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The Nation

Media Mogul Summons the Powerful to Expound

July 28, 2006|Sallie Hofmeister | Times Staff Writer

When 250 News Corp. executives gather this weekend for a management retreat at a posh California seaside resort, they'll skip the typical team-building exercises that such confabs are known for. Why role-play when you can pick the brains of actual world leaders and rock stars?

Speakers at the Pebble Beach event will include such political powers as British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former President Clinton and Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres. Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton will opine on remaking complex organizations, former Vice President Al Gore will riff on climate change, and U2's Bono will deliver a keynote address titled "The Power of One."

The singer is likely to focus on his poverty- and AIDS-related crusade, called One. But Bono could just as easily be referring to his host, Rupert Murdoch, the chairman of News Corp.

If there's one man with the power to summon the powerful, mogul watchers agree, it's Murdoch.

"It's his unique persona and his global reach that puts him in a special category," said Jeffrey Sonnenfeld of the Yale School of Management. "He is the fulfillment, although not ideologically, of what Ted Turner aspired to be, in terms of having influence not only culturally but socially. Unlike [Viacom Inc. Chairman] Sumner Redstone, Murdoch is interested in influence as much as affluence."

Call it the Rupert effect. The 75-year-old media maverick personally invited many of the luminaries who will make the five-day retreat an unusually high-powered blend of politics and business. Not only did they say yes, but at least one -- Clinton -- waived his usual $100,000 speaking fee.

A five-page agenda obtained by The Times reveals what management experts and company insiders say is a testament to Murdoch's unusual global vision and a product of his ownership of newspapers in Australia, New York and Britain, broadcast properties and cable channels such as Fox News and satellite TV services that reach every corner of the world.

"Murdoch has created a global media market by successfully operating in very different regulatory and political environments," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. The retreat's lineup of speakers, she said, "may tell you how he has learned about the broad base of business environments he operates in."

News Corp. declined to discuss details of the program. According to the agenda, Murdoch will make some opening remarks Sunday evening before turning over the podium to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who in turn will introduce Blair.

Over the next several days, Peres will appear on a panel called "Islam and the West" and News Corp.'s Roger Ailes, who built Fox News, will introduce four high-ranking U.S. military officers who have served in Iraq. Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican and presidential hopeful, will talk about America's political polarity, and Clinton will conduct a town-hall-style discussion as the gathering wraps up Thursday.

"It's not your standard cookie-cutter management conference where you only talk about business," News Corp. spokesman Andrew Butcher said. "The businesses we run give our people unique social responsibilities in their communities. The retreat is meant to provoke and broaden their perspectives so they return home more curious and informed about the world."

What's in it for the politicians? That's simple, Jamieson said: "Media influence and the potential for political contributions."

Murdoch, a staunch Republican, contributed $41,000 to federal political campaigns during the 2004 elections, and News Corp. President Peter Chernin, a Democrat, donated $53,000, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. News Corp.'s political action committee gave nearly $360,000 to House and Senate candidates in the 2003-04 elections, according to PoliticalMoneyLine.

News Corp. said politicians who currently hold office would not be paid for their participation. Jamieson said that paying them would have posed a potential conflict of interest given their influence on media regulation.

Company executives said Clinton waived his fee because of personal ties to the company; News Corp. Executive Vice President Gary Ginsberg was a lawyer in the Clinton White House. Also, despite his conservative leanings, Murdoch, who owns the New York Post, hosted a fundraiser last week for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D.-N.Y.).

World politics will not be the only topic on the agenda. A.G. Lafley, chief executive of Procter & Gamble, will lecture on building brands. A panel called "Meet the MySpace Generation" is billed as a "live focus group" that will explore the attitudes and lifestyles of 20 students. General Manager Billy Beane of the Oakland A's baseball team will talk about radical approaches to traditional business. And the LAPD's Bratton will be joined on his panel about reforming institutions by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers.

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