Media moguls aren't what they used to be.
With his theft of eight CBS television affiliates two weeks ago, Rupert Murdoch elbowed his Fox network into the company of the Big Three and himself quite possibly into the pantheon of media giants alongside Louis B. Mayer, William Randolph Hearst and William S. Paley--to name but three legends. Yet, one can't help but feel that Murdoch, whose tentacles coil around movies, newspapers, television and broadcast satellites, doesn't quite belong in that company.
It's not that he is more rapacious than they were--for the old media chieftains were all rapacious; or that he is any more autocratic or even that he is less charming, less congenial, less interesting. No, the real difference between Murdoch and his media forebears--the real reason he represents not so much a continuation of a tradition of incorrigible scalawags as the end of that tradition--is that he seems so much less romantic .
Romance, of course, may seem a peculiar word to use with business. U.S. history is filled with sordid tales of ruthless robber barons, and even our businessmen-heroes are known more for their tenacity than their decency. Media kings are no exception. In their day, and even in ours, Mayer, Hearst, Paley and the rest were often reviled as profiteering despoilers of the old genteel culture rather than as the architects of a new mass culture.
But the media kings have also come to possess a certain romantic aura that steel barons, auto magnates and oil tycoons don't have--an aura that has only grown brighter through our nostalgia for old movies and the yellow press. We tend to see them as out-sized buccaneers who bullied their way through society selling dreams, purveying values, creating taste and fashion. If not good men, they were big men. They were certainly a different kind of businessman from the pallid bean-counters who ran other industries.
The movie moguls were flamboyant Eastern European Jewish immigrants or the sons of immigrants. Insecure about their acceptance as Americans, they came to the movies not simply for profit. Rather, movies were a way for them to achieve their dreams of assimilation. In their movies they created an alternative America that idealized the real America; they created their own cinematic utopia.
Hearst, who owned a vast media empire of newspapers, radio stations and a film production company, wasn't a struggling immigrant, but his properties were no less a means to an end. Hearst had grand ambitions. He would have loved to be President, and his newspapers were evidently acquired to help him achieve that.
But even as his electoral dreams faded, Hearst used his papers to promulgate his strange political agenda that freely blended noisy populism with stony reactionism. If Hearst hadn't the need to spread his word, he probably wouldn't have built the media empire he did. For him, it was a matter of utter devotion.
Paley, who founded CBS radio and then CBS television, had neither an artistic nor a political temperament. His was social. The son of a Russian immigrant cigar manufacturer, Paley grew up with an acute sense of his own social inferiority. For him, money was a way to buy status. But by accumulating high-priced talent and especially by developing a highly regarded news division, he used his radio and TV properties to elevate his status. Media did what cigars never could.
The similarity among Mayer, Hearst and Paley--and most of the other great media pioneers--was that their investment in the industry was personal: a drive, a need, a passion. It was the enactment of this passion through the instruments of their media that made them so interesting and their properties so much a personal extension of themselves. The way their own needs translated the culture's helped make them both so instrumental and so powerful. Here was not only profit. Here was desperate love.
It is hard to detect any comparable drive in Murdoch. He was born into the media, the son of a powerful Australian newspaper executive, and he was born into wealth. Though he clearly harbors some class antagonism, particularly toward the disdainful English, a young tutor of his at Oxford told Murdoch biographer William Shawcross that Murdoch "has no sense of class nuances."
There isn't any detectable inferiority complex in Murdoch, either--or any obvious demons within. He isn't messianic as Hearst was, and his reactionary politics seem driven by self-interest rather than ideological conviction. Even the famous sensationalism of his tabloids seems more a merchandising ploy than an attempt to rankle the Establishment. If his life was forged by anything, it might be the Australian newspaper-circulation wars, with the credo, "Anything for money."
Murdoch is an agglomerator. He has brilliantly parlayed a single newspaper in Adelaide, Australia, that his father left him into an empire that includes not only the Fox movie studio and TV network but the HarperCollins publishing house, magazines, information services, even Barnes & Noble bookstores. He apparently wants to be the toll collector on the information superhighway. But there is nothing out-sized about him; even the anecdotes concerning him seem paltry. He is a visionary without a vision--an industrialist rather than an impresario.
In their heydays, you could read any Hearst paper, see any MGM movie, watch any CBS news broadcast and instantly recognize its provenance because the men who owned them were evident in their work. Murdoch is known for his sleaze--especially in his tabloids like the New York Post and the British Sun--but there is little else one can call Murdoch ness in his properties, little that is identifiable as his, save the vast, bloodless scale of his ventures. He is virtually anonymous.
In fairness to Murdoch, however, he is as much a creature of the new media environment as he is a creator of it. When the old media empires were built, they emanated glamour and excitement--not least because the public understood that movies, tabloids, radio shows and TV answered deep-seated cultural needs, primarily the need for a sense of cultural enfranchisement for the great mass of Americans.
I don't get any sense that the public is awaiting the information superhighway with baited breath--it is less a national dream than a dream of technocrats and businessmen who stand to profit from it. There is no romantic appeal to the information superhighway because it is not about expressing needs or democratizing the culture. Like Murdoch himself, it is about money and power.
During the '80s, the business community and conservative press tried to persuade us that money and power were the engine of all things good. But when we compare a Murdoch with a Mayer, we cannot help but see that obsession with the bottom line, with accumulation as an end rather than a means, has driven out the romance and given us sour egomaniacs like Murdoch rather than expansive egomaniacs like Mayer, Hearst and Paley.
What the '80s and '90s have in Murdoch is the new industrial man for the new media age. He dreams only of money and power. He dreams not of love.*