The Incredible Shrinking Rupert  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   June/July 2011

The Incredible Shrinking Rupert   

Suddenly the powerful mogul seems very mortal. Thurs. July 21, 2011

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


He seems so diminished.

For years we've thought of Rupert Murdoch as all-powerful, the hard-charging buccaneer who scoops up everything in his path and makes strong men quake.

Love him or loathe him (and plenty do the latter), hate his politics or his tactics, you have to give him points for the passion, the brio, the eagerness to go full bore after anything he wants.

And get it.

As the Internet shattered the business model of the newspaper business, so many news organizations responded by retreating. "Bold" became a commodity in very short supply.

But Murdoch, forever fueled by a love of newspapers as well as money and power, pressed on, setting his sights on the prestigious Wall Street Journal and capturing it in the face of vociferous opposition.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, politicians, regardless of party, continued to assiduously court the great man, desperate to stay out of the gunsights of his often ruthless newspapers.

That was then – until less than three weeks ago, when the Guardian reported on the hacking of the cell phone of missing teenager Milly Dowler.

The long-dormant hacking story exploded abruptly, and the fallout in that brief period has been astonishing. Murdoch has lost his 2.6-million-circulation News of the World, his bid to take over the very lucrative British Sky Broadcasting, two of his top associates – and his aura of invincibility.

Murdoch's response to the crisis has been shaky and shifting. It took him too long to grasp the seriousness and jettison a business-as-usual approach. He seemed like an aging fastball pitcher who continues to bring the heat even though it's no longer hot enough to get people out.

Now the dominant image of the media mogul is the one from his appearance Tuesday before Parliament's Culture, Media and Sports Committee. Suddenly, Murdoch was showing every one of his 80 years. At times he seemed confused, clueless. There were the long pauses, the declarations that the Captain of the Universe knew little about what was transpiring in his vast and mighty empire.

He was the farthest thing from the strong, confident CEO assuming command during a crisis and convincingly reassuring one and all that he would fix it.

Of course, this may well have been a PR strategy, what Slate media columnist Jack Shafer called a "rope-a-dope" approach to deflect the probing questions he didn't want to answer. But either way, it left an indelible picture of Murdoch in the public mind, and it was radically different from the intimidating figure of yore.

In the great "Kill Bill Vol. 2," after he has been subjected to the Five Point Palm Exploding Heart technique by the Bride (Uma Thurman), the dying Bill (David Carradine) asks the Bride how he looks. She replies, "You look ready."

At that Parliament session, the word that described how Murdoch looked was "vulnerable." His son James repeatedly tried to come to his aid as he struggled with questions from the MPs. When he was approached by a shaving cream pie-wielding assailant, his wife, Wendi, dramatically came to the rescue.

None of which means that it's a done deal that Murdoch will be toppled by the phone hacking/bribery scandal. Betting against him has generally been a bad idea.

He owns a big chunk of News Corp., and he just got a vote of confidence from his largest investor. The board is friendly. So it's by no means certain that he will be pushed.

But with a police investigation in full sway¯10 people have been arrested so far – and Parliament launching a variety of inquiries, who knows what will turn up? Both institutions did a pathetic job of probing when the phone-hacking first came to the fore, blithely accepting News Corp.'s assurances that it was all the work of one rogue at the News of the World. Given that humiliating record, it's likely that investigators will dig deep this time around.

So it's possible that at some point Murdoch will have had enough and voluntarily step down. But that's pretty far from his basic DNA.

An Australian who came to the United States after becoming a major player in Britain, Murdoch has had an enormous impact here. In particular, the creation of Fox News Channel has had a revolutionary effect both on the media and on politics.

Fox has played a key role in arousing the passions of the right, in turning issues that once would have been confined to the margins into mainstream deals. It helped give rise to the Tea Party phenomenon and has served as a full employment act for failed-and-perhaps-future GOP presidential candidates.

And it also has been an integral part of the creation of the echo-chamber approach to consuming news.

Building on the success of talk radio, Fox assembled a large audience of disaffected conservatives; its reach dwarfs that of pioneer CNN, which has long embraced the traditional down the middle approach to news (though there are many on the right who disagree strongly with that view).

Fox's manifest success also gave rise to the new strategy of long-foundering MSNBC, which emerged from its career-long doldrums by appealing to the left as Fox appealed to the right.

Now we have a world where many people largely read, watch and listen to news that confirms their view of the world: Rush, Fox and Drudge, or MSNBC and the Huffington Post.

Murdoch has never been one for small ball. It will be fascinating to see how this drama plays out.

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