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the dealmaker, not the businessman, journalist, or even the man
on 26 March 2012
This book is badly over-hyped: the author was supposed to get unique access, with much travel for reporting, and from his experience as an internet entrepreneur but also as a writer, he would provide great insight into what made one of the great dealmaker's such a success. I read this book and other sources carefully, and I must say that it offers little beyond conventional wisdom and rather banal generalities, even stereotypes. If you have followed the press about Murdoch even superficially, there is very little to learn here.
So what do we know? He started out in tabloids, not as an effete journalist (i.e. those with hard-won knowledge, standards, and a mission to serve the public), but selling the public what it "wanted": lurid stories, grotesque personal and political smears, with an emphasis on selling at a low price to the lowest common denominator. Taking over various newspapers, Murdoch turned them around for 60 years, entering many related industries. He hates the "establishment" and sets himself against it as the perpetual outsider, his resentments nurturing extremely right wing views, and cares very little for the way that the more educated public despises him. During the 1980s, he became a master of making deals with leveraged debt, somehow making his empire profitable even as many of his newspapers continued to lose money. He maintains an iron grip of control, surrounding himself with yes men and knowing that most of his employees are dependent on him as they could never get similar jobs elsewhere due to the low standards of their work but also by his generosity to loyalists. He has few consistent values, never nurtured any lasting friendships, and almost ruined his family by repeated divorces, attempts at excessive control, and prolonged absences. He continually breaks his promises and everything he does is essentially about himself.
Aside from some facts about his personal life (in particular his talented if difficult children), that is it for the ideas. The rest of the book is structured around his buyout of the Wall Street Journal, in a way his attempt to redeem himself and set a higher standard for the industry. That deal proceeds little by little over the entire book, filling in details along the way. Unfortunately, given the current scandal of phone hacking and bribery in Britain, this makes the book - from its tone of awe to its content about how he built his empire - almost completely obsolete. Murdoch's current difficulties come from something rotten at the core of his company and perhaps of the man himself. Yet this book has virtually nothing to offer about those details, focusing instead on the glitz of deal making that was more lucky than prescient. Though in 2003 there was testimony (by the now disgraced Rebekah Brooks) that the company routinely bribed the police, this is not even mentioned.
The style of the book does not help. It is written with a breezy chattiness, repeating certain ideas way too often, and implying far more depth than it delivers. It is riddled with expletives, full of the author's opinions and snide observations - he particularly despises the dysfunctional Bancrofts, who owned the Wall Street Journal - and I could not wonder why the reader should care about any of that. Very little of what the author says is documented, the narrative is not linear enough to read quickly, and, worst of all, there are significant gaps. Murdoch's business models in the many industries he entered are barely covered, his underlying agenda (to the extent he has one) is neglected, and what makes him tick is left as a complete mystery, though he talks a lot about him falling in love with Wendi, the Chinese woman he married who is 40 years his junior. Fox news is a side show to the book, mentioned only in a few chapters and without comprehensive treatment. Given the promise of the subtitle, this is profoundly disappointing.
As a writer, I am working on a piece about the company and how it functioned as an ethical entity (i.e. not successfully). This book has useful information about that, but it is superficial and tediously arrogant in tone. I cannot recommend it.