For decades Rupert Murdoch has been a dominant force in British and then American newspapers. His broader media empire now stretches across the globe, encompassing TV, film and online properties.
But the implosion of one of his British tabloids, the News of the World, and the seeming collapse of his political influence, at least in the UK, has been astonishing.
Rupert Murdoch’s ascent from running small Australian newspapers in the 1960s to his current global position makes him one of the great media moguls, according to Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review.
“No one back then could have predicted Murdoch’s path. The arc of his career has been astounding.”
In the late 1960s, when Rupert Murdoch took over the News of the World, he said that he enjoyed power but knew the responsibilities that with it.
“A newspaper can create great controversies, stir up arguments within the community, can throw lights on injustices,” he said, “just as it can do the opposite: hide things, be a great power for evil.”
Under Murdoch, the News of the World thrived on the sensational. Before long it scooped its rivals by publishing the memoirs of Christine Keeler, a young woman who earlier in the decade had become sexually involved with a British government minister, John Profumo. At the time she was also sleeping with a drug dealer and a Soviet naval attaché.
Murdoch was on a roll.
In 1969, he bought The Sun, another British tabloid. Less than a decade later, he crossed the Atlantic and became owner of the struggling New York Post.
In a 1981 interview, the Post’s then former managing editor, Robert Spitzler, described Murdoch’s arrival as a moment of great hope, one that didn’t last.
“Within a matter of five or six months we were aware that our hopes had been at best naïve as the paper moved in a direction which we had thought quite impossible as a viable direction in New York City,” he recalled.
As he had done at other papers, Murdoch cut costs and enlarged headlines. And, said Spitzler, he took personal charge of the first sensational story to cross his desk, the Son of Sam murders.
“Rupert wrote headlines, Rupert shaped stories, Rupert dictated the ledes of stories. Rupert was everywhere for a period of two or three weeks.”
In three years, readership of the New York Post was up forty percent. But Murdoch’s approach drew criticism, especially for the slew of positive news stories about his favored candidate for mayor of New York, Ed Koch.
A few years later, similar concerns about improper journalism surfaced as Murdoch bid to take over two more titles in the UK, the prestigious Times of London and its sister Sunday paper. In interviews, Murdoch was dismissive.
“We do an accurate and thorough job,” he argued, countering accusation of ‘mean, ugly and violent journalism’ with the contention that his journalism was, instead, ‘aggressive’.
Murdoch won both newspapers. Four years ago Murdoch added Dow Jones to his portfolio, and in so doing became publisher of the Wall Street Journal. Not all of his new employees were happy about that; at least one quit his job in protest.
Criticism of Rupert Murdoch has been as much of a constant as his relentless business success.
But the extensive phone hacking undertaken in his newspaper’s name is different. In the UK at least, his political influence is under threat.
“The public is fully engaged in the story and it is riveted and outraged. Here we’re at a point where it could go either way,” said Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review.
Reports that Murdoch journalists may have hacked the phones of September 11th families have not yet gone viral in the United States.
If that story catches on, said Starkman, it’s anyone’s guess what could happen.
“I don’t think he’s ever faced anything quite like this. We’re talking about events that are so far beyond his control.”
In other words, this could be the end of the Murdoch era in newspapers. Politicians will still seek favor with the press; readers will still be titillated by the sensational.
But there’s a real possibility that things won’t quite be the same again.