The Donald Trump era is passing like a dark cloud, but I’d offer a second headline of equal importance: The Rupert Murdoch era also is history. As the media lord nears 90, his ominous hold on the politics and pop culture of three nations is lifting as well. Hollywood, too, will be healthier in his absence.
The Trump legacy is one of hatred and betrayal – that much has come into alarming focus in the last 48 hours. But that shouldn’t distract from the reality that Murdoch’s media arsenal helped build Trumpism – Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post and even those assets overseas. Murdoch has profited from splintering American society.
Thirty years ago this week I wrote a column I regret which was headlined “Rupert Rebounds.” At that moment Murdoch was in a $6.8 billion sinkhole of debt, unable to secure a $600 million bridge loan to pacify his bankers. As I joined him for a lunch chat (his invitation) he looked taut and pallid. The SEC was on his case because the numbers he had filed contradicted earlier filings with Australian authorities and bankers.
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“I’d like to be free to run my media company, not spend all my time negotiating with bankers,” he told me with a tinge of anger.
I had recently become editor in chief of Variety that year, having previously held a president’s title at two Hollywood companies. Hence Murdoch apparently felt I would empathize with his dilemma as he set forth an array of documents to prove his point. “I know that I’ve got to tighten control of my businesses,” he explained. “Even at the Fox Network we are following the same scenario as the other networks and that is wrong. We must chart our own course.”
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From Murdoch’s ferocity, I was persuaded that there was no way the bankers were going to bring down this Aussie (he had just become an American citizen). Nor that this ordeal would tamp down his appetite for acquisitions – a spree that started with a $575 million bargain buyout of the Fox studio and a $1.9 billion deal for the six TV major stations that formed the basis for his Fox network. Another $1.9 billion would go for the Family Channel, $4.6 billion for NFL broadcast rights and $1.4 billion for the Manchester United Soccer Club. Besides all this, Murdoch was satisfying his appetite for newspapers including the Journal and Post, all in the interest of political power.
“Rupert wants to rule the world and he seems to be doing it,” observed Sumner Redstone with naked envy.
What I failed to anticipate was that Murdoch’s re-invention of Fox News in concert with Roger Ailes would essentially confiscate the political “hard right” into a Trumpian movement. Ailes assured me face-to-face on two occasions that Murdoch would never challenge his ideological thrust – he was making too much money from the propaganda business. Combined with the Journal and the Post, Murdoch was now set to command the political power he had always coveted.
If propaganda became a passion, I never sensed that Murdoch had a similar passion for Hollywood’s product. Movies were just another business to him, as they were to other corporate entities that had acquired a stake in Hollywood, such as Matsushita or Sony. Steve Ross, who acquired Warner Bros, at least relished the celebrity; Murdoch was not enticed.
He was disturbed, however, by the ever-mounting production overages haunting the business. The $200 million Titanic mega-movie was a unique irritation for him, and he jumped at the opportunity to lay off much of its cost on Paramount.
It was no surprise therefore, that when Murdoch finally departed the movie business he left behind a black hole. Universal had managed to survive Matsushita and Sony has held onto Columbia, but Murdoch’s decision to deal off the remains of Fox to voracious Disney seemed pre-ordained.
I remember sitting adjacent to Murdoch at a screening of Speed 2, a pricey but ill-conceived sequel. When the movie finally ended, Murdoch went out of his way to express his disinterest. At least it was less expensive than Titanic, he declared.
In closing his $71.3 billion deal with Disney, Murdoch had again proved his mastery of survival. Fox News is still around under the stolid Lachlan Murdoch, and Fox Entertainment is thriving under the talented Charlie Collier (Fox News is a separate corporate entity). Fox alumni dot the media landscape from Peter Rice to Peter Chernin to Jim Gianapulos, and most attest to Rupert’s business acumen and the absence of political interference beyond the blot of Fox News. “Rupert was smart enough to know that his executives cringed at his politics,” one reiterated to me yesterday. “We looked the other way.”
But, most important, our nation may now be able to boast it has survived Murdoch, both culturally and politically. It was not an easy test.
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