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BOOK REVIEW: 'Murdoch's World': Engrossing Account of World's Most Famous Media Baron, His Triumphs, Tribulations -- and Now Trials
David Folkenflik's "Murdoch's World: The Last of the Old Media Empires" (PublicAffairs, 384 pages, $27.99) is the engrossing tale of Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp empire of Fox News Channel, Fox Movies, TV stations and a string of newspapers in Australia, the U.S. and England that have been the flashpoint of more news stories than all the other newspaper chains combined. The book will appeal to journalists like the reviewer who thrive on inside baseball details, but should also be of interest to anyone wondering about the future of mass media.
Folkenflik makes the point that the culture of newspapering in England and Australia is not only different from the norms of the U.S., but that it contributed to the cellphone hacking and other crimes committed by the reporters and editors of Murdoch's mass circulation London tabloid (a "Red Top" in Britspeak because of the red flag --the place at the top of the page with the name of the publication in white letters on a red background, as on the book's jacket) News of the World that led to arrests in the U.K. and threatened Murdoch's entire news empire.
The book's publication comes on the eve of the trial of Murdoch executive Rebekkah Brooks for her role in the hacking scandal, which produced a wealth of new information in the public domain which has allowed Folkenflik to present the fullest portrait of Murdoch's media world and its consequences to date.
"Murdoch's World" is as well sourced as any work could be on the News Corp -- with back-of-the-book notes providing the sources that Folkenflik could name. Of course, many sources didn't want their names revealed. I wish the publishers had included a section of photos of the people discussed, but that would have driven up the price of the book.
There is no question that Rupert Murdoch, born in Melbourne, Australia on March 11, 1931, is the most significant media tycoon the English-speaking world has ever known. No one before him has trafficked in media influence across those nations so effectively, nor has anyone else so singularly redefined the culture of news and the rules of journalism. Over six decades, he built News Corp from a small paper in Adelaide, Australia into a multimedia empire capable of challenging national broadcasters, rolling governments, and swatting aside commercial rivals. Then, over two years, a series of scandals threatened to unravel his entire creation.
Murdoch's defenders questioned how much he could have known about the bribery and phone hacking undertaken by his journalists in London. But to an exceptional degree, News Corp -- despite being a publicly traded corporation, was an institution cast in the image of a single man -- a hands on newspaperman. I can't believe that he didn't know at least the rough outline of the hacking going on in his empire. His hands-on spirit was combined with his Australian buccaneering spirit. News Corp also incorporates a brawling British populism, and an outsized American libertarian sensibility—at least when it suited Murdoch's interests.While much of the book is devoted to the hacking scandal that began to roil the Murdoch empire in 2005 and which led to the demise of the News of The World, Folkenflik deftly deals with many other aspects of Murdoch's World, including the creation of Fox News Channel, expertly guided by Roger Ailes. Folkenflik fearlessly discusses the Juan Williams imbroglio and the turmoil within NPR -- expertly in my view -- giving me insights into both Fox News and NPR.
There isn't much discussion by Folkenflik of Murdoch's ownership of the prestigious Times of London and the Sunday Times, but I have no doubt that Murdoch should be credited with keeping those relatively low circulation and money losing papers alive in an era of disappearing newspapers.
His purchase of the Dow Jones Co., with its "Jewel in the Crown" (Folkenflik's description) Wall Street Journal, finalized at the end of 2007, was the subject of much handwringing in the world of journalism. In considerable detail, in Chapter 17, Folkenflik reveals the outcome at the WSJ, where the conservative editorial policies of the previous owners, the Bancroft family, were preserved, along with the paper's independent news coverage. Murdoch at heart is a print news guy who knows what kind of changes should be made and when to leave the paper alone; that's the policy he followed at the WSJ.
The turmoil within the Murdoch family rivals anything from TV dramas like "Dallas" and Folkenflik provides the reader with details on the relationships of James, Lachlan and Elisabeth Murdoch with their father. Murdoch abruptly ended his marriage to his much younger third wife, Chinese-born Wendi Deng. Murdoch's mother, Dame Elisabeth Murdoch, lived to age 103, so the 82-year-old Rupert Murdoch could be around for many years to come. Whether you think that's good news or bad, stay tuned.
About the Author
Award-winning journalist David Folkenflik has been NPR’s media correspondent since 2004. He previously covered media and politics for the Baltimore Sun and edited the 2011 bookPage One: Inside The New York Times and the Future of Journalism. (for my review, http://www.huntingtonnews.net/5864). He has covered Murdoch and News Corp extensively and has been a frequent commentator on the hacking scandal in both the US and the UK. Folkenflik lives with his wife, the radio producer Jesse Baker, and their daughter in New York City.