Blood in the Water: Frank Rich and Adam Moss Discuss Just What Rupert Murdoch Is Guilty Of

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Photo: AP Photo/Jason DeCrow

Adam: Hi, Frank. So let's talk about the spiraling Murdoch scandal that led to the closing of News of the World, which has been the news — of the media world, at least — since last week (I'm having a hard time telling if this is just a giant media story here or something larger). To the extent that Americans are interested, it is because the looming figure hovering over the scandal is Rupert Murdoch, a gargantuan figure in the U.S. since 1976.

So let's ignore for a moment Rebekah Brooks or Andy Coulson** , or even James Murdoch, all of whom are closer to the particulars of the scandal (do I have to itemize them here? You know, the grotesque hacking, the payoffs, maybe extortion as suggested yesterday, the whole filthy mess), and focus instead on the patriarch. Let's assume, as I think it's safe to assume, that he has no direct connection to the specific revelations. How culpable is he anyway — morally, legally, karmically?

Frank: I can't get enough of this saga. Given Murdoch's outsize role in American politics and showbiz as well as journalism, I doubt this will stay a U.K. media story for long. I don't think it is safe to assume anything. It's now clear that there was a full-scale cover-up — new holes and lies in News Corp.'s previous efforts to quarantine this scandal are emerging around the clock. If this were Watergate, shutting down News of the World would be the equivalent of Nixon's "Saturday Night Massacre" — a bald, desperate attempt to stop the story that in the end only ended up fueling it. So we've got quite a ways to go before we can answer the question "what did Rupert Murdoch know, and when did he know it?" As for holding Murdoch morally responsible (at the very least) — well, the king sets the tone of the empire, especially a king like this one, unanswerable to anyone (at least until now).

Adam: There really is no one like Murdoch in the world — and no company like his, which manages to be both a rogue operation and a hugely successful corporate behemoth at the same time. That's a neat trick to pull off. In public settings where I've seen him, Murdoch's demeanor is very pleasant (and I should note that he was an agreeable owner of New York Magazine for fourteen years). Yet his company — so shameless, ruthless, and spectacularly effective — has its tentacles everywhere. And News Corp. — what a name! Could have been coined by Ian Fleming (or a whole host of more conspiratorial fantasists). In fact, Murdoch has always seemed to me more like a James Bond villain**  — with their placid exteriors and raging interiors — than any other corporate executive I know. He revels in it. Most corporate cultures are bland as a matter of strategy. But not his.

Frank: To me, the Rosebud**  that animates Murdoch is the “me-against-the-world” chip on his shoulder — he is indeed a Bond villain to the core. And his key American lieutenants (e.g., Ailes, Col Allan) share that angry, resentful, let's-get-even sensibility, as clearly Rebekah Brooks in England does, too. You don't see this behavior by other media organizations (for the most part) because no one like him has absolute control of one of this scale. Murdoch, unrestrained by the corporate checks-and-balances at most of his competitors, can run News Corp. the way Hearst, Paley, and Luce did their empires back in the day. It's as if someone with the animus of Andrew Breitbart had a huge international multimedia combine at his disposal.

Adam: He is a true tycoon of the old school — he's built News Corp. by taking enormous risks — standing down the British unions, building a fourth television network, etc. It's a culture where caution is hardly encouraged — and one of the reasons James became his heir apparent is that he has more of his father's natural "pirate" swagger (a term James uses to describe himself) than, say, Lachlan had. All of which I find admirable in a way. But when you combine that with the absence of a (discernible) moral code that's also trickling down — some sense that all is not fair in war, this is where we draw the line — it's just combustible. It also makes this scandal feel inevitable, late, and obvious.

Jack Shafer, who has always written well about Murdoch but has been especially good over the last week, has said, "Nihilism, not conservatism, is his creed." That term seem right to you?

Frank: Nihilist, yes, also robber-baron and cynic. He will support any politician (Tory or Labor, Republican or even Democrat) who will further his interests. He will buy anyone (whether British cops, or British and American politicians) who will do the same. When he purports to bow to respectable opinion and do the right thing, it's almost always a mockery — witness the elaborate lengths to set up that Potemkin board to monitor his stewardship of The Wall Street Journal or, now, the announcement that Joel Klein will adjudicate this scandal even as Klein stays on his payroll. The scandal does feel inevitable, late, obvious — but what does it say that it took decades to reach this extreme tipping point? Murdoch's ability to get his ruthless way for so long only confirms the contempt in which he has long held the establishments of both of his adopted countries, England and the U.S.

Adam: I remember seeing his first issues of the New York Post — the old Dorothy Schiff Post was the paper my parents read — and being stunned by its cynicism. Tabloid culture in this country comes in waves, and when I grew up, it was pretty much out of style. I picked up Murdoch's Post and for all my horror, I was also, like many people, attracted to it. The crystal-clear story lines, the mania, the noise. Plus it was (still is) pretty funny much of the time** . It embraced the obvious about journalism — that at least one of its functions was to entertain. Yet it didn't (clearly) seem to care very much about journalism's more high-minded functions. And of course balancing the show-biz and the truth-seeking aspects of media is something all journalists struggle with, even if they don't always own up to it. Problem is, most Murdoch media doesn't appear to struggle much at all. And real life doesn't always yield the splashy material you need to make entertainment. So you bend it. Hence, calling the DSK accuser a prostitute without much evidence that she is; hence hacking into a dead girl's phone, or hiring “criminals,” as Gordon Brown charged, to steal a prime minister’s personal information. Hence publishing the Hitler diaries or airing Glenn Beck** . Not all the same offense, but a continuum at least.

Frank: I grew up loving all newspapers, including the raucous tabloids, and certainly the scummiest of an earlier day were very Murdochian. Indeed, you could say his New York Post, with its right-wing think-tank op-eds, is far more high minded than New York's Mirror or News of yore. And the old ones could be just as vicious politically — the Glenn Beck antecedents arguably were the Hearst columnists smearing their foes as Reds during the McCarthy era. So there is even a pre-Murdoch continuum. But Murdoch takes all this to the hundredth degree because of his much larger reach — geographically, technologically, financially. And as you say he has added another element in terms of the degree to which he'll tolerate fabrication. I keep thinking of that incident just before this News of the World explosion. A hacker sent out false Fox News tweets**  about a fictional Obama assassination — and it took ten hours for anyone at News Corp. to care enough to delete them!

Adam: What a perfect Murdoch story this all is — rich powerful people exposed, humiliated, and defeated by a plucky newspaper — only, alas for Murdoch, the paper in this case is the Guardian. What happens now? I suppose the Cameron government's investigations will postpone the denouement for quite a while, but certainly the next casualty will have to be Rebekah Brooks, who, with every day's new details of her tenure at News of the World, seems more and more awful, don't you think? The media is full of despicable figures, but the bullying tactics she employed as editor seem to vault her into the pantheon. The British press had a field day with that picture of Brooks and Murdoch smiling** , taking merciless aim at the picture in just the way a Murdoch tab would.

Anyway, one thing we know about Murdoch is that he is always extremely loyal — until he isn't. That's a theme that came up in two very good portraits of him — one by Steve Fishman, the other by Gabriel Sherman — that we've run over the past several years. But does it end with the old man himself? He's 80 now, chief executive and chairman. Will he throw himself under the bus? As I understand it, he has always imagined the day he might have to employ a kind of nuclear option — when he would have to surrender the executive title to a civilian (a sap, surely) — while remaining chairman himself, of course. Survival at any cost.

Frank: This is a perfect Murdoch story but one that's likely to last far longer than, say, the Anthony Weiner saga. Murdoch's inexplicable loyalty to the indefensible Rebekah Brooks suggests that she knows an awful lot that must stay within the family at all costs. But as Henry Porter wrote in Sunday's Observer, the events of the past week have "a whiff of the Arab Spring" and may quickly move beyond the old man's control. I wonder if the anti–News Corp. fever will spread to America, where major politicians have also been on the Murdoch payroll (at Fox), and where the chief executive at Dow Jones, and hence the Journal, Les Hinton, is now under enormous scrutiny because of assurances he made to Parliament a few years ago denying widespread Murdoch phone hacking. And any U.K. investigations may be matched by those in the New York Times. When the Times Magazine ran a blockbuster article on the News of the World scandal last year, News Corp. howled to the paper's public editor, claimed the Times was motivated by competitiveness with the Journal, and vehemently asserted that the hacking was an isolated incident and old news. Well, the Times had the story right, and there may be more where that came from. Blood is in the water.

Adam: Thanks, Frank. That's it for this week. Readers, please send your questions to Frank to AskFrankRich@nymag.com. We'll try to do a bunch next week.