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Bold moves are the norm for Murdoch

His News Corp.'s startling $5-billion offer for Dow Jones is emblematic of his style of doing business.

May 02, 2007|James Bates | Times Staff Writer

Last week, Rupert Murdoch sat among the Los Angeles audience watching "American Idol," his Fox network's ratings phenomenon.

Tuesday, it was Murdoch himself commandeering a national stage with an audacious $5-billion bid for Wall Street Journal owner Dow Jones & Co., garnering some reviews that might even make "Idol's" acerbic judge Simon Cowell wince.

Some of his News Corp. shareholders cringed at the price he was willing to pay for an old-media company. The family that controls Dow Jones said no thanks. And some reporters bemoaned the idea that such a brash conservative partisan like Murdoch could take control of such a prestigious journalistic jewel as the Wall Street Journal.

Not that it matters to Murdoch. At 76, he continues to relish bold deals that make sense to him even if the price or logic of his strategy is fuzzy to others. "If he wants something, he moves fast and he's usually right," said Robert Daly, former chairman of Warner Bros. who was News Corp.'s partner when it owned the Los Angeles Dodgers. "His track record is pretty good, and I wouldn't bet against him."

Murdoch has been doing business this way for more than half a century. His course was charted by his father, Keith, who declared in his will that he wanted his then college-age son to "have the great opportunity of spending a useful, altruistic and full life in newspaper and broadcasting activities."

Murdoch parlayed the tiny Australian newspaper business that he inherited from his dad into a global media giant through a succession of gambits.

When he launched Fox network in the 1980s, many observers gave it little chance against CBS, NBC and ABC. When he launched Fox News channel in the 1990s, it was seen as a longshot to dethrone CNN. There was more naysaying when he acquired the parent of Critics said the deal was fraught with risk because young Internet users were fickle.

But more often than not, doubts about Murdoch's deals evaporate. As Murdoch himself told Neil Cavuto of Fox News on Tuesday, "Often when I have made big moves, the shares have gone down a bit, only to go up a lot more later on."

Not that he doesn't have stains on his track record. He overpaid for TV Guide in the 1980s, spending about $3 billion for the magazine that would soon be in decline and two other publications. His ill-fated acquisition of the Pasadena-based media technology company Gemstar was a multi-billion-dollar disaster.

Murdoch's bid to acquire Dow Jones is part of a larger strategy. Murdoch has struggled to start a business news channel to rival General Electric Co.'s CNBC. Owning the nation's leading financial news group would presumably jump-start that effort, giving the new network the kind of credibility and heft it needs.

It would further his goal of turning News Corp. into a digital information powerhouse. This week, Murdoch is scheduled to host a retreat near his Carmel ranch, where he sometimes escapes with his family to ride horses. On the agenda: ways his newspapers can adapt to the digital age.

Although Murdoch's empire includes movie studios, TV networks and Internet sites, newspapers remain his love. He has been known to call in tips and nix headlines he found boring. It was widely reported that Murdoch was the source of an embarrassing tip that led the New York Post to erroneously declare in 2004 that John Kerry had selected Richard Gephardt as his running mate. Murdoch called the reports "garbage."

Murdoch's media empire makes many enemies, as his Fox News and newspapers such as the New York Post have skewered rivals, celebrities and liberal politicians. Columbia Journalism Review once called his operation "Murdoch's Mean Machine." In person, however, he defies stereotype, with a voice that is often quiet and sometimes trails off inaudibly. He once parodied himself in a cameo on Fox's "The Simpsons," introducing himself to Homer Simpson and his friends as "Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire tyrant" and shouting "Silence, mortals!" at them.

In fact, Murdoch runs News Corp. with a group of trusted aides led by President Peter Chernin. Around News Corp., he is known as "KRM," for his given name, Keith Rupert Murdoch. For years, his rivals in the media have made a sport of handicapping which of his three adult children from his second marriage will be his heir . Oldest son, Lachlan was once considered the likely successor , but youngest son James is now viewed as the front-runner ahead of daughter Elisabeth. Murdoch has a daughter from his first marriage, and two young children with his current wife, Wendi, a former News Corp. television executive who has been asserting herself within the company.

For Murdoch, the lifetime of deals has brought a fortune estimated by Forbes to be $7.7 billion and a Fifth Avenue apartment once owned by Laurence Rockefeller that he bought for $44 million in 2004.

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