Murdoch Biographer Folkenflik On News Corp. Opposition, Family Dysfunction, and Fox News' Role As GOP "Referee"

Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

News Corp. not only declined to participate in David Folkenflik's new book about Rupert Murdoch, but "actively discouraged" people from speaking with the NPR veteran, while also "denigrating" his reputation, the author says.

Still, Folkenflik says he was able to conduct his reporting for Murdoch's World: The Last of the Old Media Empires and has come away with a detailed look at how the mogul built and sustains a global media conglomerate. In a wide-raging Wednesday interview with Media Matters, Folkenflik discussed Fox News' role in Republican Party primaries ("arbiter and umpire"), the network's PR department (Roger Ailes' "unbridled id"), the "searing experience" the Murdoch family has undergone due to the still unfolding phone-hacking scandal in Britain, how the network used Juan Williams' firing to "unleash" unprecedented "vitriol" on NPR, and what the future may hold for the empire Murdoch built.  

Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

What prompted you to write this book since so much has been written about Murdoch and News Corp.?

I thought that the extraordinary revelations of the summer of 2011, which I was involved in covering for NPR, offered an extraordinary and new window into the inner workings of how News Corp. operated. If you look at it it involved his properties in England, and yet the stakes were felt very keenly here in the heart of midtown Manhattan just a few blocks from our bureau where News Corp. has its global headquarters. And as I looked at the story more closely, it became clear to me that there were commonalities in the cultures that News Corp. had created, particularly in the three great English-speaking nations in which Murdoch casts such a great shadow, Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. That they evolved differently in some ways through the culture of each country, and yet there were these common threads that I thought were worth exploring and teasing out and understanding ... I thought it was important to see what kind of steward he had been at The Wall Street Journal, how Fox and Murdoch had operated in the age of Obama, and what possibly could give rise to the conditions that would allow what now appears to have been fairly widespread criminality to have occurred at his two best-selling newspapers.

What surprised you most about Murdoch in your research?

There are things about him that would surprise his critics and things about him that would surprise his fans, he's not conservative in all ways, he is not as conservative as the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal or of the tone of much of what you see on Fox News for example, he's definitely a creature of the right and yet there are moments when he has been open to things supported by social liberals. He not only in a very pragmatic way can make common cause with center-left politicians like [Former U.K. Prime Minister] Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton as a Senate candidate, Kevin Rudd running in 2007 for the Prime Minister's position in Australia. On immigration, he had been pushing for a more liberal line than you would have heard on Fox until the day after the 2012 election ... He sees himself as a global citizen.

You describe in your book an extremely aggressive Fox PR department that regularly lashes out at reporters, including you yourself. How do you think that impacts the network's effectiveness?

It engenders a lot of resentment among the media reporters assigned to cover Fox News, although there are times where they shine brightly upon bloggers or certain reporters who they feel may be amenable to some of their appeals as a way of showing other reporters who are on their blacklist or they view as being critical, showing those other reporters "hey, there are benefits to playing ball as well." It's hard to look at Fox News PR as something apart from Fox News, it is so much a part of the DNA of who Ailes is and consistent to what Murdoch is like in the pages of his newspaper and at times his conversations behind closed doors. Fox News' PR department much like say Fox & Friends is kind of the, I guess the unbridled id of Ailes and of the channel. Their aggressiveness, their willingness to punch or to reward is very much in keeping with the channel itself and with the way Ailes operates. It is best understood, the PR department, as a political shop, like something on an exceptionally aggressive presidential or senatorial campaign.

You described in the book what amounts to a Fox News campaign attacking NPR after Juan Williams' firing, with numerous segments criticizing the network's decision and calling for its defunding. What was it like to watch that as an NPR employee and media critic?

It's very hard for me to separate those two things, I was involved in helping to break the Juan Williams, the severing of his contract, I was filing stories on a frequent basis ... Watching it unfold and talking to sources inside as well while it was happening ... talking to Chris Wallace while I was there at the Fox bureau to do a profile of another, I think it was of Bret Baier, you talk to people candidly on and off the record about what's going on. It was an intense time, and I've never quite seen anything like the vitriol heaped on one news organization for another that I saw Fox News unleash on NPR. It was a calculated, I'm sure it was heartfelt, I'm sure it was also quite calculated, they decided to make it a cause ... Fox News decided to ride that very consciously as a campaign, as an endeavor to create out of NPR an opponent and an enemy.. It was a useful campaign for them.

You describe how Fox PR staffers created an elaborate series of dummy accounts to fill the comments sections of critical blog posts with pro-Fox arguments. When was that going on? Do you know if it continues? What blogs were being monitored?

My sense was that I believe that after the Tim Arango incident [in which someone leaked personal information about Arango shortly after he had been threatened by the network for his reporting], that Murdoch who had known Arango a bit as a reporter was embarrassed by it when he was told about it and consulted some of his top aides and he sort of said 'let's pull back a bit,' Fox was not as publicly vituperative after that. Certainly if you look at how [New York Magazine's] Gabe Sherman has been treated on the air and in blogs and other places it's hard not to conclude that they are very wary of what he is going to write and that they're willing to ramp up again, I'm not saying they are sock puppeting, but I know that they are aggressively tracking personal blogs and major sites and they try to see it all and they try to let reporters know that they see it all. At one point I was warned when I was inquiring about an interview request, I was told that they were watching my Tweets, well, good, they're there to be watched, God bless, they are there for them as well. There is a notion that they are monitoring everything.

The way I am told it is done now is that it is through surrogates.

The book relates several examples of journalists being mistreated by the Fox News publicity department. But how about your own interactions with them? Any specific instances?

Folkenflik cited the 2001 report he wrote while at the Baltimore Sun stating Geraldo Rivera in a Fox News report misled viewers when he said he was walking on "hallowed ground" in Afghanistan where U.S. soldiers had died of friendly fire. Folkenflik reported the deaths had occurred hundreds of miles away.

For 15 months after the Geraldo stuff they said they're not going to respond as a policy, I thought it was churlish and juvenile then and I do now.

My story on Geraldo challenged the guy they were calling their chief war correspondent, not only the veracity of a war-placed report but the veracity of a war-placed report in which he expressed emotion over what was said to be the spot at which American soldiers were killed. That's a story where their reporting integrity's at stake.

There were times when they are very aggressive and they certainly ramp up the intensity and use whatever emotional levers they can to get what they want across. There is a contentiousness and combativeness that is endemic to the organization. I am convinced it is basically a game, it's not really personal. This is the way in which they are doing it, I don't take it personally.

How damaging do you think the phone-hacking scandal in Britain that led to the end of News of the World, a government investigation, and the arrests of numerous journalists has been to News Corp. and Murdoch's personal reputation? Why?

On the one hand, he has absolutely weathered it, they just had elections and yet again he's been able to hold on to the chairman and CEO position of 21st Century Fox, the bigger and more profitable element of the thing despite some shareholder movement to have it done. I think he's atop both of these institutions, he said with great brio, how many people at this point in their lives get to start anew all over again. That said, he split the companies, something he said he would never do and that makes his newspapers more vulnerable because they are no longer wrapped in the warm embrace of the extraordinary profits of Fox News, of Fox Studios, and of BSkyB. It just exploded the chances of his son, James, to move smoothly into the CEO or executive chairman spot, which Murdoch had been trying to set up. He really wanted one of his children to take over ... This was a searing experience for the Murdoch family as people, it was a complete distraction for the company.

The family dynamic of the Murdochs seems very dysfunctional, how would you describe it as relates to the company operation and the internal dynamic?

This is a company that is a publicly traded, until it was split some months ago, it was a publicly traded company that nonetheless was defined by the singular traits of a particular person who created it into the modern global behemoth that it is ... He wanted his family to take it over. 

We've seen in some great newspaper families -- the Binghams, the Sulzbergers, the Bancrofts -- the tensions that can arise in later generations, but he's kind of the creation, he inherited from his father, but it wasn't what it is now, this scandal has really divided the siblings more than ever ... it's hard to see News Corp. without a Murdoch holding on to those newspapers for very long. Those newspapers have been really important to the Murdochian mold, where you have great influence that at times becomes power by dint of these newspapers, particularly in Britain and Australia, have such political sway.

You write a lot about Fox News' influence on the Republican candidates, especially in 2012. How much influence do you think they have had in the GOP activities and primary elections?

Some of the conception is misguided, I think they wanted to be more of the referee, in a primary where they didn't see anyone who Roger Ailes fell in love with. He clearly fell for Herman Cain as kind of fun fodder for coverage, a lively figure, not just an African-American businessman but also just a guy who coins all these fun phrases that you can play with and replay ad nauseam, but not really a serious candidate by anybody's definition.

I think they saw themselves as the arbiter and the umpire, if anybody wanted to understand what was going to happen in the Republican primary, they had to come to them. That's why Romney needed to sit down with Fox time and again even as he often avoided other national interviews.

But isn't being that referee a form of conflict of interest for a news organization?

Roger Ailes is defining what it means to be a news organization often in opposition to the conceptions that have been set out by his competitors and by his predecessors in print organizations ... There is no doubt that they intend to be an arbiter of what it means to be a Republican, that debate they want to play out on their air, sometimes putting perhaps a thumb on the scale. But even if they don't they want that to be the forum where it's done. We don't have backrooms anymore where people chose candidates, they want to be the backroom playing out in front of the public.

How much push back have you gotten on the book from Murdoch-related outlets or supporters? Before publication?

Murdoch's aides actively discouraged people who worked for him or were associated with him in various continents from talking to me, but that said I ended up talking to a great deal of people who both currently or formerly have worked for News Corp, 21st Century Fox, or who work there still as well as people who have interacted with them in different settings.

I was told by people that they were uncomfortable doing it at times because they didn't want to upset Murdoch, I heard that a lot.

They didn't wage a war against this book to my knowledge, but I do know that they sent out an order. I was going to sit down with one of the top executives of one of the large units of his companies and at the last minute I got word that he had been told by one of Murdoch's top aides not to do it.

I had heard that some folks certainly had been told very denigrating things about me.

What was the response from official News Corp. spokespeople when you sought comment?

They thought about it for a while, I had to push, at a certain point I met with one of his public affairs executives who said, "we're not going to do this." I think they were distrustful of the book, it's a sensitive time for them legally.

Fox News Channel, Wall Street Journal, NPR
Rupert Murdoch, David Folkenflik
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