So yesterday’s breaking news was all abuzz about Rupert Murdoch’s announcement that after a 70-year career helming the companies that eventually became News Corporation and the array of assets known as FOX he was at last stepping down from that position. As (ironically) CNN reported:
Rupert Murdoch, the powerful right-wing media mogul who built and oversaw one of the world’s most influential news empires, announced Thursday that he will step down as chairman of his companies, Fox Corporation and News Corporation.
“For my entire professional life, I have been engaged daily with news and ideas, and that will not change,” Murdoch, 92, wrote in a memo to employees. “But the time is right for me to take on different roles, knowing that we have truly talented teams.”
Ostensibly, the reins are being handed to his 52-year-old number one son Lachlan, who has had the role of co-chairman for the past nine years and has been the face that has offered up the good and the bad news to investors and stockholders amidst that tumultuous time that has seen the scaling back of the entertainment side of the company, most notably the onetime Twentieth Century Fox assets–and the company’s repeated involvement in lawsuits and actions that are challenging both Murdoch’s legacy and profits.
Call me a skeptic, but I’m anything but sold on this being anything more than a “fake news” diversion, the kind that Murdoch’s publications and networks have made an industry out of, and where history I’ve personally observed is a telling precedent.
Anyone who has been around the man for more than a fleeting moment knows his truest passion and one of the few things that gives him joy is to hold a newspaper in his hand and look at the layout, scan the lead, and emotionally react, much as he knows the average schmo in New York, London or anywhere else in the world with a newsstand or, nowadays, a screen would. My experience with Rupert isn’t much in the grand scheme of things, and it hasn’t been as recent as, say, that which prolific and truth-telling author Michael Wolff has had. But when I read the excerpts from his upcoming book that THE ANKLER dutifully made available yesterday, my reaction was exactly the kind Rupert coveted: visceral, personally relevant, and salivating for more.
I can’t possibly recommend more highly that you at least read the extended excerpt which was dropped along with this summative plug for a book that, come hell or high water, will be in my possession ASAP:
“Michael Wolff’s books were my foundation and port of entry for working on Succession.” So said actor Jeremy Strong (Kendall Roy).
Now, with news arriving that 92-year-old Rupert Murdoch is stepping down as Chairman of 21st Century Fox and News Corp. just days before publication of Michael Wolff’s revelatory new book, The Fall: The End of Fox News and the Murdoch Dynasty, no one but Wolff better tells the story of Murdoch and his place in the media firmament (infamously, Wolff had unprecedented access to Murdoch and his family, even his mother, for the 2008 biography The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch before the billionaire cut him off).
In the book’s first chapter, Wolff, author also of the #1 New York Times bestseller Fire & Fury, imagines an eventual obituary of Murdoch. It’s an insightful overview of the news magnate’s life and career — pulling no punches — and an entry point into the sprawling impact of one singular man.
And I couldn’t possibly do more justice or capture Rupert’s complicated and lengthy life and career better than has Wolff, so I leave that to you to do and challenge you to not be as intrigued (and yes, that reaction can include disgust) as I was.
The best I can add were two seminal interactions I had with the man that have me so sure that regardless of the somber and reverent wordings of all that came out yesterday, those that have attempted to eulogize or even try to capture his essence are, at best, off base. His billions aside, my informed contention is that he sees him very much through the lens of an everyman, and I can point to two incidents that to me exemplify it:
The first time I met him was shortly after it had become known inside Metromedia that he was about to purchase our stations to serve as the backbone for what ultimately became the FOX Broadcasting Company. My little syndication division was in the very definition of limbo, anything but a priority. There was a small little German deli a few blocks from the station in the heart of Hollywood which a colleague of mine liked to grab a quick lunch at, and one early spring day we saw Murdoch, alone, sleeves rolled up, nursing a beer while nibbling away at a sandwich. My colleague’s bravado was greater than mine, so as we waited for our order he strolled over to Murdoch and said “What are you drinking, sir?”
Murdoch smiled warmly and said “Heineken. Did you know that there’s a real version of it that they actually make in Germany that it turns out this place imports, unlike most of the other places in LA that sell the brand?” Having gone to a college located near a Miller brewing facility where we’d bribe the workers late Friday afternoon to sell us kegs on the cheap, I knew darn well that the same exact output that was labeled Miller High Life often would up in bottles labeled Heineken. Emboldened, I offered up that story to support his. Murdoch smiled warmly and offered us a swig of his tall boy. We agreed, his version was much better tasting. We shared a lunch, we got to throw in that we were pending employees of his, and for good measure we dropped the name of the supportive but nervous executive we worked for that we knew his team was dealing with directly. I can’t say for sure that this lunch was the catalyst, but all three of us wound up having decent runs at FOX once the deal was completed, and we were among only a handful of Metromedia employees who survived at all to experience it.
A few years later, when I had a higher profile role running scheduling and acquisitions for what were now the FOX-owned TV stations, I was part of an elite team that was reveling at an off-site that Murdoch unexpectedly dropped in on late one night, flying in on his corporate jet hours after completing a deal to acquire Collins, which he was to combine with Harper and Row and thus cement his standing in book publishing. He was again casually dressed but in a celebratory mood and joined a group I was in that included one of my old bosses, who had by that point gone over his personal limit of beers. He was in the middle of describing what he felt was the key to his success in sales, a storied phrase he often delivered punctuated by a thick Cuban cigar: “Sell a few shows, make a few bucks, and get laid”. Not quite as controversial as, say, “they’ll let you grab ’em by the p–sy”, and thankfully never caught on tape.
Upon hearing that, Rupert broke out into hysterics, ordered a fresh round of brews for all of us, and continued to exclaim “Now that is a mantra we should all live by!”. It was far and away the closest bonding opportunity I ever had with him.
The next morning, I arrived at our hotel early to go over my presentation, still a bit tipsy from the night before. I dropped by the coffee shop to order a brew and, sure enough, there was Rupert, poring over a Wall Street Journal. As I often did in those days (and still do), I had my trusty copy of the New York Post with me. Recognizing me, Rupert said “You like that paper, huh?”. I honestly replied “Ever since I was a kid in Queens. Like any good Jewish boy, I always start reading from the back page”, which is, of course, where the storied Post Sports coverage begins.
On this day, there was the news that George Steinbrenner was being investigated for behavior that eventually saw him suspended from his official role as owner of the Yankees for a year. And this was not long after Murdoch, under FCC pressure to divest himself of both a key broadcast and newspaper holding in a market due to its strict rules against cross-ownership, had grudgingly sold his beloved Post and was technically, at the time, not its owner. He noticed the back page headline that pointed to an opinion piece that questioned whether George would actually stray very far should that happen. He complimented the paper’s decision to report that angle, one that was not being offered up elsewhere at that point.
I quipped “You still like that paper too, I guess. Do you miss running it?”
Murdoch grinned and said “What makes you think I still don’t?”
That was one of the few times I thought it was best to say nothing else.
Later that day, when I related my story to some higher-ups that had joined our meetings’ post-mortems, they effectively confirmed that much like a baseball manager ejected from a game who still relays strategies to bench coaches, not a lot was going on at the Post that Rupert still didn’t have some sort of voice in.
So, yeah, he’s 92, yet again involved with a hot younger woman and being assailed and attacked by plenty of determined people, and with good reason. My former colleague Preston Padden made the news cycle yesterday himself, reminding anyone who asked (and they did) that just because Rupert was technically exiting, he wasn’t going to end his crusade to deny the company their FCC license renewal, with the fate of WTXF Philadelphia which technically expired earlier this year still officially undecided.
Rupert’s “mum” made it to 103. He says he’s in “robust health” and all signs are he is (you can thank one Dr. Mehmet Oz’s surfical talents for alleviating some heart issues he had a few years back; draw your own conclusions from what resulted after that). And believe me, Lachlan Murdoch is, at best, to media what Hal Steinbrenner is to baseball. Glance at where the Yankees are as we head into the last 10 days of the baseball season for what that means.
I don’t believe for a second that for as long as Rupert is breathing that the title “chairman Emeritus” will be anything more than symbolic. There’s a crucial Presidential election ahead, one where he knows the players far too well. There’s plenty of court cases ahead where his testimony will be saught. There will be plenty of his former underlings who will seek and need his advice and counsel.
And unlike the majority of the publications that he competed with when he first burst into New York journalism in 1976–the year the Yankees won a pennant for the first time in more than a decade–the Post is still around, too. And you know Rupert is still reading how they cover the Steinbrenners.
So you can feel free to wish him “Happy trails” and “g’day, mate”–let alone “rot in hell, m—–f—er” if you wish. I’ll just offer what my “sell a few shows” ex-boss said to him when he finally put out his cigar the night we all shared some rounds together:
“See ya, Rupes”.
Until next time…