Rupert, thanks but no bet
I turned down a $1 million bet with Rupert Murdoch.
The opportunity for such a bonanza arose after Advertising Age published a front-page story last week reporting that Mr. Murdoch was sounding out buyers for TV Guide.
Mr. Murdoch, of course, paid $3 billion two years ago for Triangle Publications, the parent company of TV Guide, in one of the biggest media deals ever, and the publication has continued to lose ad pages and circulation under his control.
The Australian media baron did not take kindly to our story, which his general counsel depicted as "a blatant fabrication."
The article, faxed Lawrence B. Kessler, "constitutes an intentional interference with the business relations of the News Corp. Ltd. and News America Publishing Inc. I demand that you provide me with the identity of the sources, if any, who provided your reporter with this scurrilous gossip."
The Murdoch crowd are tough-talking guys. A few years back, we had a run-in with one of his minions at a meeting. This executive used exceedingly foul language so many times in describing Advertising Age's coverage of Murdoch activities that we finally got up and walked out of the room.
Back in those days Murdoch had canceled all his advertising with us for alleged slights to his publishing prowess.
I guess I should have taken his bet because that would have more than made up for the $100,000 we're scheduled to lose when he cancels his advertising again because of our TV Guide story.
Oh well, as my Dad always said, that 's the cost of doing business.
Actually, my day dealing with the explosion set off by the story began cordially enough. I got a call from Leslie Hinton, president of Murdoch Magazines, who was most civil in denying our story. "I'm a newspaper man myself," he told me, "and I know you've got to stick by your story. But I want you to know there's not an ounce of truth to it."
Rupert was more direct.
"This is Rupert Murdoch and you've done it to me again," he started off. I couldn't tell where he was calling from, but it sounded as if he might have been somewhere over Australia.
He said in the course of our conversation that we never called him to confirm our story. (We did but he was, as always, unavailable. We quoted "a company spokesman" as saying, "News America Publishing categorically denies TV Guide is for sale. It is a rumor that is ridiculous and silly.")
I told Mr. Murdoch that we did not rush into print with our story. Joe Cappo, Ad Age 's publisher, got the original tip, but it took reporter Scott Donaton three weeks to pin it down with people who were in a position to know.
Rupert then proposed his bet. At the time I thought it was a spur-of -the-moment gesture but now I think it was a carefully constructed ploy to get me to reveal our sources – which he of all people should have known we would never do.
After he hung up, his public relations man, Howard Rubenstein, was all set to put out a release on the bet. Ironically, I first had it played back to me from a reporter on Murdoch's own newspaper, the Boston Herald. In quick succession I heard from USA Today, the New York Daily News, Associated Press, the Chicago Tribune and Magazine Week, all wanting to know more details on the $1 million bet.
The press was taking the whole thing as a joke, but let me tell you that Mr. Murdoch, when he phoned me, wasn't in a joking mood. He ended our conversation, "The hell with you. I'm never talking to you again."
What I don't get is this: By proposing the bet to me, and by publicizing it through his own PR apparatus, Mr. Murdoch was calling more attention to the story than it normally would have gotten.
Could it be that Mr. Murdoch, in his own unique style, was trying to drum up buyers for TV Guide after his earlier, lower-key efforts had failed?