The Fox and the Wolff

By DANIEL MCCARTHY  |  December 18, 2008

Yet for all the mud that has been slung at the septuagenarian media mogul, rarely has he fired back or offered insight (such as can be revealed by someone lacking self-awareness) into his motivations — until now. Even stranger, now that Murdoch has chosen finally to open himself up to the public, he has done so with a biographer who has slammed him in the past: journalist Wolff, for whom Murdoch agreed to lower the gate, with no leash or editorial oversight on the outcome attached.

"This isn't a man who reads a lot of books," says Wolff, "so I'm not sure he had a clear context for thinking about this. Once he sees it [the biography], he may be embarrassed and possibly appalled by its personal nature."

Still, Murdoch won't be the sole judge on how the book — The Man Who Owns the News: Inside the Secret World of Rupert Murdoch — turns out. Instead, Wolff says it's likely that Murdoch will wait for other people's reaction before offering his own take on it. If it has a good effect, then Murdochian logic dictates it's good.

'He's a newspaper guy'
Wolff makes for an almost subversive choice to be Murdoch's official chronicler. Read any book, column, interview, or blog post by Wolff — media, culture, and political columnist for Vanity Fair and a founder of the news aggregator — and you get the impression you're reading insider punditry from an author playing the outsider.

This is particularly true when Wolff is commenting about New York media and its parochial gossiping sewing circles, two of his frequent and favorite subjects. It's no surprise, then, that — in this role as long-time public diarist of the media scene — Wolff has issued his share of critical opinionated diatribes on Murdoch and his various maneuvers as chairman and CEO of News Corporation.

So imagine Wolff's shock once his proposal for doing an in-depth biography of Murdoch had been green-lit by the subject himself.

After publishing Burn Rate, his best-selling memoir of business failure at the start of the Internet boom, Wolff successfully built a brand for himself on the back of industry commentary and analysis: primarily as a media columnist for New York magazine and, more recently, for Vanity Fair. Considering his own past career foibles (including a brief flirtation as a novelist, a decidedly wrong turn he once described as a "life and career calamity" to the Washington Post), it's not hard to assume that Wolff would be his sharpest critic — that is, if he hadn't acquired so many others.

I meet with Wolff just across from his New York home in a swanky area of the Upper East Side to discuss his experience researching and writing the book, and how the fuck he got Murdoch to agree to sit for it. As it turns out, no one, including Murdoch's family members and News Corp. executives, has any idea.

"I think it was [decided] in the way News Corp. and Murdoch does things, which is not thought out terribly well," notes Wolff. "The interesting thing about Murdoch — and there are many things I find interesting and admirable about him — is that, at the end of the day, he's a newspaper guy. He runs everything like he's a city-desk editor. It's all snap decisions, all yes/no. No real analysis. So, for a visionary, believe me, there's very little vision."

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