Books

10.23.13

The Murdoch Omerta

Even after years of bad headlines about phone hacking and police payoffs, just try writing about the Murdochs and you’ll see what happens. But NPR’s media man David Folkenflik has gone inside the empire to reveal their secrets.

It is entirely possible that if you regularly read The New York Times, live on the coasts, are younger than 55, don’t own a gun or a truck, or are, in other respects, a Blue State liberal, you have read more books and articles about Fox News, or its News Corp mothership, than you have spent, say, watching Fox News or reading The New York Post.

The shelf of Murdochania groans. In the past year alone there has been The Rise and Fall of the Murdoch Empire by a former reporter for the now-shuttered News Corp property News of the World; Murdoch’s Politics: How One Man’s Thirst For Wealth and Power Shapes our World by an professor of journalism from Rupert Murdoch’s native Australia; Murdoch’s Pirates, about a private security force that operated within one part of the empire; The Fall of the House of Murdoch, by British writer Peter Jukes; Dial M for Murdoch, co-written by a member of Parliament and a journalist for the Independent; leaving aside for the moment the 2010 biography by Michael Wolff; the 2004 documentary Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism; two new volumes on Fox News chief Roger Ailes. And, from earlier this year Atheist in The Fox Hole, the memoir of a young Fox News grunt who decided his way out of the mother ship was to blog about what life was like on the inside for Gawker (He was promptly caught and busted, but not before revealing the sordid state of the bathrooms and the inner-workings of the O’Reilly Factor.)

That such reporting is even possible is shocking considering the lengths Murdoch and Co. will go to avoid negative publicity, or, when necessary, oversight and investigation by the authorities. This is one of the more alarming takeaways from the latest volume for the News Corp shelf: Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires, a brisk, exceptionally readable accountable of the troubles that have beset the empire in the last few years by National Public Radio media correspondent David Folkenflik. The Murdoch code, according to Folkenflik, is one neatly summed up by Tom Watson, the Labor MP who authored one of the recent tomes, as he questioned James Murdoch, Rupert’s youngest son and for a time a chairman-in-waiting of sorts: “These are allegations of phone-hacking, computer-hacking, conspiring to pervert the course of justice and perjury facing this company and all this happened without knowledge. Mr. Murdoch, you must be the first mafia boss in history who didn’t know he was running a criminal enterprise.”

Paying the police, after all, is a hell of a lot easier than peeing into jars in the course of a 24-hour stakeout, especially when the payoffs are on the company dime.

This is much too much, but still, the efforts News Corp goes to in order to control their own story can border on the extreme. Folkenflik tells the story of one of his greatest scoops back when he was a reporter with The Baltimore Sun: the discovery that prize Fox News correspondent Geraldo Rivera broadcast a report (one which included footage of him reciting the Lord’s Prayer on tape) from a spot where three American soldiers had been killed chasing “the dastardly one”—his personal term for Osama bin Laden. Only, it turns out, Rivera was three hundred miles away from the site in question. Fox News PR reps accused Folkenflik of making it up, of having an agenda, of getting it wrong. They stalled and stalled in granting him in interview with Rivera, leaving Folkenflick unable to corroborate the story, and breaking a promise to him by granting an interview with an AP reporter while he waited. The AP story centered around how Rivera carried a gun with him despite journalistic conventions against it (how can journalists expect to be treated as non-combatants by the enemy if they are carrying firearms?) and it overwhelmed Folkenflik’s Sun piece. A Fox flack spiked the football in a voice mail message to him , suggesting only minor media outlets paid attention: “Reuters and Market Watch? Pretty pathetic placement, my friend.” (Six years later, Folkenflik tells of how he introduced himself to Ailes at a Fox News gala at the Met: “Oh I remember who you are,” the boss says. “You tried to fuck us.”)

Folkenflik tells of Fox correspondents on their way out of the door who find themselves smeared, sometimes anonymously, sometimes not, by Fox News execs, and retribution campaigns against journalists deemed to have written something unfair, campaigns that included unflattering if not doctored images of the reporter in question showing up on Fox-friendly websites and, on occasion on Fox itself, and the sudden revelation of incriminating personal info among those who dared pry beneath the lid. When Michael Wolff was preparing to publish his own Murdoch biography, an affair that he was having with a much younger colleague (one first revealed on New York City gossip blogs) received seven news items and a cartoon in the course of one month; once Wolff reminded News Corp execs that he had a trove of unreleased Murdoch interviews on tapes, the campaign abruptly ended. After The New York Times published a story detailing some of the concerns that a Murdoch takeover of The Wall Street Journal will mean for the business paper of record, The Journal used Times chairman and publisher Arthur Sulzberger’s face to illustrate a story about how women were attracted to men with sexually ambiguous facial features.

This is nothing however compared to the politicians who cross either News Corp’s political objectives or its business bottom line. Folkenflik recites the famous surrender monkeys cartoon, but reminds us also of the mushroom cloud footage on Fox News that followed Barack Obama’s trip to Russia, reveals that Chris Christie had to seek personal audience with Murdoch after he expressed kind words for Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, or countless politicians from Melbourne to London to New York who have internalized that its best to spout the company line.

And even they may have it easy compared with the journalists actually on News Corp payroll, who are under such pressure to bring in scoops that the phone-hacking which nearly brought down the empire becomes an inevitable recourse. Paying the police, after all, is a hell of a lot easier than peeing into jars in the course of a 24-hour stakeout, especially when the payoffs are on the company dime. Or even reporters at the august Wall Street Journal, who at minimum found that their stories were likely to get more play if they reflected the pro-charter school, anti-union leaning of their bosses. Worse, reporters there who tried to investigate News Corp’s phone-hacking scandal found their efforts stymied, their stories stripped of context and the most damaging bits buried within.

Reporters and politicians though have their own recourse. Many of News Corp’s targets do not, including the family of Milly Dowler, the thirteen-year-old girl who disappeared on way home from school in Surrey. As police looked for her, News of the World reporters hacked into cell phone, deleting messages, and giving her parents false hope that she was alive (her body was discovered six months later.) As Folkenflik tells it, this kind of incident went on repeatedly, across News Corp platforms, often with the tacit assistance of the police.

By the end of Murdoch’s World, the empire is on the verge of collapse. The business has been split into two divisions, one that makes the money and the other—the journalistic one—that does not (“GoodCo” and “ShitCo,” they are known as internally.) Fox News, which had championed, and loudly predicted, a Mitt Romney win, was proven embarrassingly off-base. The Daily, Murdoch’s foray into all-digital publishing, had closed. The Wall Street Journal is still The Wall Street Journal, and Folkenflik suggests better than it has ever been, but the most arresting image of the whole scene is the one that Folkenflik begins the book with—Murdoch, facing Milly Dowler’s parents, his head cradled over and over in his hands, and saying over and over again, “I’m sorry. I am so sorry.”