The Man Who Owns the News
by Michael Wolff

It’s so very basic (as with all things Murdoch):

1. You can’t succeed unless you have political influence.

The Man Who Owns the News (P. 270)

Let’s get it out there. Before reading this book, I was insanely envious of Rupert Murdoch.

Who has more power over what people think?

He owns hundreds of media outlets around the world, including his 42% stake in Fox News. He is chairman, his son is CEO.

The biggest civic failure of my life (so far) has been my inability to get people to stop reading and watching the news. It is my Waterloo. People have told me I inspired them to run marathons, eat healthier, read more, invest, and even change the way they think. Yet, when it comes to the news, most people refuse to stop.

The most common sentiment is wanting to feel informed.

That is THE TRICK. The news is not there to inform us. It is there to keep our eyeballs engaged long enough for the advertisements. Incidentally, this is a good time to influence us. We think we are immune to this and other people are the ones being influenced. The editors try to keep a straight face.

How it happens is a generational preference. The distribution methods are changing. Our screens are smaller. The concept is the same.

I never wrote a post on the news because Shane Parrish’s five minute essay is perfect: Why You Should Stop Reading the News.

Why do you think the rich people want to own media companies? Case in point, Elon Musk literally bought Twitter, then days later told us who to vote for.

So, I am changing my strategy. If you can’t beat them, join them. As Mark Twain said, “It is easier to fool people than it is to convince them that they have been fooled.”

My Dr. Evil plan is to own an influential media company.

That’s why I was insanely envious of Rupert (and Ted Turner and John Malone). People crave. He provides.

You probably already know that Succession (the excellent HBO series) is based on Rupert Murdoch and his family. I like the show, so I read The New Yorker profile on it, and actor Jeremy Strong. That’s where I discovered the book.

I ordered it before finishing the article.

Three Big Surprises

The book came out in 2008, but, like all good books, the content is timeless.

At the time, Murdoch had only been married a few times. Since then, he has divorced, remarried, and recently finalized his fourth divorce. Things kind of change, and they kind of do not.

I was surprised to learn three things:

  1. Rupert Murdoch wears a singlet under his clothes. A Bond villain in a onesie.
  2. Murdoch (owner of Fox News) said Wolff should vote for Barack Obama (2008). Why? He will sell more papers. This is the key takeaway from the book and key insight into understanding Murdoch.
  3. His strategy seems to be PUTTING MORE GAS ON FIRES than creating the fires.

Before the book, I thought of Murdoch as a cooler, more legitimate version of the Wizard of Oz. Then I read the quote below and talked to people who work for media companies. They said this is mostly how it works.

Exercising a heavy hand as a newspaper proprietor is actually much harder than it looks.

Newspeople have something like a structural talent for ignoring their owners. Newsrooms, evolving over more than 150 years of difficult and entitled proprietors, have developed an organizational model designed, in part, to maintain a distance from the actual guy in charge.

In a typical structure, only the editor communicates to the owner (or, even more remotely, the editor communicates to an executive who in turn communicates to the owner). It’s the editor’s job to be the buffer not so much to carry out the owner’s mandates and desires, but to carry out the minimal level of the owner’s mandates and desires and still keep his job.

The Man Who Owns the News P. 234

Murdoch is in control. No doubt. We would be kidding ourselves if we think an owner’s agenda does not get factored into a conversation with the editors.

[Murdoch’s employees] don’t accept that a hands-off structure truly exists anywhere. And if it does, then something has gone radically amiss and you have a fool for an owner.

The Man Who Owns the News P. 226

But, instead of being a heavy-handed top-down propaganda machine, it seems like he is mostly holding up a mirror to his audience and amplifying what resonates with them.

He is effectively running an ongoing A/B test and is simply very good at giving the market what it wants.

He learned this in London selling tabloids decades ago. I’m guessing he metaphorically gave half the people lattes and half the people black coffee. Lattes sold better than black coffee, so give the people more lattes.

The book revolves around Murdoch’s takeover of Dow Jones (owner of The Wall Street Journal) and it reads like a fast-paced, entertaining conversation.

An interviewer/biographer is inherently limited in what they can know. They have to take incomplete information and fill in gaps. Murdoch knows he is being interviewed. He isn’t very forthcoming and articulate in how he thinks. It is notable how badly he is at explaining himself. We have to piece together a mosaic.

Having said that, books like this remove some of the smoke-filled-room ideas in our imagination and replace them with concrete, human details.

I am much less envious of Murdoch the person, and still envious of his positioning. He has been playing a fun game for 70 years and he’s pretty good at it.

I have deliberately avoided talking about the details of the book because you should read it.

See also:

Thanks to James Bunch for reading drafts of this.

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