Rupert Murdoch, unlike many CEOs, did not make his reputation, or build his business, as an outside man—a smooth talking, limelight-seeking, frequently speechifying, walking-advertisement for his company and products. More naturally, Murdoch has glowered and cursed and been entirely uninterested in what people think about him. He has seen his job as beating the world, not convincing it.
But, curiously, he’s now giving talks and testimonials at every opportunity. The other day, he was in Washington
for a public interview with Marvin Kalb (a journalist even older than Murdoch himself), largely about how newspapers ought to stamp out search engines.
Now whereas those sales-oriented, glad-handing CEOs usually enjoy public appearance and are good at them, Murdoch is terribly resistant. He’s incredibly nervous before each speech; he tries to practice, but with great frustration and great recriminations toward whomever got him to agree to do it. As often as not—not least of all because he doesn’t like to practice—he delivers a stumbling, disjointed, and often puzzling performance. (This has been his pattern since 1969, when he did his first television interview, with David Frost, and sputtered and backtracked and was shown to be making outlandish and transparently false claims—vowing, afterward, never to appear on television again.) His interview with Kalb was similarly odd and even somewhat alarming. After claiming that Fox News, unlike CNN, had an ideologically mixed group of anchors, he was unable to name a liberal at Fox—"I wish I could tell you a couple of names. But they are certainly there”—until finally he hit upon Greta Van Susteren, the Scientologist who is about as liberal as…well…Murdoch.
So why is he doing what he so dislikes and what he’s so obviously bad at?
For one thing, his longtime lieutenant and most effective handler, Gary Ginsberg, was forced out of the company late last year by Murdoch’s son, James, who wanted more control over his father. Ginsberg had both carefully counseled Murdoch on his public persona and thoroughly coached him when he had to make an appearance. Then, too, the company’s COO, Peter Chernin, also a careful steward of the Murdoch brand (with a special understanding of its downside), was forced out last summer.
Now, without adequate restraints, he has begun a one-man campaign. He genuinely believes that he has something important to say, and if he doesn’t say it, nobody will. About that last point, he’s quite right. He’s taken a position inside his own company and industry which pretty much everybody else is, at best, sheepish about: that newspapers will prevail, that the Google guys are crooks, that the Internet is the devil’s workshop.
It is not just that there’s no one to stop him. He’s also being encouraged by his son, James. James is his heir apparent and cultivates an air of menace and rudeness, which he seems to believe his actually tongue-tied father embodies. He’s encouraging his father to be more pugnacious than he is.
And then there is the other reason he is being encouraged by his son and other executives to get out there and carry the flag for troglodytism: It keeps him out of their hair.
The truth is that very little of Murdoch’s business involves the Internet, or paywalls, or even newspapers. But if Rupert wants to occupying himself fighting that war, it works for everyone.
More of Newser founder Michael Wolff's articles and commentary can be found at VanityFair.com, where he writes a regular column. He can be emailed at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter: @MichaelWolffNYC.