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BOOK REVIEW

Murdoch! Read all about him!

The Man Who Owns the News Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch Michael Wolff Broadway: 464 pp., $29.95

December 03, 2008|Tim Rutten | Rutten is a Times staff writer.

A year or so ago, at a dinner of media executives and a few journalists, one of the guests told this joke:

"Rupert Murdoch, asleep in the middle of the night, is awakened by a flash of light. He sits up, rubs his eyes and sees Satan standing at the foot of his bed.

" 'What are you doing here?' the mogul demands.

" 'I have come to offer you any deal you can imagine,' the devil responds.

" 'What do you want in return?' says Murdoch, clearly intrigued.

" 'You can have any deal in the world you can imagine,' replies Satan, 'and, in return, all I ask is your immortal soul.'

" 'Any deal?' asks a skeptical Murdoch.

" 'Any deal,' purrs the devil, 'but in return, I take your soul.'

" 'Hmmm,' muses Murdoch, 'what's the catch?' "

If you spent any time around Hollywood a few years ago, you might have heard the same story told about Michael Ovitz, then head of CAA. With or without satanic assistance, the super-agent's dreams of world domination ultimately came to naught, but as Michael Wolff's often fascinating, sometimes frustrating new biography, "The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch," shows, the 77-year-old head of News Corp. still is at the top of his game.

Wolff, who is a bit of an Internet entrepreneur himself, writes about media and culture for Vanity Fair, and one of his book's strengths is his decision to structure it like an extended magazine article. He uses Murdoch's purchase of Dow Jones and its corporate crown jewel, the Wall Street Journal, in 2007 to provide a genuinely gripping narrative spine to his account. Along the way, he weaves in the story of Murdoch's rather eventful life. Much will be familiar to people who have casually followed the dreadful mogul's career or who read British journalist William Shawcross' sympathetic biography back in the early 1990s. There's the usual stuff about the Australian-born Murdoch's being shipped off to a posh boarding school, where he was rejected as a coarse outsider; about his undergraduate education at Oxford, where he was rejected as a coarse outsider; about his initial foray onto Fleet Street, where he was rejected as a coarse, self-seeking outsider; and into the American market, where he was . . . well, you get the picture.

Wolff, who likes Murdoch because they share a basic fondness for newspapers and a distaste for most of the people who run them, persuaded the mogul to sit for more than 50 hours of interviews and to give him access to his children and associates. There's lots of good material there, particularly on Murdoch's 39-year-old wife, Wendi Deng, who appears to have shifted her husband's politics slightly left. Actually, and despite his association with Fox News and the Weekly Standard, Murdoch's politics seem to shift with his interests. These days he's as comfortable with Tony Blair as he is with the Chinese Communist Party. What's fascinating in this part of Wolff's account is the way that Murdoch -- King Lear-like -- seems to be setting his progeny off for just the sort of dynasty-wrangling he's exploited in so many other companies, including Dow Jones.

There's something amusing about hearing that old Hollywood joke about Ovitz recycled to involve Murdoch, because during his brief interregnum as an "entertainment executive," he lived here and loathed the place and its people. Wolff is particularly good on that brief phase in the Murdoch rampage toward world domination. Despite Fox's contribution to News Corp.'s bottom line ("Titanic" scored for the studio during this period), Murdoch "hates the Hollywood people. They hate him. Not least of all because he gets on a roll telling them how much he hates them. . . . Murdoch . . . scowls when stars are brought into his presence, turns irritable, charmless -- he keeps reminding everybody about it being hismoney. . . . He doesn't like movie people."

Someone with the sophisticated insider's knowledge of the industry's executive suites (that this reviewer lacks) probably should assess Wolff's account of Murdoch's increasingly strained relations with his Hollywood satrap, the politically liberal Peter Chernin. Suffice to say, a certain strain would be of a piece with Murdoch's history of fearing overdependence on key subordinates, however loyal and accomplished. (Early reports on Wolff's book have drawn attention to similar claims about the mogul's relations with Fox News head Roger Ailes and its cable star, Bill O'Reilly. It's possible that what Murdoch really dislikes is not dependence but sharing the spotlight. One of the comfortable things about the newspaper industry is that it doesn't usually create stars with the wattage to outshine their bosses.)

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