ink-stained wretches

Rupert Murdoch and the Art of War

This month, with the announcement that The Wall Street Journal would be expanding the scope of its coverage out of New York, Rupert Murdoch opens his most direct assault yet against his longstanding foe, the New York Times. But the Times launched a preemptive strike when its media critic, David Carr, casted aspersions on the Journal’s journalistic integrity a year into its ownership by Murdoch’s News Corporation. Carr reported on how its news pages have tilted rightward, much as one might expect from the owner of Fox News and the New York Post. In return, Journal editor Robert Thompson deemed the piece an “attack,” lashing out at Times editor Bill Keller and declaring that “principle is but a bystander” at the Gray Lady. (As of last week, the flame war was still being fanned.)

Meanwhile, Murdoch is fighting with an even bigger, non-ideological enemy, Google, over unpaid distribution of News Corp.’s news content. But if nothing else, Murdoch loves a good fight. Lives for it, really — it might even help keep him alive, at 78. Few people have sustained wars as long, or as consistently, as Murdoch, who from the age of 22 has thrived on publicly sticking it to his enemies. And very few have ever managed to get one over on the mogul. Herewith, a history of wars waged and battles won (and his one big loss).

Foe: The Herald and Weekly Times
When: 1953–1987
What happened: Nicknamed the “boy publisher,” Murdoch was 22 years old when he inherited a tiny Australian tabloid called the Adelaide News after his father died. Driven by a belief that the trustees of the Herald and Weekly Times — the company his dad, Sir Keith Murdoch, had built into the country’s largest media outlet — had robbed him of his rightful inheritance, Murdoch used the Adelaide News to go to war with his old man’s former employer. By 1955, HWT was forced to merge its much bigger Adelaide Advertiser with Murdoch’s News. But it wasn’t the end of Murdoch’s attacks on HWT. Finally, in 1987, Murdoch bought the Herald and Weekly Times for $1.5 billion after a tense takeover battle, dubbing the victory the most sentimental of his life.
Winner: Murdoch

Foe: Robert Maxwell
When: 1968–1991
What happened: Newly arrived in London, Murdoch snatched the News of the World from the hands of the “Bouncing Czech” Robert Maxwell in 1969. As 1968 drew to a close, Maxwell thought he had convinced a major shareholder to sell to him — but out of nowhere, Murdoch made the most of his mother’s friendship with News of the World chairman Sir William Carr in order to convince Carr to sell a 40 percent stake to him. The rivalry between Maxwell and Murdoch became notorious over the next two decades, as they clashed over newspapers (The Sun), magazines, and book publishers (Harper Collins), all the while building rival empires. Murdoch never lost a fight right up until the moment Maxwell fell overboard his sailing boat in 1991. Following the Czech’s death, it was the Murdoch press that dug up most of the dirt on his financial swindles.
Winner: Murdoch

Foe: Clay Felker
When: 1976–1977
What happened: First a pal of Murdoch’s, the founder of New York quickly became the enemy when Murdoch set his eyes on the magazine in 1976. In terms of dollars, the deal may have been small, but New York’s writers and journalists, egged on by Felker, put up one hell of a fight to save the magazine from the man viewed as the greatest vulgarian of his time. Murdoch won, owning the magazine until 1991.
Winner: Murdoch

Foe: Fleet Street’s print unions
When: 1986–1987
What happened: Britain’s newspaper unions had every reason to believe they had the upper hand on January 24, 1986, when their 6,000-strong membership went on strike (as England’s unions were prone to do in the eighties). But in the dead of the night, London’s “Dirty Digger” — as Murdoch would be dubbed by Private Eye — bypassed the strike by moving the entire operations of The Times, the News of the World, and The Sun away from Fleet Street to a brand-new printing plant in Wapping, on the outskirts of London. The strike would last another year, but after a loyal band of Murdoch journalists continued to get the newspapers on the stands, the picket lines eventually thinned out.
Winner: Murdoch

Foe: Ted Kennedy
When: 1988–1993
What happened: The “Fat Boy,” as he was dubbed by Murdoch’s Boston Herald, almost had the mogul on the ropes in 1988 when, during the Christmas sitting of Congress, he pushed through legislation that would greatly affect Murdoch: The mogul would no longer be exempt from FCC rules banning him from owning a television station and a newspaper in the same city. Murdoch was said to be heartbroken when he was forced to give up his beloved New York Post in order to keep hold of Fox. But five years later, in order to save the Post from almost certain bankruptcy, Kennedy had to create a waiver to the very rider he’d sponsored, just so the mogul could buy the newspaper back. Some say Murdoch got his final revenge when The Wall Street Journal inserted a derogatory quote from Rush Limbaugh — declaring Kennedy a politician who “uses the government to take money from people who work and gives it to people who don’t work” — into Kennedy’s front-page obituary.
Winner: Murdoch

Foe: Ted Turner
When: 1996
What happened: The bitter rivalry between Turner and Murdoch had its origins not in a media deal, but the prestigious Sydney-to-Hobart yacht race. In 1983, a Murdoch-sponsored yacht crashed into Turner’s, causing the CNN mogul’s boat to sink six miles from the finish line. Back at the boathouse, a drunken Turner challenged Murdoch to a fistfight he wanted televised from Las Vegas. Thirteen years later, when Murdoch launched Fox News to compete against CNN, Turner declared he was “looking forward to squishing Rupert like a bug.” When Murdoch, with the help of Mayor Rudy Guiliani, tried to force CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, to carry Fox News on their cable system, Turner likened him to Hitler. Murdoch responded with an editorial in the New York Post that questioned Turner’s sanity. For most of the nineties, Turner kept Murdoch in check through CNN outdoing Fox in the ratings, but by 2009, CNN finished in third place in annual prime-time ratings behind No. 1 Fox News and MSNBC in second place.
Winner: Murdoch

Foe: Anna Torv Murdoch
When: 1999
What happened: He may have walked out on her shortly after meeting the much younger Wendi Deng, but ex-wife Anna Torv Murdoch may be the first person to best Murdoch in a deal. Under the settlement of her divorce, she agreed to walk away with just $1.7 billion (experts thought she could have taken half the company), but only if the children from his first two marriages — Prudence, Lachlan, Elisabeth, and James — could exercise voting rights at News Corp., thus cutting out his two daughters with Deng, Grace and Chloe. Despite their father’s wish that all his children would be treated equally, a 2006 amendment to the Murdoch family trust, tensely negotiated between the elder children, gives Murdoch and Deng’s Grace and Chloe only a monetary stake in News Corp. As per Anna’s wishes, the children of Wendi Deng do not have voting control of the world’s largest media company.
Winner: Anna

Foe: John Malone
When: 1994 (ongoing)
What happened: No other media foe has earned the respect of Murdoch quite like the enigmatic John Malone. As head of cable company TCI from 1973 to 1996, Malone earned Murdoch’s admiration — along with the nickname Darth Vader — as he amassed one of the world’s largest cable operations and then sold it off for a fortune to AT&T. Now, through Liberty Media, Malone owns stakes in most major media companies around the world. Murdoch has never described him as anything but a friend, but their actions sometimes make them the very definition of “frenemies.” In 1996, Murdoch went behind the cable baron’s back and helped lobby the FCC to award a valuable satellite license to a rival of Malone’s, leaving the cable baron holding $100 million worth of satellites and no license with which to operate them. In 2004, while Murdoch was too busy watching George W. Bush win the election, Malone got his own revenge when he managed to grab a 19 percent stake in News Corp. Malone and Murdoch eventually reached a deal: Malone would get control of News Corp.’s DirecTV in exchange for giving up his 19 percent overall stake. The next move for both media moguls is anybody’s guess.
Winner: Undecided.

Rupert Murdoch and the Art of War