Tonight at 9 p.m. Bloomberg Television is airing a one-hour special on Rupert Murdoch, head of the $30 billion media empire known as News Corporation. As was the case with the spate of recent profiles of Fox News chairman Roger Ailes (New York magazine, Rolling Stone), this documentary did not enlist any cooperation from News Corp., and Murdoch declined to be interviewed.
But several of Murdoch's former associates--including Peter Chernin, former president and COO of News Corp.; Garth Ancier, ex-head of Fox Television, and Martin Singerman, ex-publisher of the New York Post--did.
And, as one might expect in a profile of outsized personality such as Murdoch's, the hourlong broadcast--part of Bloomberg's "Game Changers" series--is packed with media anecdotes and relatively juicy quotes, many courtesy of Michael Wolff, author of the Murdoch biography "The Man Who Owns the News" and currently the editor-in-chief of Adweek.
"There's always someone who must die in order for you to live," Wolff said of the newspaper "war" Murdoch has long fought. "And Rupert is good at that battle because he can take more pain than anybody else."
"Rupert Murdoch is what God meant when he created a media executive," said Bloomberg Businessweek's Ron Grover--sounding a little like Gary Busey in "Point Break." "He has all the attributes a media executive is supposed to have: he has vision, he has guts, he'll take a risk, he'll go to the edge."
"This is a man who grew up in the newspaper business, found success in the newspaper business, literally loves the newspaper business," Wolff continued. "I've seen him read a newspaper and it's a physical act. It's as physical as literally making love to a woman.""Rupert's experience with the Internet is a comic one," Wolff added. "MySpace, which he bought for, I don't know I think somewhat more than $500 million, and, at one point they thought it was worth $25 billion. And it's worth scrap now. Rupert doesn't use a computer, doesn't get e-mail and can't really ever get a cell phone to work. This is not his medium."
And: "He's kept the [New York] Post alive because he wants it alive. No one else in News Corporation wants the New York Post alive. Save for Rupert and the people who work at the Post. It just makes no, no economic sense."
"The paper had been allowed to dwindle and die if you will," former Post publisher Singerman said. "Rupert Murdoch invested more in the publication both in terms of money substantially, in people. We invested in presses, added pages and did the things that you would do in order to make a more substantial publication."
"One of the great things about Rupert, which is in a crisis, he is the coolest, calmest and if he supports you and he believes in you, he'll back you all the way to the wall," said the former NewsCorp CEO Chernin. "He's the best guy you could ever want in the foxhole with you."
Chernin also recalled Murdoch's love of mapping out the Fox TV schedule: "He was like a kid in a candy store. He'd jump up and start putting squares up on the board and sort of say, 'How's that?' And we'd go, 'Well, that's really not that good.' And then he'd move it and put something else up. At one point, [he] took 'The Simpsons' and put it on Thursday night against 'The Cosby Show.'
"You know, he's talking about putting this tiny little show that we're just getting started up against the number one show on television. And at first, honestly, we all thought he was crazy. We said you can't do that. We'll get killed. We'll get annihilated. And he kept saying, you know, trust me. I think it'll work. And I think his view was that we would get so much attention. First of all, he believed in the show. That move of 'The Simpsons' against 'Cosby' was 100 percent Rupert's idea."
The documentary makes it clear, however, that NewsCorp's controversial cable property, Fox News, is more Ailes than Murdoch. "Rupert by his nature is a little conservative, not as conservative perhaps as Roger Ailes is," Wolff said. "But what he liked was the fact that Roger had a plan for Fox News."
"There's news on Fox News, which I happen to believe is very neutral and moderate and presented fairly," Chernin said. "And then there's the talk and opinion shows which no one ever pretends are news and factual."
Ancier said a lot of Fox's primetime television strategy was built through trial and error, zigging when the established networks were zagging. "'21 Jump Street,' a young cop show. 'Married With Children,' irreverent family show," Ancier said. "I mean the working title of Married With Children was 'Not the Cosby's.' It [had] to be different from what you can get on other channels."
As for Murdoch's latest prestige acquisition--the august Wall Street Journal, which passed into his hands in 2007--the interview subjects stress that the hard-charging executive had it fixed firmly in his sites when he first heard that a sale was possible. "When he first learned about the divisions within the Bancroft family that owned the [Wall Street Journal] for 100 years," Sarah Ellison, author and former WSJ reporter, noted. "That was sort of blood in the water so to speak for Rupert Murdoch."
But some of those who feared what Murdoch might do with the Journal after he bought it have been pleasantly surprised.
"I have to say in honesty that many of the things I said and feared that Rupert Murdoch would do he has not," Jim Ottaway, former vice president and director at Dow Jones, admitted. "It's nowhere near as awful as I thought it might be."