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Murdoch! Read all about him!

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.

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“ ‘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.

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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.)

Where Wolff, for all his breathless, irritating mannerisms, does excel is in his acute eye for the various accouterments of status as instructive social detail and in his flawless ear for the dramatic in the ebb and flow of business deals. Nobody currently working at business journalism describes the actual art of the deal with quite Wolff’s engaging verve. His account of the dialogue across the table during the secret lunch in which Murdoch proffered Dow Jones head Richard Zannino the offer for the Journal ultimately accepted by the Bancroft family is worth the price of the book.

Perhaps most instructive, Wolff has melded interview and observation into what might be called a plausible theory of Murdoch. In any specific situation, it is Murdoch’s habit to play the role of the coldest, most dispassionate intellect in the room -- impervious to sentiment or fellow feeling, relentlessly focused on the bottom line. There’s power in that sort of detached objectivity, but Wolff has gone beyond it to identify the paradox that Murdoch frequently deploys in the service of essentially irrational strategic objectives. He pursues particular institutions and power generally for no better reason than desiring it. He wants what he wants and doesn’t feel accountable to anyone or anything for its pursuit. What’s genuinely powerful about that combination is it makes you essentially unpredictable when everyone else assumes you’re coldbloodedly rational.

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Wolff also shrewdly paints Murdoch’s greatest strength not as his mastery of any of his businesses -- including his beloved newspapers --but of human weakness. He seized control of the Journal because he carefully studied the rather troubled Bancroft family and trolled assiduously for signs and gossip of dysfunction and defection. His timing was impeccable because it was based on that smarmy intelligence and because he’d keenly appraised a weak family’s desire to both lay down the burden of running the Journal and further enrich itself with money it hadn’t earned. It was entirely reminiscent of Murdoch’s epochal realization that what tabloid readers really wanted was a combination of sleaze and sanctimony that has become the genre’s signature.

In fact, what Wolff ultimately paints is a portrait of Murdoch as not just the preeminent tabloid journalist of our age but perhaps its first tabloid business giant -- a consummate miner of human weakness from the newsstand to the boardroom, an idiot savant who instinctively understands people want a justification for giving into their lowest impulses.

And beyond winning, what does Murdoch get out of all this probing and acquiring? At heart, he too remains a tabloid proprietor. Two of Wolff’s telling anecdotes make the case strikingly: An unnamed News Corp. executive told the author that Murdoch went to the bar of London’s Dorchester Hotel the day after Princess Diana died in 1997. Murdoch “was obviously shaken by what the death would mean to Fleet Street” and proceeded to get drunk “on a bottle of French Chardonnay, passed out, and had to be carried out to Harry’s Bar around the corner, where he was due to meet a group of bankers.” Why this grief from a lifelong anti-monarchist? The answer, of course, was that “the internal cash flow of News Corporation [had become] highly dependent on the [tabloid] Sun’s obsession with Diana.” Later, when Wolff asked Murdoch whether he should vote for Sen. John McCain, whom the mogul supported and who was endorsed by News Corp.'s New York Post, or for Sen. Barack Obama, the mogul unhesitatingly said “Obama” -- because he’d “sell more newspapers.”

In the end, for all its sympathetic edges and consciously softening details, the portrait of Murdoch that emerges from Wolff’s reporting calls to mind something less like the joke about his spirit and more like the picture Yeats recalled in one of his great late poems, “The Municipal Gallery Revisited.” The poet summons to mind the image of the politician Kevin O’Higgins, who was right about so much but who had his own best man executed as part of a reprisal against Republican irreconcilables. His “gentle questioning look,” Yeats wrote, “cannot hide a soul incapable of remorse or rest.”

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timothy.rutten@latimes.com


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