As the former controller of several of the world’s best, or best-known, newspapers (the London Daily and Sunday Telegraphs, the Spectator, the Sydney Morning Herald, Melbourne’s Age, the Australian Financial Review, the National Post of Canada, the Jerusalem Post, the Chicago Sun-Times and scores of others), Conrad Black is well qualified to write a review of books about the press. He has the advantage, too, of having recently spent time in a federal
slammer where he should have learned a thing or two about human nature that helps with making a character assessment of those who publish the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and the New York Times. United States
You can make your own assessment by reading the lengthy review of three books - Sarah Ellison's War At the Wall Street Journal; David Kindred's Morning miracle: inside the Washington Post; and Gay Talese's The Kingdom and the power: behind the scenes at the New York Times – published on The National Interest. The following extracts about Rupert Murdoch will give you the flavour of a reviewer who has lost none of his sense of certainty following his financial collapse and the years inside.
Few of the key people from the three newspapers (and Black, when a fellow newspaper baron knew most of them personally) were :unusually interesting people to know, have dinner with or talk to.:
Murdoch, because he is probably the most successful media owner in history (so international, innovative and daring) and has, when he can be loosened up to part with them, a considerable store of astute and mordant aperçus, should be a bottomless storehouse of interest. But he is generally not overly forthcoming, rather monosyllabic, an enigma whose banter is nondescript bourgeois filler delivered in a mid-Pacific accent. His idea of humor is pretty coarse, in the Australian manner, without being very original, or very funny.
Murdoch has no discernible attachments to anyone or anything except the formidable company he has built. His periodic foraging trips for media attention (the oddly hoped-for story where he’s made to seem human) usually lead to hilarious fiascoes such as the journalist Michael Wolff’s effort at comradely biography combined with sophomoric mind reading, a sort of Charlie Rose approach in The Man Who Owns the News: phrases like “Rupert and I thought . . .” abound. Of course no one could possibly have the least interest in what—or if—Wolff thinks, and Wolff couldn’t have had any idea what was on Rupert’s mind because Rupert never lets anyone know what he’s thinking. Murdoch’s centenarian mother was “okay” (about as affectionate as it gets with Rupert); no business associate lasts long, except perhaps Michael Milken as an exotic financial guru, and economist Irwin Stelzer as a random and chatty, ersatz muse. Save for Ronald Reagan, he turned on every politician he ever supported in every country where he has operated; he discarded every loyal lieutenant, two wives and countless friendly acquaintances, as if he were changing his socks. Murdoch is a great white shark, who mumbles and furrows his brow compulsively, asks questions and listens, and occasionally breaks loose and has pictures taken of himself dressed in groovy black, pushing a baby stroller through Greenwich Village, or has stories written about his supposedly popish-leaning religiosity, published as humanizing touches, much like his orange-dyed hair, in the Sumner Redstone style.
Certainly Murdoch is interesting as a phenomenon if not as a person; a man who is airtight in his ruthlessness, unlimited in his ambition, with the iron nerves to have bet the company again and again. And although he has had some narrow escapes, he always emerges in fighting form. That story is fascinating, but he has the self-confidence never to try to impress people, is monotonous as a public speaker and unfathomable as a personality in regular conversation. Someone who could grasp and present the scope of Murdoch’s talents and ambitions could produce an interesting book, but it would have to be done by acute observation and intuition, and from a bit of altitude, because it is impossible to get anything but a banal smoke screen with occasional ripples of humor out of the man himself. I have long thought that his social philosophy was contained in his cartoon show, The Simpsons: all politicians and public officials are crooks, and the masses are a vast lumpen proletariat of deluded and exploitable blowhards. Almost all studies of Murdoch, including the reflections on him in Sarah Ellison’s book War at the Wall Street Journal on his takeover of the paper, where she was a reporter, are mosquito explorations around his shins, which is all he cares to reveal.