My Dinner With Rupert

Cuddly CEO: Rupert MurdochPhoto: AP/ Tsugufumi Matsumoto

Pam Alexander, the famous technology-business P.R. woman, is very tall. As soon as I asked her to go for a drink, she began looking over my head with her eagle eyes for someone else to add to the party. Why socialize with one person when you can do a multiple schmooze? Having a drink is a scalable pursuit.

We were, possibly for the last time, in Monterey, California, at TED, the twelfth annual symposium on technology, entertainment, and design (the stage is alternately occupied by philosophers and juggling acts), run by impresario Richard Saul Wurman.

I was really proposing a nostalgic drink. As everything else had passed in the technology business, now TED was likely passing, too. At the height of the boom, Wurman, as crafty as anyone, had made a deal to sell his conference – this was his last year. The TED bond (a TED friend is like a summer-camp pal: I had had lunch earlier in the day at a table with Naomi Judd – so now Naomi and I are bonded) might well break.

But Pam is not that much of a sentimentalist.

“Who else can we get?” she wondered aloud, scanning the clusters of people in the lounge area outside the conference-center auditorium. “Do we want Kurt?” she asked, or rather calculated. Kurt Andersen, the writer and occasional media entrepreneur, was sitting in a comfortable chair (one of the sessions this year was on the design of the chair), watching on a monitor the session in progress. The session, a dull one, was about the design of the Airstream trailer. “Go ask him,” Pam instructed. “I’ll be back. Just stay with Kurt, don’t leave.”

“My family had one of those,” Kurt said about the Airstream trailer on view on the flat-screen. I had a brief and affectionate picture of Kurt, a chilly ironist and world-weary mediaist, as a sunny fifties kid.

Kurt and I watched Pam move through the room, aware that she could as easily drop us; the bubble may have burst, but the impulse to network continued. She could trade up, we knew (for Deepak Chopra, possibly, or Jeff Bezos or Jeffrey Katzenberg or Yo-Yo Ma).

Indeed, suddenly, in a turnaround athletic in its speed and grace, Pam went from talking to the middlers (people she might invite for a drink, but only if there was no one better to invite) to, somehow – and I didn’t catch the exact microsecond of the transition – talking to Rupert Murdoch.

Proximity is the drug. The closer you are, the higher you feel. We proximity crackheads have a biological response to who we want to be closest to. This year, at TED, it was Murdoch.

It was not just that Murdoch was the biggest mogul at the conference. There was this other thing: Part of the TED mystique was having unlikely people in the mix (e.g., Naomi Judd; a few years ago, there was Courtney Love). Murdoch represented no small challenge to the liberal sensibility here (Richard Dawkins, the biologist, lectured the conference on the importance of atheism), but now here he was, in the fold.

I felt a short blush of bashfulness – even though, it seemed to me, I might be responsible for Murdoch’s being here.

After last year’s TED, I had introduced myself to Murdoch at another conference, and after I’d awkwardly talked to him for a few minutes about conferences themselves (“Do you come to many conferences?” I believe I had asked as a pathetic conversation gambit), Murdoch had expressed polite interest in TED. I’d relayed this interest to Wurman, who had then besieged Murdoch for the better part of the year.

In fact, Murdoch, earlier in the day, had been at my lunch table, with Naomi Judd (James Truman, the Condé Nast editorial director, had been right next to Judd. “What am I going to talk about with her?” James had asked me; eavesdropping later, I heard them talking about God) and Matt Groening (The Simpsons are perhaps Fox’s greatest single asset, but Groening was pretty grumpy about Fox) and Nicholas Negroponte (who was bending Rupert’s ear about computer networking). But I demurred, rather than grab my turn with Rupert.

In the past year, I had written many unkind things about him, all of which I found myself helplessly regretting now. Had he read them? Did he remember them? Would he hold them against me? (Indeed, at the lunch table, I’d been seated awkwardly between Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe, the founders of Wired, who hadn’t spoken to me since I’d written unkind things about them several years ago.)

But now, as Kurt and I moved tentatively toward where Pam had buttonholed him, Murdoch seemed not only unaccompanied but alone. He had no handlers or retinue. He was clutching his bag of conference swag, including a Tellme Networks teddy bear (“Revolutionizing how people and businesses use the phone”), which he didn’t seem to want to let go of (after all, he has a new daughter). His face was wrinkled and expressive (definitely no work done on this face). I realized he looked like my grandfather – I could have hugged him.

And finally, there was the competitive thing – someone else would surely talk to him if I didn’t.

Pam, I thought, was unsure how far she could go with him, and seemed almost about to disengage. I caught her eye and made appropriate semi-frantic gestures, and suddenly Pam took action: “Rupert,” she said, trying out his name, “we’re going for a drink” – she maneuvered around him (Pam was much taller than Murdoch too; we were, I realized, Rupert and I, the same size) – “Why don’t you come with us?” He wanted, I thought, to be taken in tow.

And so suddenly we were walking along outside the conference center, making conversation with the evil emperor himself. Not only that but trying to cordon him off, physically close out any other greedy conferees from getting a piece of our kill. Kurt was on one side, I was on the other, Pam was riding shotgun. It felt, in a small but satisfying way, as though we’d kidnapped him.

We were, however, very respectful kidnappers. We were giddy with respectfulness. We were the sycophants; he was the sage. He was Yoda. It was very Zennish. We were fast approaching a higher plane of understanding – after all, Murdoch had created, at least, the media universe.

There was the sense that any question would be answered – all you had to do was think to ask it. The man with all the answers was here, entirely accessible. And amiable. A mensch, it turned out.He talked not just without airs but without filters. There was the sense that what he was saying to Kurt and to Pam and to me was what he would say to Peter Chernin, the COO of News Corp. – or to any waiter who asked.

The man, it was clear, just likes to talk. He likes to talk – pretty much nonstop – about business (one of the reasons, I don’t doubt, that he’s on his third marriage).

He didn’t think, he said, that the caps on cross-media ownership that the courts had just removed would result in mad buying of television stations. They were good cash-flow producers, but on the other hand they were, he said, a pain to run – the smaller the station, the bigger the pain. (Of course, Rupert, the nation’s largest station owner, was probably not going to advertise his intention to scoop up new ones.) He went on about the DirecTV deal. He seemed wounded but stoic about losing the deal to EchoStar. He told the story – with a good sense of frustration and irritation – of the series of ultimatums and extensions in the negotiations and how finally, after one last extension, he’d walked away from the deal he’d worked on for two years and, in a sense, bet his company on. (I felt tested: Would I have walked away?) Then he told the story of selling the Fox Family Channel to Disney – of running into Michael Eisner at Herb Allen’s Sun Valley conference and of how much Michael wanted to do a deal. Apparently any deal.

We wandered into an open bar at a nearby restaurant where one of the TED dinners was to be held that night – but there was no bartender. Still talking about the Disney deal, rehashing the billions he’d gotten, Rupert slipped behind the bar and started to open the wine. “I had to let Peter Chernin do the deal,” he said, “because I couldn’t keep a straight face.”

Then a Forbes reporter, a voluble young man, forcibly interposed himself between Murdoch and Kurt and me. We gave him ground because he seemed to be willing to ask the ruder questions.

“You just said you’re too small,” the Forbes guy said, grabbing onto Murdoch’s passing analysis about who might buy Disney. “Are you saying it’s over for News Corp.?”

“We’re fine,” said Rupert, with a shrug that may or may not have been meaningful. (He was so expressive and so unguarded that you began to read nuance and ambivalence into all his gestures.)Then the Forbes reporter began telling Murdoch what he thought Murdoch should be doing (Rupert listened with great patience, it seemed to me). “Do something,” I beseeched Pam, who cut in on the Forbes guy, steering him off.

Rupert kept talking. He grew more expansive, more conspiratorial, even (although it did seem like he’d conspire with anyone), his commentary more intimate. We proposed that he come with us to the dinner we were scheduled to go to – John Brockman’s Billionaire’s dinner, a TED ritual.

Was he dressed all right, he wanted to know – his shirt, he said, was $11 from Wal-Mart.

“Don’t go anywhere,” Rupert said when we arrived, “I just have to pee.”

I had to pee, too, but there was a moment of shifting and reformatting around the tables in the restaurant, and I didn’t want to give any ground. Pam shooed away some interlopers and Kurt anchored an area of seats. Then, when Rupert returned from the men’s room, Pam moved him into a captive position against the wall. Geri Laybourne from the Oxygen Network held him on one side; Walt Mossberg, the Wall Street Journal columnist, was on the other. I was across from him and Kurt was next to me. Only Pam, in some extraordinary act of selflessness, moved out of direct contact (she did ask me a few times later in the evening if I would switch seats with her, but I wouldn’t budge).

Mossberg lectured Rupert about a new sort of viral connectivity (it was the same lecture Rupert had gotten from Negroponte at lunch). And Rupert listened patiently (“I’m interested in this,” he kept saying, although, probably, not very). I talked to him about kids’ schools. My daughters go where one of his daughters had gone.

There is, of course, however passing, the moment when you wonder about having taken the proximity drug. How could I? Why did I do it? What damage would it do? But that is, in a second, swept away. You’re high, after all.

You surrender.

It didn’t seem like there was anything Rupert was holding back on. Offer him a name, and he’d give you the skinny. “What about Sumner?” “What about Messier?” At one point, Geri Laybourne was surprised enough at the Murdoch openness to ask him about that.

“I am,” said the mogul, obviously enjoying himself, “as big a gossip as anyone – bigger.”

Indeed, I could tell you many things about what Rupert told me about his fellow moguls (although, when high on proximity, you don’t necessarily remember things too well), and about the ins and outs of media past and the media to come, but proximity and all its allures prevents me from dishing to just anyone.


My Dinner With Rupert