Sunday, May 13, 2007

Murdoch, like Hearst, yearns to tell the world how to think

Citizen Murdoch reaches out
Mogul wants to be man on the Street

Rupert Murdoch, a man who has a penchant for buying, is out there doing some selling. Specifically, he's selling the Bancroft family on the idea that he's not William Randolph Hearst.
The Bancrofts are the New England Brahmins who control Dow Jones & Co., and the Wall Street Journal, a media empire that Murdoch covets. He covets it to the tune of a lofty $5 billion bid.

Murdoch has always salivated for the Journal because it's rich, conservative and could be an elegant companion piece to his long-planned Fox Business Channel. But the Bancrofts, who control 64% of the company's voting shares, are resisting Murdoch's entreaties.

They don't explain why (Brahmins never do), but clearly they feel a certain responsibility -- noblesse oblige -- for the health and autonomy of their paper. At the same time, they distrust Murdoch, the media baron, as being, well Hearstian.

Which to some extent is understandable. Murdoch, as he gets older (he's just turned 76), increasingly displays some fascinating ambiguities. Unlike Hearst, his business acumen continues to sharpen with age. But like Hearst, he yearns to tell citizens of the world how to think and what to believe, and like Hearst, his views grow ever more polarizing. Witness his zealous support for a president with a 28% approval rating, according to the recent Newsweek poll.

There are other Hearstian reminders as well. Murdoch, like Hearst, feels drawn to Hollywood. Though he's never built a castle, Murdoch, like Hearst, entertains grandly at his various mansions (and yachts). Like Hearst, Murdoch also loves newspapers, not only for their economic heft but also for their ideological clout.

Hearst didn't hesitate advocating war when it served his purposes, and in his later years seemed drawn more to Hitler than to Roosevelt. He worshipped power for the sake of power.

Murdoch represents himself as a libertarian but is fiercely pro-Bush, pro-Iraq War and pro everything Republican. While many of his newspapers stay above the fray, the Murdochian world view is vividly on display at the New York Post and Fox News. At the recent Milken Conference in Los Angeles, Murdoch vented his opinions before an enclave of business CEOs, as though reminding fellow power players that he understands not only how to build a media empire but also how to run the world.

Given all this, Murdoch's appetite could stir problems on the political front. A cross-ownership waiver obtained by Murdoch will expire next year -- News Corp. needs the waiver because it owns two TV stations in New York as well as the Post. Democrats in Congress could also try to bar Murdoch's acquisition by redefining the Wall Street Journal as a local rather than national newspaper, thus making him more vulnerable to cross-ownership constraints.

To be sure, Murdoch has gone out of his way to stress that he will not impose ideology on the Wall Street Journal, a dubious commitment since the newspaper's editorial pages already proclaim that the Bush Era is golden. The news pages of the Journal, on the other hand, have remained remarkably "pure" -- that is, free of ideological taint. Some of its reporters, nonetheless, are nervous about whether things would stay that way.

Peter Kann, the paper's long-term executive editor and later chairman, dispatched a letter last week praising the Bancroft family for upholding the Journal's independence, while James H. Ottaway, Jr., a former Dow Jones executive and major shareholder, saw fit to remind his confreres that Murdoch's control would imperil the Journal's "news quality and integrity."

As a corporate leader, to be sure, Murdoch has some important achievements to "sell." Just about the entire business community applauds his dealmaking prowess -- witness MySpace. His senior management team at Fox also is vastly admired. Peter Chernin provides brilliant leadership and Tom Rothman and Jim Gianopulos have run the studio with a consistency that's the envy of the rest of Hollywood. Roger Ailes, too, has brought a pizzazz to network news that's left CNN in the dust. Only the Fox Network has failed to build a durable management.

As a result of all this, the media community seems a bit dazzled by the Rupe offensive. The Economist, while criticizing Murdoch for taking the Times of London "downmarket," nonetheless has instructed the Bancrofts to accept his offer. The Economist's parent, Pearson, might regret this recommendation -- Murdoch could emerge as a more important competitor of the Financial Times, which also is part of Pearson.

Writing in the New York Times, Andrew Ross Sorkin also recommends that the Bancrofts give the nod to Murdoch. Having been granted an exclusive and persuasive interview last week, Sorkin concluded the media baron would be "the perfect publisher for the Wall Street Journal."

Sorkin also notes that Murdoch's longtime banker, Goldman Sachs, suddenly is representing Dow Jones, with which it has never had a relationship. John Thornton, a former Goldman president, also is a member of Rupert's board of directors.

In his declining years, William Randolph Hearst found the world to be increasingly disinterested in his power and distrustful of his world view. One senses that, whatever the surface similarities, Rupert Murdoch has no intention of replicating that scenario.

The big question: Will Rupert be defeated by his own appetites? And, more specifically, does the world want to be told what to think by a media mogul whose ideas, like Hearst's, grow ever more doctrinaire?

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