Despite handing over key titles to his sons James and Lachlan, Rupert Murdoch isn’t going away just yet. But the 21st Century Fox chairman is transitioning toward a future without him, which makes word of what had long been expected — a royal blood-line succession, where the sons also rise — feel like a seismic event nevertheless.
Murdoch’s legacy as perhaps the most influential media mogul of his generation, if not ever, could fill (and has) several books. In the context of this latest move, however, what initially seems most significant — in terms of how vigorously they’ll be pursued going forward — is the way he seamlessly connected his political beliefs with his profit objectives, and vice versa; and the passion he continued to harbor for print media/journalism, behaving like the old-fashioned newspaper baron he once was, despite running a multifaceted media conglomerate.
Tellingly, it was print where his son, James, nearly derailed — and might have delayed — Murdoch’s family succession plans, with the phone hacking scandal that roiled Murdoch’s British tabloids happening during his watch. Whether that episode leaves any kind of bitter aftertaste, and what faith the Murdoch heirs have in journalism as a business, will be fascinating to see, after their father collected such properties like expensive baubles — overpaying for the Wall Street Journal and consistently losing money on the New York Post, at least in part to have it as a cudgel with which to batter his media rivals.
Murdoch brought the same buccaneering style to his TV operations, naturally, from launching the Fox network — and leading the way into some of the more regrettable recesses of reality TV — to the Fox News Channel, in many ways the most effective blending of politics and television that the medium has produced. To say Murdoch (and obviously Fox News’ CEO Roger Ailes) has ascended to the role of kingmaker in conservative circles almost doesn’t do justice to the influence that Fox wields — even if some, such as former Reagan aide Bruce Bartlett, view that coalescence as actually damaging the Republican Party.
Murdoch’s determination to treat his massive company like a mom-and-pop outfit has always appeared rather quaint from a distance, especially in today’s age of quarter-driven scorekeeping. Like a lot of larger-than-life figures that endeavor to keep their businesses in the family, though, he has given his scions a tough act to follow, and begun the process of handing over control at a moment of inordinate upheaval within the industry.
Small wonder that when Murdoch launched his hostile bid for Time Warner, the company’s retaliatory response expressed skepticism about Fox’s ability to manage two such massive companies — a thinly veiled shot at the younger Murdochs. Expect further second-guessing in the months ahead.
As noted in an earlier column, Murdoch’s commitment to keeping someone who shares his surname atop the company speaks to a certain kind of genetic immortality, not that the elder Murdoch really needs that to secure his legacy. And while he hardly leaves the cupboard bare for his heirs, at some point in the future Fox might find itself missing the old man every bit as much as those of us on the outside will likely miss writing about his exploits.