by Sarah Ellison
304 pages | Buy this book
Media baron Rupert Murdoch had his eyes on The Wall Street Journal for decades, and on May 2, 2007, he set a plan in motion that would pry the world’s leading financial newspaper out of the hands of the bickering Bancroft family. This is the inside-the-boardroom story of that $5 billion acquisition.
What's The Big Deal?
In the three years since he made his bid for the Journal, the very worst fears about Murdoch’s ownership have failed to come true. He hasn’t, like, put Page Three girls next to the stock tables, but the Australian magnate has unmistakably moved the paper to the right politically and changed how it covers the business world. Murdoch’s takeover came at a period of crisis in the newspaper industry that shows no sign of abating today. His machinations to get the Journal are either the last, most foolish moves of an old newspaper guy on his way out, or the final, brilliant capstone of the career of a media visionary who still sees value in news.
Buzz Rating: Whisper/Hum
While Ellison gets some good bloodthirsty-Murdoch anecdotes (page 195: “We’re going to build a f--king great paper and I do not give a f--k what New York or the media has to say about it!”), they’re so in line with what everyone expects from the “rotten old bastard,” as Slate’s Jack Shafer calls him, that they’re not exactly revelatory. Ditto for the embarrassing details on the fractured Bancroft family. Ellison made news in February, but more recently the book has been a surprising nonfactor in coverage of the New York Times–Wall Street Journal metro news war.
One-Breath Author Bio
Ellison was the media reporter for The Wall Street Journal during the Murdoch takeover and built on her daily reporting from the time for this book.
Don't Miss These Bits
1. Each pivotal moment of the Murdoch-WSJ saga is here, and with cooperation from all of the major players, Ellison has the dialogue, e-mails, memos, and personal recollections to enliven and put in human terms what was, after all, a financial transaction. When Murdoch first makes his premium offer of $60 a share, for example, Dow Jones CEO Richard Zannino “felt his adrenaline begin to flow” (page 80). “ ‘Holy s--t,’ Zannino thought. For a split second he wanted to excuse himself to go to the men’s room and call his general counsel.”
2. There’s no outsmarting Murdoch. As the terms of the acquisition were being worked out, the Bancrofts and Dow Jones executives tried desperately—and naively—to establish editorial independence for the newspaper. Managing editor Marcus Brauchli saw how futile it was to attempt to take Murdoch’s money and somehow not get Murdoch in the bargain. “Murdoch was like an escape artist. ‘We’re all trying to put Murdoch in a straitjacket, wrap him in chains, put him inside a lead box, padlock it shut, and drop it into the East River,’ Brauchli said. ‘And five minutes later he will be standing on the bank, smiling’ ” (page 145).
3. Brauchli, the paper’s top editor, mattered so little to Murdoch that the tycoon forgot his name during the process of deep-sixing him. Ellison shadowed Murdoch that day in April 2008, observing this exchange: “ ‘That’s weird,’ [News Corp. executive Gary] Ginsberg said, almost to himself. ‘I just got an email from our friend M.B.,’ he told Murdoch, who was up in the front seat next to the driver. Murdoch paused, looking puzzled. These initials meant nothing to him. For a moment, he seemed to have no memory of the man whom he had considered it necessary, at some earlier moment, to fire. ‘Who is that?’ Murdoch asked” (page 205). It’s Murdoch as great white shark: all predator, constantly moving, obliterating competition.
Swipe This Critique
It’s been a while since we had a corker of a boardroom narrative on the level of Barbarians at the Gate or Conspiracy of Fools, but War at the Wall Street Journal doesn’t quite rise to their level. It’s as well reported as a corporate thriller can be, but the stakes just aren’t that high. Despite Ellison’s grandstanding, right on the first page—that this is the story of “a battle for supremacy over who would control what the nation read, thought, and believed”—the truth is, the saga isn’t likely to resonate much outside the New York media bubble.
Prose: This is solid, to-the-point newspaper writing.
Jargon: There’s little corporate-ese to be found; even the byzantine Bancroft family trust structure is explained simply.
Casting: A 59-person (!) dramatis personae at the front of the book sets a homeworky tone. You’ll consult it often to keep all the characters straight.