Rupert Murdoch?s Reality News: Get It While It?s Hot!

“Leper Rapes Virgin, Gives Birth To Monster Baby” -early Murdoch headline

By Greg O'Brien, Codfish Press

murdoch_w_wife1_303_01The button down collars at the Wall Street Journal are popping with news that an Aussie who earlier in his career earned the nickname, “Thanks-for-the-mammary Murdoch,” might be holding the conch at one of the nation’s m0st respected papers. Years ago with Rupert Murdoch’s first issue of The (London) Sun, the paper began running photos of young women nude to the waist on page three. Within a year, circulation had swelled from 800,000 to 2 million. In 1960, as reported 24 years ago in a Boston Magazine profile, Murdoch (shown on right with his wife) commenced his publishing empire with the purchase of the Sydney Daily and Sunday Mirror, and turned the paper into a money maker, using hard-sell pictures of sexy women, and headlines like: “Leper Rapes Virgin, Gives Birth To Monster Baby.”

All fair and balanced, of course.

Today the more mainstream Murdoch and his News Corp, owners of a range of media from Fox News to the New York Post, are making a $5 billion pitch for Dow Jones & Company—a bid, some say, designed to earn a glaze of media respectability. But over James W. Ottaway’s stiff corpse. The minority owner in Dow Jones and a member of the Ottaway Newspaper family (parent of The Cape Cod Times), declared recently of the potential takeover,  “As an investor, I would be very concerned to live in an era of making investment decisions based on the Murdoch-filtered business information.” He told The New York Times, “As a citizen, I would be afraid to live in a world where news is solely entertainment, and there is an agenda behind every story I read, watch or hear.”

Reality News ; It’s all about control, profit, titillation

And that’s just the point. As the media falls into the hands of a select few, daily and weekly newspapers, magazines and television stations—once the first draft of history—are now just commodities for ad revenue, entertainment and personal agendas. Welcome to Reality News. It’s all about control, profit and titillation. Sadly, with other mega media mergers on the horizon, more venerable institutional memories will likely fade in time, and today’s often-junk entrée of news will be seen as fine dining.

“There’s a market out there for papers that are not ashamed to include some human interest, that are not ashamed to entertain people,” Murdoch told me years ago in a Boston Magazine interview.

Murdoch probably never met the late Henry Beetle Hough, author of the classic work, Country Editor, who guided the august Martha’s Vineyard Gazette for a half century. “Instead of being qualified in a profession, it seems to me that I have taken root in a place,” Hough once wrote.

Murdoch is still looking for his. Many hope he doesn’t find it at the Wall Street Journal, although some media observers are now declaring, “it’s a done deal,” according to a recent Walter Brooks report in Cape Cod Today. Money talks—screams, in fact, like a Murdoch front-page headline—and conventional Wall Street wisdom is bracing for the bottom line, both financially and in poor taste. Writing in Saturday’s The New York Times, columnist Joe Nocera notes that the overall neglect of the Bancroft family, which owns 52 percent of the Dow Jones company voting shares, “has hurt the company they all profess to love and made Rupert Murdoch’s bid possible.”

From the start, Keith Rupert Murdoch seemed destined to fight. Gleaned from a Boston Magazine piece I wrote years ago, some background on the potential new owner of Dow Jones might be enlightening. Least we forget.

Born March 11, 1931, in Melbourne, Australia, he inherited from his father a tradition of winning against fierce competition. His father. Sir Keith, was a celebrated World War I correspondent who later became head of Australia’s largest newspaper chain. His mother, Dame Elizabeth, was honored through the British Empire for her work in welfare.

One of four children, Rupert spent his early years at the family’s comfortable Melbourne estate, Cruden Farm, an imposing stone building with Colonial-style pillars at the end of a long drive of gum trees.  According to Current Biography, a prime source on Murdoch’s life, Rupert at 10 was sent off to the elite Geelong Grammar School, the Australian counterpart of Eton. He then went on to Oxford where he studied economics and politics. His father died in 1952 while Rupert was at Oxford. After Oxford Murdoch stayed on in England to work with Lord Beaverbrook, (a close friend of his father’s) as an assistant editor on the London Daily Express. Two years later, Murdoch returned to Australia to take charge of the moribund, marginally profitable Aledaide News, an afternoon paper his father had left to the family. The young editor had indeed learned some pizzazz on Fleet Street, and soon the paper was a financial success. In the early days Murdoch himself wrote the headlines, usually large, lurid blocks of black print blaring of murder, horror and sex. In 1956, Murdoch expanded, and an empire was born. He bought a Sunday newspaper in Perth for $400,000 and four years later entered the competitive daily newspaper world of Sydney—purchasing the Sydney Daily and Sunday Mirror for $4 million. Everyone thought Murdoch would fall on his derriere (a recurring expectation), but he never did, and probably never will in financial terms. Instead, he turned the Sunday paper into a money-maker and the daily into Sydney’s top-selling afternoon paper—using hard sell, pictures of sexy women and racy headlines.

Murdoch's “T&A” approach to the news

In 1964 Murdoch established his country’s first national paper, the Australian—a curious cross between the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Unlike his tabloids and other sensational newspaper, it featured national and international news, investigative reporting, and local information of a serious nature. By 1968 his holdings were estimated at $50 million. Year after year, Murdoch brought papers back from the grave, usually with a dark regimen of sex, crime and scandal. It was to become a trademark.

sunmirrorchiskeeler_311Looking for a new challenge, Murdoch in 1969 turned to London where the News of the World was up for sale. He gained control of the paper, something of a British institution, and shored up its 6 million circulation with such features as the candid memoirs of a political call girl named Christine Keeler (see Sunday Mirror of the era on right). With News in the black, Murdoch then began shopping around for a daily in London. The Sun, a stuffy broadsheet that was losing $5 million a year, was up for sale. Murdoch bought it for a $120,000 down payment and a month later converted it to a tabloid with loud headlines, a spate of hard news, and serials like “The Sensuous Woman” and “The Love Machine.” With its first issue, the Sun began running photos of young women nude to the waste. Murdoch was roundly denounced in more established centers of journalism for his “T&A” approach to the news. But like a young male in heat, there was no stopping him.

“Uncle Tortures Tots with Hot Forks”

In 1973 Murdoch expanded his empire to the United States with the $18 million purchase of the San Antonio Express and the San Antonio News. He made few changes in the Express, but concentrated, instead, on the afternoon News, which competed head-on with the Hearst-owned tabloid, the San Antonio Light. Yet again, applying his old formula, Murdoch eliminated most of the serious news and emphasized sports and stories of sex. Splashing up his front page, he began running headlines like “Uncle Tortures Tots with Hot Forks.”

Next, Murdoch launched a supermarket tabloid to compete with the National Enquirer. The National Star was filled with gossip, self-help, and bizarre stories—such as the one about killer bees, which led with: “Ferocious swarms of man-killing bees are buzzing their way toward North America.”

Motivated by power, money, and the desire to run a publishing conglomerate that stretched, slithered in some places, over three continents, Murdoch surprised New Yorkers in November 1976 by announcing that he had purchased the New York Post, the oldest continuously published daily in the United States. He paid then-owner Dorothy Schiff $32 million for the liberal, gray tabloid that Alexander Hamilton had founded in 1801.

“The format will stay the same, and the political policies will stay unchanged,” Murdoch promised at the time. He vowed that the Post would continue to be a “serious newspaper.”

“We will be very competitive…There will be nothing startling about the Post. It won’t be that different,” he said.

Murdoch was at least right on the competitive part. Give people what they want—an editorial field of dreams: if you build it, they will come.

Asked years ago in a Boston Magazine interview to respond to critics who say that some of his papers have been little more than a collection of sex, crime and scandal,” Murdoch told me, “I think it’s unfair stereotyping. There’s a tendency today to judge tabloids by more traditional standards of journalism. There’s an elitist attitude out there. One problem is that journalism students today are taught that papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post are the models, that what those papers do is responsible and what someone else does is irresponsible. By the time those kids are on the street (looking for work), they have a cynical approach to anything that is not traditional.”

Murdoch, no doubt, is a catalyst for change. “You can't be an outsider and be successful… without leaving a certain amount of scar tissue around the place,” one on-line biography quotes Murdoch as saying.

If the Dow Jones deal is ultimately consummated, there will likely in time—in spite of all of Murdoch’s reassurances to the contrary—be enough scar tissue at the Wall Street Journal to create another Mary Shelley thriller.

obrien80_99Greg O’Brien is a former senior writer at Boston Magazine, the author/editor of several books, and a contributor to regional and national publications. Part of this column was excerpted from a Boston Magazine piece written by O’Brien when Murdoch acquired the old Boston Herald American. O’Brien had been a political and investigative reporter at the paper.

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