations—have even shocked a disillusioned veteran like me. Talk about a "degraded media culture." Illegal phone-tapping, stalking, spying, blackmail as corporate policy, a web of conspiracy and intimidation that corrupted Scotland Yard and compromised at least three prime ministers, including the current one: The stench from his Fleet Street tabloids is something Murdoch will never be able to wash out of his tweeds.
Is his famous luck running out at last? The scandal, enormous, seems more likely to grow than to subside. The sexual indiscretions of Silvio Berlusconi and the Goebbels-like propaganda mill Roger Ailes runs at Fox News are tepid outrages by comparison. Tabloid thugs on Rupert's payroll reduced a thousand-year-old nation to a broad bedroom farce that falls somewhere between William Congreve and Monty Python—MPs cowering in their boxer shorts, matrons in corsets, policemen under the divan.
I'm no Anglophile by any stretch, but I never dreamed that the British pomp and circumstance we love to satirize masked a reality so pathetic, so preposterous. Who would have thought that snooping and petty blackmail were weapons that could bring a nation to its knees? Only J. Edgar Hoover, the infamous FBI director who kept files on the sexual activities of every politician, bureaucrat and celebrity in America. But at least Hoover could argue that spying and skulking were part of his job.
Nearly a score of Rupert's "journalists" have now been arrested, and some of them will go to jail for their reckless pursuit of meaningless scoops. "Celebrity journalism" was never other than an oxymoron. But the absurd, the comic aspects of the hacking scandal stop at the gate of the House of Murdoch. No matter how his position was achieved, Rupert is a figure of enormous consequence, one of the masters of the universe as we know it—a king in all but crown and scepter. His size is such that his downfall fills all the requirements for classic tragedy, Greek or Shakespearean. Murdoch appears to love his children, or at least to regard them as precious dynastic assets. As Westminster and 10 Downing Street—shamed, enraged and liberated at last—strike back at News Corp., it's becoming terribly clear that Rupert has no chance to save his British empire without sacrificing his son.
That's the pain so evident in the old man's recent photographs, and that's vintage tragedy. James Murdoch, heir apparent to his father's throne, may never end up in a British jail cell. But he'll never spend another Christmas with the prime minister, either. If he wasn't complicit in the hacking operations, he's guilty of wretchedly incompetent oversight (take your pick, as with Nixon and Watergate or Reagan and Iran-Contra), and several ex-employees now claim that he perjured himself before Parliament. Crown Prince James is finished in the United Kingdom and permanently tarnished as Rupert's successor. One of the best-laid succession plans of any corporate dynasty has gone "agley," in the dialect of the poet Burns. Observers of Rupert's torment have compared him to King Lear.
Images of the chastened old pirate and his slick-looking son fleeing reporters don't tug at your heartstrings like a memory of the broken old king carrying Cordelia's corpse in the last act of Lear. The amount of sympathy we feel for Murdoch may depend on the way he handles his dilemma: How fiercely will he defend his son against his own best interests? He's already been forced to abandon former News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks, a great favorite who was said to have been like a daughter to him. But no matter how far Murdoch falls or how aged and pathetic he looks on television, few tears will fall, or should fall, on his behalf.
In what remains of his life, he'll never be reduced to sleeping in cheap hotels or filling out long forms for bank loans like the rest of us. His personal fortune is calculated at between $7 billion and $8 billion, and it might take another half century of mismanagement for News Corp. to go broke, so vast and varied are its holdings. Murdoch epitomizes a depressing truth about the media and about human nature: If you can correctly gauge the lowest common denominator and serve it faithfully, great wealth is yours for the taking. Rupert was not the first to learn this, nor the first to ride the LCD to glory. But he's certainly the most powerful and conspicuous of the bottom-feeders who rose to the top.
The secret of tabloid journalism, the great key to its success, is its keen understanding of the lowest common denominator and the all-too-common man. That's why those journalists in Moscow, skilled at distinguishing between information and propaganda, were bewildered by a format that truly values neither. A tabloid trades on prurience, voyeurism and idle envy of the fortunate, and it thrives by flattering the ignorant, bigoted, hostile and mean-spirited. LCD is all of a piece, from phone-hacking and peeping Toms in hotel corridors to misogyny, racism and jingoism. It's about reaching a profoundly flawed audience, an audience that even the sleaziest, most ethically compromised editor probably despises in his heart. Condescension is its essence. The purest tabloid specimens reside in London's Fleet Street, where reporters with Oxbridge degrees peddle palace gossip and celebrity scandal to day laborers and grammar-school dropouts. But no one has distilled this vile formula or exported it to the USA with such alarming success as Rupert Murdoch.
How cynical would a man like Murdoch be, at this point, how misanthropic? He feasts on the worst of humanity. He has seen it all. He knows the weakness, cowardice and viciousness high and low, and he's lived off it. We're all fair game to Rupert. But the trouble with the tabloid formula is that it's never just harmless free speech. Catering to the lowest common denominator, you also help to define it, sustain it, degrade it even further.
Harmless? The anti-Muslim paranoia of Norway's mass-murdering Anders Breivik is almost identical to Glenn Beck's ravings—often on Fox News—about Shariah law and the expanding Islamic caliphate Beck sees devouring the West and the world. Breivik admitted that American sources were the basis of some of his wilder ideas. The Norwegian government responded with astonishment and revulsion when Beck, on his radio show, remarked that the summer camp where Breivik slaughtered scores of teenagers "sounds a little like the Hitler Youth or something." Glenn Beck is a profoundly disturbed megalomaniac who's only a few tantrums short of a padded cell. But neither his mental illness nor his psycho-rousing rhetoric accounted for his dismissal by Fox. He's gone because his ratings were slipping—loose screws are hard to hide, even from LCD viewers—and because even the strong-stomached advertisers who support Fox News were beginning to desert.
Showcasing hate merchants is a pretty ghastly way to make a profit, and potentially a greater challenge for Murdoch's conscience than breaking British laws, blackmailing politicians or even bringing down a government—still a possibility in the case of David Cameron. Irresponsible rhetoric, available online and all over the airwaves, fed the fires that burn in a lunatic like Breivik. Other innocent people have died when Islamic extremists reacted to American extremists, like the moronic Florida minister who burns Korans. Every sick outburst from a Beck or an Ann Coulter reaches every corner of the planet now. If one of their rants should trigger a murder or two, does the blame find its way back to Rupert Murdoch, who holds all the strings? Free speech can be like a tiger set loose in the all-wired "global village."
Freedom of expression—oxygen and lifeblood to anyone in my profession—is a liberal doctrine intended to protect legitimate public-service journalism and political dissent. In practice today, it's most often invoked to protect pornographers, campaign contributions, right-wing incendiaries and media empires like Murdoch's that are built on trash and cynicism.
A very important point, and one that helps to place the tabloid mind-set in context, is that my quarrel with Rupert Murdoch is in no sense ideological. Murdoch is a political conservative only in the sense that conservative governments are more likely to respect and protect his wealth. He loved Reagan and Thatcher, but he kept his options open. He was allied with the Labor government of Tony Blair, and he made overtures to Hillary Clinton when he thought she could win the presidency. He even praised Barack Obama as "a rock star." Fox News runs way to the right because that brand has been wildly profitable, not because Murdoch is some iron ideologue like Roger Ailes. I doubt that he has any political principle that isn't subject to instant revision for commercial or competitive advantage. First and always, the tabloid magnate publishes and broadcasts what his target audience reliably consumes.
That's why he's more infuriating, to me, than a major media player—however bigoted or benighted—who engages earnestly in the clash of ideas. Here's a subtle distinction, but bear with me: Fox News, with all its partisan political thunder, is merely a tabloid cash cow for News Corp., while more reasonable, respectable (and financially fragile) Murdoch properties like The Wall Street Journal and the Times of London are strategic assets in the world that jeers at tabloids, the world that includes the wealthy and powerful. It's all about positioning, for Rupert. He was never out to change anyone's ideas, only to expand his personal sphere of influence. He was recently listed, before the hacking scandal, as the 13th most influential individual on earth. And his constant goal, which guided every decision he ever made, was to rise in the rankings.
Collateral casualties in the rise of Rupert and the other multimedia titans included the profession of journalism. Stripped of its mavericks and its traditions of idealism and civic responsibility, the news business is no different from the hairspray business. You set your product on the shelf and hope it outsells the others. In the post-Murdoch landscape of chain ownership, cross-ownership and international media octopi, with corporate profit strategies ruling thousands of publishers and editors, independent voices are silenced or lost in the din. Back when I logged my first byline—Kennedy was president—the great game for a journalist was to embarrass swollen corporations, not to rise in their ranks.
A younger, more hopeful generation looks to the anarchic Internet for the future of the free press. Don't hold your breath. The online operations that attract the most attention and advertising are quickly swallowed by bigger fish—the Huffington Post by AOL, the Daily Beast by Newsweek. (All right, sick fish—but bigger.) But even in this media wasteland where the essential harassment of the mean and the mighty has been relegated to Comedy Central, Murdoch and his minions stand out. The latest report is that the slime department at the News of the World also hacked the phones of 9/11 victims and their families. If this turns out to be true, and Attorney General Holder is investigating, we may yet succeed in chasing Murdoch back Down Under where he began.
His would be a stunning fall, no less tragic or mythic than Empedocles' plunge into the fires of Mount Etna. But finally a sweet fall to behold. Murdoch may have murdered journalism—even ruthless predecessors like William Randolph Hearst might have been amazed by his contempt for facts and his use of the press as a bully's cudgel, a lethal weapon to clear his path to power. He may have polluted the media mainstreams and political establishments of three great Anglophone democracies. But the worst of Murdoch may be the terrible message his success has sent to the business class, to his peers and to eager capitalists in the making. You'd have to turn to Bernie Madoff to find a worse role model.
"I work for a man who wants it all and doesn't understand anybody telling him he can't have it all," said Paul Carlucci, a News Corp. executive who rivals Roger Ailes as Murdoch's most heinous American lieutenant. This is something Carlucci, CEO of News America Marketing, said to a competitor he hoped to intimidate, one of several whose lawsuits and complaints about his unethical practices have cost News Corp. $500 million in settlements.
In spite of his expensive malfeasance, Carlucci was promoted to publisher of the New York Post. Apparently he's a Murdoch kind of guy, a martinet who motivated his sales staff at News America by showing them the scene from The Untouchables where Al Capone beats a man to death with a baseball bat. One of the charges against Carlucci is that he hacked into competitors' computers. There's an impression that actual crime is routine for some of Murdoch's soldiers. A glimpse of the culture that created the News of the World—spies, hackers and liars all—is a glimpse of a viper's nest that could have been scripted by Jonathan Swift or Alexander Pope.
This was a culture that sneered at honor and rewarded low cunning and relentless ambition. Capitalism without scruple is all but inseparable from organized crime, and the gap between them is closing rapidly. My grandfathers were businessmen. My father's father spent a decade paying off his dead father's business debts and finally went bankrupt from the strain. For their generation, a businessman's word was his most valuable asset, and customer satisfaction was his Holy Grail. Murdoch is old enough to be one of their sons. What did his father teach him? Rupert may be the worst thing that's happened to England since the Blitz, but I shed no tears for the British, either. They flattered him and fattened him up and passed him along to us, Piers Morgan, paparazzi and all. As if America couldn't generate enough trash or breed enough scoundrels of its own.