They never liked each other. They’re mirror opposites in their personal and business styles. Yet those two ferociously acquisitive old moguls, Sumner and Rupert, both find themselves in stressful situations at the moment – not surprisingly of a completely different sort. Sumner Redstone’s personal crisis is either poignant or pathetic, depending on your point of view. Rupert Murdoch’s is typically about politics and power.
In a few weeks a Los Angeles judge will determine Redstone’s mental competency and decide who will control his health care – a decision that will impact the Viacom media empire. Redstone’s problems, to be sure, were triggered not by his business decisions but by his messy personal life.
By contrast, Murdoch, who is eight years younger, is restructuring his personal life; he is newly wed and outwardly cheerful. But nagging at him this week, associates say, is the realization that he has been a key player in the potential destruction of the Republican party. Political commentators on both right and left argue that the twin forces of the Murdoch media empire – Fox News and the Wall St. Journal – have obliterated the Republican center and thus created Donald Trump. And they are revolted by their creation.
Over the years, Murdoch has had high success in steering his newspapers and TV networks to achieve his political objectives. He was instrumental in inventing Tony Blair in the UK, but in the U.S. Murdoch’s ideology has swung sharply to the right. In a recent (and rare) editorial he ridiculed fears of climate change and economic inequality, defended past military incursions in Iraq (and even Vietnam) and espoused a solidly Tea Party ideology (with the exception of immigration policy). But Donald Trump is not a hero to Murdoch’s minions. And the schism in the Republican Party is triggering downright panic.
When I first met Murdoch in 1991 I found him to be much milder and more congenial in terms of both his politics and his personality. At the time, Murdoch was enmeshed in an ominous financial crisis, having recklessly engineered a string of acquisitions that he could not realistically afford. Murdoch’s empire faced $6.3 billion in debt; he was feverishly cajoling banks into extending a $600 million bridge loan to get him through his crisis. His entertainment assets were also ailing: the Fox film studio had stalled and the new TV network Barry Diller had created for him was showing little promise.
At the time I had just become editor of Variety and Rupert reached out to me for media support. He wanted the entertainment community to know that he was going to make a comeback. And since he liked the company of a fellow newsmen, he enjoyed talking. Our talks lasted hours. Not one for generalizations, Murdoch pulled out piles of banking documents and reviewed over specific budget items. I ended up learning more about Murdoch’s empire than about my own parent company.
Rupert’s resiliency, and luck, soon achieved his promised turnaround. The banks decided to rescue the craggy Aussie. His film studio meanwhile struck gold in stealing Home Alone from Warner Bros (a bizarre and inadvertent gift from Bob Daly) and Diller’s TV network began to percolate. By 1996 Rupert even launched his prize: Fox News. I could see this coming: During our talks he was disdainful of the media’s reporting skills, but had envied CNN’s ratings achieved through excellent coverage of Desert Storm. Roger Ailes and Murdoch converged at an ideal moment for both men. Ailes wanted a network to run and Murdoch wanted political prowess.
Through the years, of course, Murdoch has been meticulous about shielding his entertainment assets from his political causes – most of his top leaders are outspoken liberals. But he has furiously wielded Fox News, The New York Post and The Wall Street Journal to advance his ideology. The Murdoch media hated Obama. Their scenario was in place to create an irresistible Republican force to take control of the political process and get it right.
And then along came Trump and the schism within the Republican Party. The upcoming convention in Cleveland likely will produce great ratings for Fox News. But it will also trigger anxiety for Rupert and others on the right.
Rupert Murdoch is a far happier man than his old rival, Sumner. But that applies to just about everyone.