For better or worse, mogul has defined current media era

Perusing news outlets that aren’t owned by Rupert Murdoch, the prevailing assumption is the News Corp. tycoon is on the ropes, hanging by a thread amid a steady drip of fresh outrages in the ongoing hacking scandal.

Take this as coming from someone who has watched the mogul operate too long, perhaps, but given Murdoch’s resiliency and Bond-villain-worthy empire, don’t write him off just yet.

For starters, to see Murdoch toppled by the current scandal — involving hacking of cellphones by at least one of his London newspapers, the now-shuttered News of the World — is sort of like Al Capone getting jailed for tax evasion. He might have done it, but it’s hardly the worst of his media sins and misdemeanors.

Similarly, some are speaking of what’s being called “Murdoch’s Watergate” endangering his legacy. Yet the mogul’s place in history, for good and ill, is already secure.

Simply put, nobody has done more to reshape the TV landscape or rewrite its rules — nor has anyone had a larger role in tabloid-izing and debasing its content, especially in regard to news.

For the last quarter-century — since the launch of the Fox network — Murdoch has flouted conventions and exploited the media’s basest impulses in pursuit of his corporate interests. He’s deftly used assets to club rivals, while establishing a new broadcast network over the wails of a naysaying chorus.

Perhaps most notably, Murdoch undermined traditional journalism and newsgathering — the very notion that news organizations endeavor to be even-handed — in the service of a marketing slogan, “fair and balanced.” And while Fox News Channel pushes a political agenda Murdoch embraces, he’s done all this more for profit than partisanship.

Murdoch’s approach to entertainment has been equally pragmatic. Before anyone thought to sequester people in a house or on an island and call it “reality TV,” Fox unleashed specials like “When Animals Attack” in the mid-1990s, which then-NBC West Coast prez Don Ohlmeyer called “one step short of a snuff film,” accusing Murdoch of coarsening the culture.

Fox also translated a tabloid sensibility to TV on other fronts, such as the syndicated magazine “A Current Affair,” an early ancestor to our TMZ-driven mediasphere. And Murdoch’s take-no-prisoners attitude led to snagging rights to NFL football from under the Big Three networks’ noses, along with a slew of affiliate switches that fractured longstanding relationships and cost competitors millions.

The irony is, because of the media environment Murdoch has helped create, subordinates and surrogates can dismiss many of the broadsides directed at the company as sniping by what Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly likes to call “smear merchants” — a handy way to delegitimize critics and deflect attention. (Full disclosure: I’m a part-time contributor to a small cog in the News Corp. machinery, FoxSports.com.)

For all that, it’s important to recognize the latest scandal’s limits, given News Corp.’s size and diverse holdings. The company is simply too big to be humbled in the way its most ardent critics would like. What are regulators going to do, block the release of “Avatar” sequels and scrub the next season of “American Idol?”

As Murdoch biographer Michael Wolff (who can hardly contain his glee about suddenly being so in demand) said on ABC’s “This Week,” “What’s at risk is the management of this company by someone named Murdoch.” Murdoch also could be thwarted in completing his acquisition of BSkyB, the U.K. satellite broadcaster.

Both would be serious blows, especially given Murdoch’s commitment to all-in-the-family succession. Still, those writing premature professional eulogies conveniently ignore his most indelible bequeathment to the media: Acting fast, playing to win, and having few compunctions about stooping to conquer.

Whatever happens next, Murdoch’s moves will be about salvaging deals or bolstering the conglomerate’s battered stock, not shame and soul-searching. As for his place in media history, a line from the musical “Evita” comes to mind, where Peron warns his wife’s detractors, “I would not advise those critics present to derive any satisfaction from her fading star. She’s the one who’s kept us where we are.”

More than anyone of this media era — for better and (mostly) worse — Murdoch is responsible for where we are.

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