NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- I've known Michael Wolff since the summer of 1998, when I was an editor at New York magazine. I took him out to lunch after I assigned one of my writers, Jim Surowiecki (now of The New Yorker), to profile Michael upon the publication of his early web-boom-and-bust memoir, "Burn Rate." It didn't take me long to convince Michael that he should become New York's media columnist; his very first column was about Rupert Murdoch.
Though Michael and I don't work together anymore (I left New York mag, he went to Vanity Fair, though I did edit a rough draft of his Murdoch biography, "The Man Who Owns the News," last year, and I've guest-blogged at Michael's news-aggregator site, Newser), we still talk about media all the time -- especially this week, once again about Murdoch.
In just the past five days, the News Corp. chief was attacked at length in The New York Times ("Murdoch's Soft Spot for Print Slows News Corp."); continued to suffer fallout, including a protest at New York's City Hall, over the New York Post's publication of a cartoon many perceived to be a racist attack on President Barack Obama; personally apologized for the cartoon after the Post's own half-apology proved insufficient; faced the resignation of his longtime second-in-command, Peter Chernin (who announced he'll be leaving in June); and had to endure the spectacle of gossip legend Liz Smith, freshly laid-off New York Post columnist, loudly declaring that the tabloid, under Murdoch's ownership, has been a tone-deaf interloper, not a true New York paper. To top it off, news broke that Rupert's daughter Elisabeth recently turned down a seat on the News Corp. board.
For this latest edition of Dumenco's Media People, a portion of my conversation with Michael Wolff:
Simon Dumenco: You've done the rounds -- two nights in a row on Keith Olbermann, "Hardball," a blog post titled "Chimp Writes NY Post Editor's Obit" on your own Newser site -- driving home the point that old Murdoch hand, Col Allan, who runs the Post, is doomed. His career is basically over, you keep saying. His brand, such that it was, is forever tarnished. But what about the Post itself; how lasting is the damage to the brand there? And to News Corp. overall? And the damage to Murdoch's personal brand?
Michael Wolff: It's hard to imagine that the Post, after so many years of political incorrectness and mean-spirtedness and general joie de guerre will forever suffer from even this particularly bad-taste cartoon. But what the Post will suffer from, and why it is so weak now that Murdoch is apologizing on its behalf, is its owner's greater interest in The Wall Street Journal. In other words, it no longer has Rupert Murdoch's absolute support. That's painful. As for damaging Murdoch's personal brand, that's a funny thought. Can the devil be demonized?
Dumenco: [laughs] Good point. On the other hand, in your book, you go to great lengths to describe Murdoch's late-in-life transformation into a less scary, more compassionate, more open-minded person -- the Wendi Effect: His marriage to a younger, liberal woman with lots of liberal friends made ol' Rupert go a little soft.
Wolff: I do believe the old man has substantially mellowed. That's due to Wendi but also to his children, and to the fact that this tabloid publisher is now, much more regally, the publisher of The Wall Street Journal. He's not only mellowed, he's changing his business model. He has higher concerns than a New York Post street fight. So it's not that Murdoch's brand was damaged but that he's repositioning his brand. Also, honestly, I think he has a little crush on the new president.
Dumenco: Well, I remember Murdoch saying at last summer's AllThingsD conference that he was behind the New York Post's primary endorsement of Obama over Hillary Clinton, calling him, rather gushingly, a "rock star." At that point he hadn't met Obama yet, but in your book, you describe their later mano a mano meeting, and the way that Obama held his own against the old man, which I guess impressed him. But if Murdoch really thought he could further cozy up to Obama, that's done now, isn't it?
Wolff: Well, Murdoch doesn't ever really "cozy up." He rather waits for politicians to cozy up to him. Tony Blair courted Murdoch, not the other way around. Then Tony and Wendi became friends, and the Blairs and the Murdochs became a happy family. Rupert will leave the door ajar and wait for Barack to need him -- which he will.
Dumenco: I guess it's clear that Murdoch doesn't think he needs anyone -- except maybe his children, to carry on his legacy. Let's talk about his letting Peter Chernin, his second-in-command, slip away, a move you called "counterintuitive, even dopey." Astonishingly, he's decided he's going to do Chernin's job now, rather than replace him, to keep the seat warm for one of his reluctant kids, I suppose. But what if it's not about Murdoch being "dopey," or even gutsy, but just old? I mean, he's going to be 78 next month, and in your book you portray him as a frequently foggy, constantly jet-lagged, mumble-mouthed old dude. I guess what I'm asking is: Is it possible Rupert's really losing it? Deteriorating mentally at a quickening pace, and thus making decisions that are bad for shareholders and incredibly scary for the future of the company?
Wolff: Naw. I mean, I think there's probably a heightened awareness on his part that he gets ever closer to the moment when someone will have to take over his job and, reaching that moment, he doesn't want a usurper -- like Chernin -- in an advantageous position. But his behavior now is not different than it's been throughout his long career. His shareholders are never his primary concern. He does what he wants to do -- even if that might appear to be counterintuitive or dopey. He wants what he wants. Indeed, in a way, his recent actions, including the purchase of Dow Jones, indicate a return to the old, deal-a-minute, risk-everything Rupert.
Dumenco: Murdoch does seem to get anything he wants -- except when it comes to his kids. My favorite stuff in your book, the funniest material, is about the dysfunction of his children, and their recurring resistance to bending to his will. So Rupert may feel entitled to a never-ending family dynasty, but will his kids grant that? Like, this week's news that Liz Murdoch declined a seat on the News Corp. board --
Wolff: The nice thing about the Murdoch family is that it's really like every other family. The Murdochs both love and can't stand each other. But, as much to the point, they can't stand each other because they do love each other. They're so close that they have to get away, but, of course, just when they have gotten away, they're pulled back. There's a reason they've all become media executives instead of, say, doctors. They're fated to the family business.
Dumenco: It's a fun sideshow -- or, I guess, the main attraction, now that Chernin's out of the picture. OK, so maybe one of the Murdoch kids really is qualified to run the company after Rupert kicks it, but in the short term, what happens to the company? This week started out with that big New York Times piece that seemed designed to torture News Corp. -- portraying Murdoch as, basically, a crazy old man whose irrational fondness for newspapers is destroying the business. Hilarious coming from the Times, but still.
Wolff: First, it's certainly worth pointing out that the most politicized subject at The New York Times is Rupert Murdoch. It's virtual policy that you can't say anything nice about Rupert at the Times. That story was not just an example of the anti-Murdoch bias but a weird sort of inversion: telling the world Rupert Murdoch is in trouble for buying newspapers, so that he doesn't buy The New York Times.
Dumenco: I should have known better than to bring up the Times, get you started on the Times, seeing as the Times is threatening to sue Newser. OK, so I know you hate the Times and the Times hates you. I get it! [Wolff laughs.] Great. But go back -- go on about what happens to News Corp.
Wolff: What happens to News Corp. -- well, it has less debt and more cash in the bank than most media companies. That's good. On the other hand, its proprietor and controlling shareholder wants nothing so much as to be in the newspaper business, with his big dream to buy The New York Times. Since the Times now has a market cap of only a half billion dollars -- remember Rupert bought The Wall Street Journal for $5.6 billion -- that dream may well be at hand. So I think that's what happens: Rupert uses this general economic downturn, and this specific downturn in the newspaper business, to buy newspapers, The Wall Street Journal and the Times, that he could never have hoped to buy before. Investors and journalism students be damned.
Dumenco: But long live news aggregators, right? Speaking of which, does Murdoch know enough to hate Newser? Does he even know news aggregators exist? In your book you wrote about Wendi reading his late-night e-mail to him at home because he doesn't really use a computer.
Wolff: Sheesh. During my nine months of talking to Rupert [for the biography], I kept trying to bring up Newser. True, I knew he didn't use a computer, get e-mail, and couldn't work his cell phone. Still, I was genuinely curious about what this newspaper guy would think about the new news -- and, I confess, it crossed mind that perhaps he'd jump out of his seat, shout "Eureka!" and buy Newser. But every time I brought it up I got this walleyed stare, like I was using a whole set of words -- aggregator, news platform, search algorithm -- that were entirely foreign. It was literally impossible to cross this bridge with him. Alas.