Rupert Murdoch—the dashing, daring, fearsome and fearless press baron, the mogul among moguls—will celebrate his 79th birthday next month. As he approaches his final years at the helm of his empire, he finds it crumbling around him.
Sure, News Corp. reported a better-than-expected $250 million profit last quarter on the strength of Fox News and Avatar, and all indications are that it has weathered the recession intact. But Murdoch's lifelong crusade has always been about more than just money—it's been about acquiring power, routing enemies, and the glorification of his own ego. And he has always accomplished those goals surrounded by a merry gang of corporate bandits, happily slitting throats and cutting deals with a vicious and entrepreneurial esprit de corps traceable to Murdoch's own tyrannical mien. It was an extraordinarily well-run company, guided by an iron fist.
No more. "It's terrible now," a News Corp. insider tells Gawker, relating the slow, Shakespearian devolution of Murdoch's fierce machinery into turmoil, factionalism, and infighting. The old man, nearing the end of his reign, no longer inspires enough fear or loyalty within his own ranks to keep the jostling for power beneath the surface, and a Lord of the Flies ugliness abounds. Roger Ailes has transformed Fox News into a highly profitable rogue political operation, jeopardizing Murdoch's most prized asset—his access to political power—with an unending stream of volatile rhetoric. His longtime consigliere and liaison to the Democratic power structure, Gary Ginsberg, decamped last year and just joined Time Warner. Matthew Freud, his own son-in-law, is lobbing bombs at Ailes in the pages of the New York Times. And Murdoch himself, though spry by any standards for a 78-year-old, is showing his age: His leadership has become unfocused, insiders say, and he's made a bizarre string of public statements, from agreeing with Glenn Beck that Barack Obama is a racist to claiming he never said that a few days later to blaming New York's political woes on Gov. David Paterson's blindness. The internal turmoil has led the News Corp. insider to commit the unforgivable sin of speaking of Murdoch in the past tense: "He had a good run."
The growing factionalism within News Corp.'s ranks as Murdoch nears the end of his days is likely to be the topic of a New York magazine story on the company, by reporter Gabriel Sherman, that is set to run next week. Sherman's nosing around has sparked considerable chatter in Murdoch-land, and insiders are said to fear that it may begin to shake loose some of the crumbling edifice of Murdoch's empire.
If Murdoch were to stop for a moment when he celebrates his birthday next month and, King Lear-like, survey his kingdom, here is what he would see:
The Hapless Heir
The battle for who will replace Murdoch at the helm seems to have come down to a choice of his son James or anybody else. Lachlan Murdoch has been exiled to Australia and recently sold off the bulk of his personal shares in his father's company to fund his own acquisitions. Murdoch's daughter Elizabeth seems unwilling to give up Shine, her television production company, and is an unlikely choice. That leaves James, whose anal-retentive management style is said to be reviled by many News Corp. regulars. Where Rupert and his old number two Peter Chernin—whose conflicts with James led to his departure last year—were freewheeling and tended to trust their deputies, James is controlling and obsessed with memos and progress reports. As he inserts himself into News Corp.'s operations, he's undermining the buccaneering culture his father encouraged. "With all the memos and structure, it's almost more like GE than News Corp. now," says one insider. James' chief flunky is Matthew Anderson, the overly aggressive and scheming flack that James brought on board in the wake of Chernin's departure to help grease the skids for his ascension, who demands that talking points and briefings be prepared for his boss to engage in the most casual conversations.
The Meddling Wife
To mix Shakespearean metaphors, Murdoch's
second third wife Wendi Deng is the Lady Macbeth of his kingdom. Obsessed with Hollywood glitz and eager to raise her profile as a mogul's wife—and harboring ambitions of her own as a potential power player in her husband's model—Deng floats among News Corp.'s properties, dabbling in films and even maintaining an office at MySpace at one point (she's still involved with MySpace's operations in China). She briefly partnered with the wife of former MGM chairman Harry Sloan on a movie starring her friend Zhang Ziyi—the star of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon—before the project fell through. Deng's social ambition is gargantuan, and she is cultivating a mogul's wives sewing circle including Anne Wojcicki, the wife of Google co-founder Sergei Brin and Ivanka Trump.
The Rogue Knight
Roger Ailes' Fox News brings in $700 million in annual profit to News Corp., and was the only reason the company made money last year. But the festival of white rage that Ailes has unleashed to bring those dollars in has put Murdoch in an awkward position with the White House—a place he never likes to be, politics aside. The tension between profit and access blew up last month in a bizarre New York Times story featuring Ailes banging his dick on the table about how successful he's been and Matthew Freud, Elizabeth Murdoch's husband, delivering a pointed attack on Fox News' "horrendous and sustained disregard of the journalistic standards." It's unclear where Murdoch stands on Fox News, aside from the fact that he loves money. Insiders say it was none other than Wendi Deng and James Murdoch who arranged for the Times' Tim Arango to talk to Freud for that story, meaning Murdoch's closest family members are plotting against his biggest earner.
Add to those the mess at the New York Post, which is facing a rash of lawsuits exposing the foul racism and sexism that editor Col Allan has fostered, and the boondoggle of MySpace, which Murdoch bought for $580 million in 2006 only to watch it get demolished by Facebook. Murdoch is a vile man, who has done vile things. It's fitting that the black empire he built so efficiently over the course of his life should begin to fray at the end of his reign. But it's still kind of sad.