You do realize how fabulously plugged in Michael Wolff is, don’t you? The media chronicler has so much in common with Rupert Murdoch that he can’t help sharing it in “The Man Who Owns the News.” Why, Wolff loves newspapers, just like Murdoch! His daughter worked for the New York Post! And don’t forget he’s a fellow member of Gotham’s media elite! Who better, then, to explain the press baron’s quixotic quest for the Wall Street Journal? The problem, noxious tone aside, is that Murdoch’s latest conquest isn’t nearly as interesting as his succession woes. Would that were the focus.
Wolff, a columnist for Vanity Fair, suggests that dynastic concerns were on Murdoch’s mind when he began his full-bore pursuit of the Wall Street Bible in 2005. At the time, he was being pressured on several fronts: News Corp.’s No. 2 Peter Chernin and Fox News topper Roger Ailes were jockeying for position with son Lachlan, and wife No. 3 Wendi wanted their two young children included in the family trust.
And there was the matter of John Malone’s growing stake in the company — another threat to family control.
So what did Murdoch do? What Wolff says he always does: Shakes things up by changing the game. The benefit of the Journal deal, the author explains, is it would prevent Chernin from becoming too strong while creating a greater legacy for Murdoch’s expanded family.
Since the Bancroft family didn’t want to sell to anyone, let alone Murdoch, he had his work cut out for himself. Wolff describes the various Bancroft factions with great relish, painting a comic portrait of their general cluelessness about their determined acquisitor.
Wolff fills in the backstory with frequent detours into Murdoch’s past as the negotiations slowly unfold. Alas, these digressions tread familiar ground for anyone who’s read earlier Murdoch bios, and are long enough that a reader can be forgiven for losing track of Wolff’s narrative thread.
Ultimately these lengthy asides aid Wolff’s larger point about Murdoch’s contrarian drive, but the book’s circuitous structure makes for a grueling read. It certainly doesn’t help that the Murdoch family seems vastly more interesting than the deal the book is centered around.
Now, about that tone: The author seems overly concerned about presenting himself as an all-knowing media player. He self-importantly suggests Murdoch’s cooperation with him on the book “had something to do with his perception that I regarded many of his enemies — particularly the journalistic priesthood — with some of the same contempt with which he regarded them.” He assures readers in the prologue that he had his reservations about Murdoch, but “certainly came to look forward to these interviews, and perhaps (Murdoch) did too.”
The book’s treatment of Murdoch is generally admiring, even when describing ruthless behavior. Murdoch was “purposely brutal” to editor Marcus Brauchli, but he didn’t even get that “it’s our paper now,” a bemused News Corp. exec told Wolff, who seems happy to be in on the joke.
Wolff even suggests those journos most unhappy about Murdoch taking over the Journal “were often unhappy themselves.” The people who worked for Murdoch by contrast, “were, arguably, among the happier people in the media business.”
Wolff ends where he began: with Murdoch plotting his next deal — a takeover of the New York Times. His succession is still unresolved.