The Pulitzer Prize-winning creator of "Bloom County" on the revival of his beloved comic strip after a 25-year hiatus and a new book about the origins of Bill The Cat.
This week in London, two former editors of the now defunct tabloid News of the World face trial over the phone hacking scandal that bubbled over in July 2011. The incident rocked the media world and the man who sits on its top — Rupert Murdoch. It resulted in the closure of the 168-year-old paper, led to Murdoch breaking his company apart and isolated him from his family. Yet as NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik reports in his new book, Murdoch was undaunted. Folkenflik traces the Murdoch story to his home in Australia, as a son determined not to make the same mistakes as his father. David Folkenflik joins Diane to discuss his new book “Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires.”
- David Folkenflik media correspondent for NPR.
Read An Excerpt
Excerpt from “Murdoch’s World: The Last of the Old Media Empires” by David Folkenflik. Copyright 2013 by David Folkenflik. Reprinted here by permission of PublicAffairs. All rights reserved.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. The media empire run by Rupert Murdoch is immense. It covers 50 countries, includes powerful television stations, politically influential newspapers, and movie production companies. As NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik writes in his new book, it's hard not to do business with Murdoch, even for his adversaries. David Folkenflik joins me from the studios of NPR in New York to talk about "Murdoch's World: The Last of the Old Media Empires." Do join us, 800-433-8850. Send us an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. David, welcome.
MR. DAVID FOLKENFLIKOh, thank you so much, Diane.
REHMGood to have you with us. David, the trial began this week for the folks linked to the phone-hacking scandal. What's happened so far? What can we expect to see?
FOLKENFLIKWell, even in the short time since the start of the trial, the last couple of days, there have been some astonishing revelations. Just today, you know, the two key defendants the people are keying on are Rebekah Brooks, in a sense Rupert Murdoch's surrogate daughter. And she was the head of his newspaper arm, CEO there. But also, at various points, was the editor of the top-selling Sunday tabloid news, The World, and the top-selling daily tabloid, The Sun, for Mr. Murdoch. Also Andrew Coulson was the editor of the News Of The World tabloid, and then went on to be the chief P.R. guy for Prime Minister David Cameron, helping him get to office and helping him in office.
FOLKENFLIKWell, it turned out just today they've revealed that not only are there conspiracy counts against them for colluding and phone hacking and for bribing public officials, but they've just -- evidence has been presented to the court that the two of them carried on an affair for six years. And that this affair will be used as a way of tying them together, binding -- in a very personal way -- the Murdoch empire and the political elite of David Cameron, the prime minister, as well as in a figurative way. It's an explosive disclosure that, in some ways, is overwhelming the allegations, which themselves are extraordinary.
REHMAll right. David, you need to clarify. Rebekah Brooks is having an affair or was having an affair with whom?
FOLKENFLIKRebekah Brooks was having an affair, according to prosecutors, with Andrew Coulson, her colleague in the Murdoch media empire, who went on to become the top P.R. guy for the opposition leader David Cameron, who then took office as prime minister in 2010.
REHMSo now that really does complicate things, doesn't it?
FOLKENFLIKWell, you know, you don’t want to make too much of it because these allegations of phone hacking are serious and severe and profound, represent a betrayal of the public trust, once proven. And certainly others have pleaded guilty to doing just that under these two tabloid editors. But it does seem in a visceral way to show the way in which the Murdoch media executives and the political elites, in both major parties, to be fair, operated hand and glove, that there was no separation. There was a great deal of self interest at work it seems from what we've learned over the last two years, rather than taking the public's interest paramount.
REHMYou know what I don't understand -- and I think I probably represent a good many people -- how is it that Rupert Murdoch himself comes away unscathed?
FOLKENFLIKWell, you know, I think that people in the Murdoch world would say, boy, this guy didn't emerge unscathed at all. You know, he took a beating. He's always wanted one of his children to succeed him. The chances of his son, James Murdoch, who seemed to be on a glide path to take over some day as chairman of the larger News Corp has been exploded. You know, he's trying to rehabilitate himself by working in Europe, in their broadcast realm, on a sort of lower profile. So that was major.
FOLKENFLIKMurdoch said he would never split his super profitable broadcast and entertainment properties, like BSkyB in the U.K. and FX and the Fox News Channel and Fox Broadcasting here in the U.S. He'd never split that from his newspapers because, in a sense, they help subsidize the newspapers that he loves far more. He's had to split those companies in two, which he did back in June. So in a sense, he's paid a price, but on a personal level, he's not in the dock in London. There's been no evidence presented…
FOLKENFLIK…that he personally knew this, although, there are recordings of him talking to some of his journalists at the Sun tabloid, where so many people have been accused of paying police officers for information. And let's be clear, that's illegal in Britain, as it is here. That's a bribe. But those accusations are there and he seemed to dismiss their import and also say, hey, people have been doing that in Fleet Street in British journalism since the dawn of time. And so there's been some notion of whether he was cognizant of a culture of illegality that he was dismissive of, but nothing to tangibly connect him to any crimes.
REHMYou know, David, it's fascinating when you use the phrase, was he cognizant. How much insight does Rupert Murdoch have about his own involvement, his own role, his own power, his own hold on everything around him?
FOLKENFLIKWell, I would say that Rupert Murdoch is a profoundly unreflective guy. You know, he doesn't go in for introspection. It's not his shtick. He doesn't -- you know, you think of something like the Jason Blair scandal at the New York Times.
FOLKENFLIKYou had fabrications and plagiarism on a massive level by a junior reporter. And, you know, editors were ultimately pushed out the window, probably for some cause, and certainly it redounded. It's something that's been thrown at the New York Times for years since. They assigned a team of reporters and editors to figure out what went wrong. So not only did they install certain reforms, like putting in an ombudsman, but they also spilled a ton of news ink to explain what happened.
FOLKENFLIKWhen the New York Post, one of Mr. Murdoch's most beloved newspapers -- and he prizes newspapers above all else, even above his own children at times -- when that newspaper went through an incredible scandal, when it had been shown that there were credible allegations, that its top gossip columnists, including Richard Johnson, its most preeminent one, had accepted money from the people -- or goods that were worth a significant amount of money -- from people that they covered routinely, you know, they had a little disclosure. They tried to beat the New York Daily News to the punch and they moved on. There was no great accounting to the public. No sense of, hey, look, we understand that you have your trust in us and we need to explore this.
FOLKENFLIKNo great upheavals, no firings, none of that. It didn't happen that way. And that's the way Murdoch operates. There's not a lot of apologies. You acknowledge, if you are forced to, and you move on. In this case, a more self-reflective leader might have said, maybe I'm not the best person to continue to lead this company. He still controls with his family trust the company's fortunes, but -- or the company's fortunes, but he could have said, somebody else. Maybe it's somebody like Chase Carey, who's the number two at the company. Somebody who's not steeped in the family in the same way could lead the company capably and competently -- didn't even occur to Murdoch, didn't want to hear it.
REHMDavid, how important do you believe it is for people to know the importance of Rupert Murdoch? How powerful a man is he?
FOLKENFLIKYou know, he's been asked this question about his own power. And he says, oh, you know, I don't give us -- ascribe any power to what we have.
FOLKENFLIKYou know, we're newspaper people. He's got that great kind of gravelly voice…
REHMYeah, of course.
FOLKENFLIK…Australian mumble, even after the decade of living over here in New York. The answer to that is that I think it's important for us to understand the media and the press and journalists. You know, it's the prism through which many Americans, most Americans understand the greater world around them and their own communities, even as they're now communicating through social media platforms more directly than ever. I think Murdoch is by far the most important and influential figure in the English-speaking world, as a media figure, and one of the most important just generally.
FOLKENFLIKHe's a person to whom people in power bend. So if you ask does he have power, he can't issue a dictate. But he can force the people who make the rules and decisions that affect all of us, hundreds of millions of us, you know, to bend to him. So as an example, you know, you've had prime ministers from Australia and aspiring prime ministers come to New York to -- in the words of one of his aids -- kiss the ring, even those prime ministers who hated him, according to this aid.
FOLKENFLIKYou had Gordon Brown fly to Idaho to address News Corp executives as a way of indicating a sign of respect. As Gordon Brown rose in the Labour Party ranks, Chancellor of the Exchequer, then prime minister. You had Tony Blair fly to Hayman Island off the coast of Australia in 1995, as the opposition leader of Labour. And in that meeting he didn’t give anything away. He didn't promise Murdoch that he would relax certain things or gut the BBC or other competitors. What he did was he showed he was willing to do deference to Murdoch, even though he could have easily met Murdoch at one of his residences in London.
FOLKENFLIKSimilarly, you know, David Cameron flew on Murdoch's son's-in-law jet to unannounced flight as the opposition leader of the Conservative Party in 2005, I believe --I think it was to the island of Santorini, off the Greek coast --and met with Murdoch on a yacht there. And it was a sign that's saying, Mr. Murdoch, I respect you. I acknowledge your power. It is symbolically as though you're taking a knee and you're saying, sir, I yield in face of your importance.
FOLKENFLIKAnd these guys knew that that was precisely what they were doing. And the genius of Murdoch is that, although he's quite conservative in many ways, he's really a figure of the center right, who's willing to make common cause with people in the center and just left of center, like Tony Blair, like Hillary Clinton, here, when she was running for Senate. A center left figure, rather than a purely liberal figure. Because by switching, toggling, back and forth between the parties in all three of the countries in which he's so influential and has such prevalence, he can get them to bend to him. If they have no hope of winning his endorsements, then there's no point in doing business in the same way.
FOLKENFLIKWell, here's a guy who feels that he can influence swing voters, that he connects in a way nobody else does to what we might call here, Reagan Democrats, in all three countries. And if he can reach that vote, then their politicians are going to want to do business very badly indeed.
REHMDavid Folkenflik. He is NPR's media reporter. He's also the author of a brand new book. It's titled, "Murdoch's World: The Last of the Old Media Empires." We're going to take a short break here. When we come back we'll talk more, take your calls, your email. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd welcome back. David Folkenflik is NPR's media correspondent. He has a brand new book out called, "Murdoch's World: The Last of the Old Media Empires." He is in NPR's bureau in New York. I have him on Skype. And you can join us, 800-433-8850. How much cooperation, David, did you have from Murdoch or News Corp. on this book?
FOLKENFLIKI would say the opposite of cooperation. They did not cooperate or yield to repeated requests for interviews or for conversations and actively discouraged people from talking to me. I heard it again and again as I talked to reach out to senior figures throughout the company that that had been the case. In one case, I was about to sit down with an exceptionally senior figure for a well-planned interview.
FOLKENFLIKAnd, you know, I think within 24 hours perhaps even that morning I received word that that person received a call.
REHMIt was canceled, wow.
FOLKENFLIKAnd it was canceled on me. Now, with that said, I have not only over time as a reporter covering News Corp. but also even in the process of reporting on this book sat down with scores of people, you know, between, you know, many, many, many people who worked for News Corp. and now 21st Century Fox, the spinoff television and entertainment division of Mr. Murdoch's media empire.
FOLKENFLIKAnd they were enormously helpful to me, patiently sort of waiting through questions, clarifying, explaining the things. You know, if you don't get access to the main guy, you know, you might want that. But part of the thing about the book is I think it approaches, encircles Mr. Murdoch and sort of tries to understand him both internationally and personally and reaching through a lot of people to do that.
REHMAnd that's what I want to go to. Back to Murdoch's home in Australia. Talk about his father and how he influenced Rupert Murdoch's choices.
FOLKENFLIKSure. Sir Keith Murdoch was the son of a Scottish Presbyterian minister who'd been sent to Melbourne, the second largest city in Australia to establish, you know, a church there and lead it there. His grandfather was an influential figure there. Highly regarded civically and very well known by political figures and young Keith, ultimately Sir Keith Murdoch, you know, evolved into a very accomplished reporter.
FOLKENFLIKHe was credited -- and this is sort of his calling card -- with being the person who's dispatches to various Australian political figures, revealed the horrors of the campaign at Gallipoli during World War I in which so many soldiers were slain. And this was a signature moment and really ultimately, although it was essentially evading British sensors, making allegations that British commanders had unfairly exposed Australian and New Zealand forces to incredible peril for no gain whatsoever.
FOLKENFLIKAnd he was seen, this was a rallying cry in Australia, you know, a young nation spun off, no longer a common, you know, colony. I take back. Actually they were. I guess this part is still part of the British empire. But nonetheless, you know, it was a way in which Australia was helping to forge a national identity for itself. And Sir Keith was very vital to that. He went on to be very distinguished newspaper executive and to interestingly have personal investments in some of these newspaper properties.
FOLKENFLIKAt his death, at a very -- you know, Rupert was just a college student at the time. But in the '50s, Sir Keith essentially was only able to leave Rupert a single small newspaper in Adelaide, a forgotten city really in the southern coast of Australia.
REHMYeah. Why was that? Why was so much of his fortune depleted?
FOLKENFLIKWell, part of what they did was they wanted to sell some holding so that Rupert's mother, Dame Elisabeth, could hold the family estate called Cruden Farms.
FOLKENFLIKOutside Melbourne and not worry about that. But they sold, you know, as I understand it, their mansion in the suburb of Toorak as well. And they were essentially in a political maneuver by some of his former colleagues, Sir Keith's former colleagues. He was trumped out of some of these holdings. And there some question whether or not Sir Keith was entitled to have some of these holding that had been raised in retrospect.
FOLKENFLIKBut, you know, Murdoch always nursed this grievance that these elite media figures had wronged his father, that his father had been overlooked for the transcendent figure that he was. And although he was a young man who, you know, his father feared might be a little directionless, he turned to be greatly ambitious. And he used this newsroom and the newspaper, he didn't really particularly care about and a city he didn't particularly have any emotional ties to as his footprint to expand and grow.
REHMDid he have any siblings?
FOLKENFLIKYes, he did. He had some sisters who live in Australia to this day and whom he bought out years ago for a sizable chunk of money, but whose, you know, whose holdings might have been worth even more had they hold on to some of them.
REHMSo, how much of the media industry in Australia does Murdoch control now?
FOLKENFLIKWell, it's pretty astonishing. You know, I went down there in 2012 and did some story, spent close to three weeks down there talking to people. You know, the newspaper industry there, like here, is ailing financially. So, you know, he is subsidizing the one true national newspaper, the Australian and the tabloid newspapers which have dominated their cities for so long, circulation wise, are experiencing the same troubles as some of their peers up here.
FOLKENFLIKThat said, he controls about 65 to 70 percent of the major newspaper circulation in that country. And, you know, when I was down there, there are a lot of people who are saying, well, they're in different cities, it doesn't really matter. Here's an example of how it can matter quite greatly. Kevin Rudd, prime minister that he formerly favored, a center left politician of the Labor Party down there, you know, who's trailing in the polls and doing not great.
FOLKENFLIKRupert Murdoch sent down the editor in chief of the New York Post, an Australian native Col Allan to oversee the tabloid's coverage this past summer. And they pummeled him on a daily basis on their front pages. They ensured that not only would he be beaten up and bloodied but that he'd never get back up from the map. And so Tony Abbott, you know, swept into power. Maybe he would have won anyway, this conservative politician.
FOLKENFLIKBut he's convinced and Australians are convinced that he couldn't have done it without the Murdoch press unifying like that.
REHMYou know, it's interesting. He's cultivated and used this idea of his being an outsider, but clearly he's very much an insider. Talk about the kinds of people he cultivates and socializes with.
FOLKENFLIKWell, and that's a constant, you know, theme in the book is this notion that he's the outsider, right? That, you know, like Australian feel towards Brits, you know, that he feels that towards elites. And he went to Britain and they called him the Dirty Digger, the digger being a dismissive term for Australians. And he always deeply resented that. You know, he's a guy who, you know, has the prime minister's, you know, a fly to him, as I've said.
FOLKENFLIKHe's a guy who, you know, is sought out by billionaires like Michael Bloomberg, you know, the mayor of New York. You know, he's...
REHMSo he's making up this outsider image.
FOLKENFLIKHe nurtured and sustained this image for himself from the beginning. I mean, remember, you know, he went to Oxford as the son of a knight. You know, who was himself a powerful newspaper executive in his home country. The idea that somehow he was an outsider, that he was somebody shut out of the grand conversations of the day is preposterous. You know, he does this high-low game where he has the tabloids to reach the public in Britain as he did with the New York Post and previously with the Chicago Sun Times and the Boston Herald before he had to sell those two papers.
FOLKENFLIKBut he also buys -- or establishes the prestige papers. The Australian in Australia, the Times of London and the Sunday Times in the U.K. The Wall Street Journal here. He had his eye very much on that. And he wanted to be able to reach elites and, you know, thought leader audiences as well as reach the general public, those center right populists that he so deeply attaches himself to.
REHMAnd to what extent does he put his own views forward into those newspapers?
FOLKENFLIKWell, under oath, he told British authorities that if you want to know what I think, you should just read the Sun. And I think that in this country the best way, reflection of what he's thinking is in the New York Post. You know, these are the two things I talk to Ken Chandler. He's one of the many people I talk to. He's the former editor and former publisher of the New York Post. And he said, you know, he had two phones on his desk.
FOLKENFLIKAnd this was back in the days before email and caller ID and all that. The two phones on his desk. One was his phone as the editor in chief of the newspaper, and one was a number that only his wife and Rupert Murdoch had. And Murdoch, you know, the sun never set on the Murdoch empire, Chandler told me. You know, he'd call London when it was morning in London, he'd call New York. When it was morning in New York, he'd call Sydney and Melbourne.
FOLKENFLIKAnd all the other tabloids when it was morning in Australia. And those are the papers he controls most. To be fair to him, he also understands there's a brand and a prestige attached to the Times of London and to the Wall Street Journal and to the Australian. Well, less so to the Australian that he doesn't want to interfere with -- he puts people in place that he knows will reflect his outlook and hear his voice in their heads. But he doesn't have to dictate things in the same way.
REHMAnd one of those people is Rebekah Brooks. How did she move up so quickly? How did she get so close to Murdoch? And how is that connection going to be reflected in this trial?
FOLKENFLIKWell, I think, you know, it is a mystery and a talking game among the British media chattering classes in London about how this happened so quickly. You know, she showed up as a secretary at a struggling first newspaper and then moved as -- in her early 20s to the Sun -- the News of the World, excuse me. And she moved up very quickly to be one of the youngest newspaper editors in British history.
FOLKENFLIKI think she was around 32 when she took over the News of the World. She kind of tended to punch down, according to people who I talked to. And was...
REHMWhat does that mean?
FOLKENFLIKWell, she was really tough on her reporters. I mean, they were reporters who described, you know, having a jar to urinate in as they stood in vans outside some professional soccer player, some politician's girlfriend's flat, hoping to catch sight of them, you know, when they were having an affair. But they didn't want to leave just to even to go to the bathroom because they were so fearful if they said, I missed him to their boss, Rebekah Brooks.
FOLKENFLIKYou know, she was always looking for the next story. It's worth reminding listeners that in Britain newspapers tend to be sold on -- much more from the newsstand on a daily basis than they are in this country, where, you know, we tend to have more of the subscriber model. So it means that if they don't have the most incredible headline day after day...
FOLKENFLIK...time after time on that front page, it's harder to sell stories. And this was at a time, you know, in the early 2000s when, you know, the internet sites were starting to really compete and people were starting to pull away from newspapers. So the pressure that was always there on Fleet Street ratcheted up even to a higher degree.
REHMYou know, it's so interesting because apparently he never considered to having his own daughter run the company. He chooses Rebekah Brooks.
FOLKENFLIKRebekah Brooks is like a surrogate daughter to him. And, you know, he -- she did a great job, in some ways, you know, absent this enormous scandal which causes us to revise all that I'm about to say. But seemingly, she did a great job in overseeing News of the World. He rewarded her with then the post overseeing the Sun, you know, the daily tabloid, the biggest-selling circulation paper in England.
FOLKENFLIKAnd it meant that he then raised her one degree farther where she was the CEO. And this was where she really cemented her relationships, you know, David Cameron and as a political heavyweight as well. But, you know, he had her in the inner circle. You know, even after the scandal, she was sighted earlier this year yachting with Lachlan Murdoch's family off the coast of Sydney, you know, clearly an important personally as well professionally to the Murdochs.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." So, you're saying no matter the trial, that relationship remains close?
FOLKENFLIKWell, I think that the outcome of the trial is very much going to determine her fate. You know, she could go to jail for this. You know, these are very serious charges. On the other hand, I've heard from people in Australia that there is talk that if she somehow escapes conviction, that they might find a place for her in the Murdoch media down there. You know, he takes care of his own.
REHMHere's a tweet: Please discuss the strange insider relationships between the U.K. press, the government and Scotland Yard.
FOLKENFLIKAnd this is the heart of the hacking scandal. Even if we are to get past the question of, you know, illegally accessing voicemail messages of crime victims, of British war dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, of families of terror victims in those 777 bombings in the public transport from 2005. You know, what we're really seeing was that on a high and low level, the Murdoch tabloids had, according to a fairly compelling case sketched by prosecutors and police and admitted in some instances by some of the former Murdoch journalists.
FOLKENFLIKYou know, this case where on the lower level people would give money to police officers or other government officials for information they shouldn't have had. On the higher level, you had these incredibly incestuous relationships with senior news executives. You know, the top -- two top officials including the commissioner of Scotland Yard had to step down in July of 2011 because they had been accepting such lavish meals and gifts.
FOLKENFLIKIn one case, an 11,000 pounds stay at this spa retreat to the commissioner of Scotland Yard when he was recuperating from an injury, you know, given to him by a friend of Rebekah Brooks. You know, there were all these elements in the stew that meant that when Scotland Yard could have investigated further after it turned out that Princes William and Harry were hacked in 2005, they didn't.
FOLKENFLIKThe Surrey Police were actually told, according to prosecutors' evidence being presented in court today by a fairly senior news editor at the News of the World that the young Milly Dowler, a murder victim, a young murder victim, in 2002 that her phone had been hacked. You know, they were told this and didn't pursue it. That actually, interestingly enough, was itself the subject and revealed in a story in Murdoch's own Wall Street Journal.
FOLKENFLIKBut this is, I think, a very telling case of how the Murdoch media times operates a little differently than some news outlets. You know, in the summer of 2011, journalists, reporters in the London bureau were doing their job. They saw this as an opportunity to prove that the journal, whatever the ownership, would hold up to its reputation and its brand of integrity. And they were going to reveal for the first time that actually police had been told in 2002 that this young girl's voicemail has been hacked.
FOLKENFLIKRobert Thompson, the handpicked chief editor of the Wall Street Journal intervened repeatedly to kill the story. It was at a very sensitive moment for Murdoch's business interest. He tried very hard to kill it. Ultimately, there's too much pushback by too many editors and reporters, but it was a moment where his kinship, in the book I call it mate-ship, with Rupert Murdoch -- he wanted that to trump the journalistic imperative of keeping faith with readers and the public.
REHMHere's another tweet: Can we please call this a bribery scandal rather than a hacking scandal. And what are the implications for News Corp. legally in the U.S.?
FOLKENFLIKIt's a great question. You know, I've repeatedly called this a hacking and corruption scandal. It is -- bribery is the term, you know, we would assign to it. It's -- in many ways the lawyers and the journalists I've talked to in the U.K. say that's actually the more important legal element to it. There is in this country something called the federal -- the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
FOLKENFLIKAnd it's a federal law and it means that American corporations cannot bribe government, public officials abroad. One of the interesting things about that law is there's no dollar figure assigned to that. I mean, you could pay somebody a $1 million, you could pay somebody $1,000, they're both illegal under the act. And corporations can be held accountable under that. So federal authorities are looking closely at what the outcome is in Britain.
REHMDavid Folkenflik, he's new book is titled, "Murdoch's World: The Last of the Old Media Empires." When we come back, we'll open the phones, take your calls. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd it's time to open the phones 800-433-8850. First let's go to Wichita Falls, Texas, hi, Kyle, you're on the air.
KYLEHi, Diane, David.
KYLEI wanted to ask, David, your opinion for thoughts on cinematic or Hollywood depictions of media moguls, for example, James Bond battled a Rupert Murdoch look alike in "Tomorrow Never Dies." More importantly, Orson Welles almost, in the last century, depicted as Citizen Kane, you know, the dangers of having someone as powerful and influential, you know, such as Citizen Kane, especially with the line, there in one scene where he stated, "You provide the prose, I'll provide the war." So why do we allowing something after seeing all these cinematic depictions?
FOLKENFLIKWhy are we still what-ing?
KYLEAllowing something influential as Rupert Murdoch after seeing these kinds of media depictions, you know, Bond villains...
REHMAre you saying -- are you saying how should we trust or why could we trust? What are you saying?
KYLEOh, exactly. Why should we trust...
KYLE...After seeing, you know, Hollywood and even in the news...
KYLE...these kind of depictions.
REHMAll right, David.
FOLKENFLIKWell, you know, I think it's interesting we've always had a fascination with figures that have influenced beyond their own immediacy and if you look at media moguls like William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration for Citizen Kane, or like the Bond villain depicted by Jonathan Price in that particular thriller. Although I think, to be honest, that was based more on Robert Maxwell, one of Murdoch's rivals, to acquire the news of the world back in England back in the day.
FOLKENFLIKYou know, these are figures who have obtained such reach and in some cases when they exert their own points of view in political alliances, such influence, that people raise questions. Should there be such concentration of power you see in this country.
REHMAnd I think it...
FOLKENFLIKA lot of questions of ownership.
REHM...I think there are a lot of questions about the relationship, for example, between Rupert Murdoch and Roger Ailes and the creation of Fox News.
FOLKENFLIKYeah, well, look, I mean, that's a fascinating property because if you were to take Rupert Murdoch's own belief system -- if you were follow his Twitter feed as I do, which is entertaining and quite of interest.
REHMGive us an example of something he puts on Twitter.
FOLKENFLIKWell, you know, he was upset -- there is this thing going on that American journalists would bridle at that because of all of the scandals there there's this push to have greater industry regulation of the media there. And Murdoch has been very alienated from David Cameron whom he supported getting to office because Cameron has met with some of the activists who are operating on behalf of the victims of the hacking and, you know, has been, at least, publicly sympathetic to the idea of greater regulation, even as he's resisted some of the proposals. And it's not clear how that's going to shake out, but Murdoch has tweeted, you know, like don't trust the toffs.
FOLKENFLIKAnd toffs is a word to describe elites, wealthy people of privilege. People who actually who may in some ways sound a lot like him in terms of, you know, their background at Oxford and coming from the son of a knight, but nonetheless he sees them as the elites and the bad guys and he'll inveigh against them.
FOLKENFLIKYou also saw him rebuke Chris Christie amid the 2012 elections when Christie was, you know, in the words of a lot of people at Fox News, paling around with Barack Obama after the terrible storms that hit New Jersey and Murdoch said, you know, totally fine to be an advocate on behalf of people of New Jersey, but good to remind people was one of first to endorse Mitt Romney. And ultimately, you know, Christie was compelled to phone Rupert Murdoch and talk through the need to support Romney and he went and did that...
FOLKENFLIK...Within a day or two at a press conference he called in the national press. So it's a way in which he tells his editors what he's thinking through that Twitter feed and he tells the politicians and the public, you know, what they need to be wary of.
REHMAnd here's an email from Bob in Rochester, N.Y. He says, "I've subscribed to the Wall Street Journal for years. Understood that the opinion page is very conservative, but thought the reporting was pretty much down the middle. Over time it seems the news reporting has drifted to the right, as well. Is this my imagination or is there evidence to support this and, of course, to follow on with that would be is Rupert Murdoch influencing the news reporting of the Wall Street Journal?"
FOLKENFLIKWell, I devote a chapter in the book to this very question. You know, I think that the Wall Street Journal is -- was, is and remains an excellent newspaper with hundreds of dedicated reporters and editors doing some great work. It's a different newspaper than it was. It's less financially focused.
REHMRight, of course.
FOLKENFLIKIt's less likely to do as many of the deep dives on the intricacies of business and finance than it once did, but there's also the sense, you know, Murdoch essentially fairly quickly on had his lieutenants force out Marcus Brauchi, who had been the newly appointed editor from the old regime. And Robert Thompson, who was his handpicked editor and his deputy Gerard Baker, who is now elevated to be the top editor of the Wall Street Journal, very consciously felt that the news reporting of the Journal listed at times lazily to the left.
FOLKENFLIKSo, you know, Baker very much felt that they wanted to pull it into a true center. And they distinguished in their own mind between what Fox News does, which is to say fair and balanced, but at times wink at that notion, really meaning we're a conservative counterpoint to what we see as a liberal presentation on arguably NBC, CBS, the New York Times. They argue that they're really pulling it to the true center, but I came up with a number of instance in which reporters and editors themselves involved in stories felt as though they had trouble discerning whether they were being -- having reasonable questions raised, which is an important thing for the leaders to do or whether somehow there was a thumb being put on the scale.
FOLKENFLIKAnd so you know in a couple dozen instances that I uncovered there were those real questions. It doesn't surprise me that some readers might find it tacking to the right of where it was. They would say perhaps that's a corrective to be in the true center. Others might say maybe it's a little more center right, which is, of course, where Rupert Murdoch finds himself.
REHMAll right, to Cincinnati, Ohio, Nelson, you're on the air.
NELSONHi, how are you? Not only did Rupert Murdoch manipulate the news under the papers that he directly controls, but he did meet with senior news analysts from NPR, for instance, so that the whole world of journalism and reporting today actually has been trained to follow the republican narrative such as the manufactured hate campaign for Obama and the kind of treatment that Nancy Pelosi received from a recent interview on NPR which was abusive, criminally assaultive and only because of this republican narrative that followed even to legitimizing -- even to legitimizing people like Darrell Issa, a convicted swindler.
REHMAll right, sir, you're using some pretty strong words. Go ahead, David.
FOLKENFLIKWell, I can't -- I can't endorse that characterization of things. As all, I think it's important for news organizations, whether they are coming at it from an opinion point of view or a straight ahead point of view, have every right to hold public figures accountable and ask some tough questions regardless of what their party of position. I think that's only fair. That said, you know, Fox News -- I wouldn't subscribe to his characterization of them either, but, you know, Fox News certainly has a persistent thread and storyline very consciously picked out to, you know, looking to appeal to an audience that thinks of the rest of the media as designed simply for coastal urban elites.
FOLKENFLIKAnd there's a sense in which they are picking stories in that way and a sense in which they're nurturing that grievance, as well. And that one of the main storylines is not only about democrats or about the Obama administration, but about the rest of the media. And that is part of their consistent storyline to part of their formula, the idea to both isolate and delegitimize the reportorial staff not as representing the public, but representing themselves.
REHMBut talk about the Fox News PR machine, David. What's it like to deal with them and what have been some of their more outlandish tactics?
FOLKENFLIKWell, sure. Well, you know, look, you know, the true heart of Fox News is not found in their news reporting, although there's some very good reporters and journalists there, but it's found at times in their primetime opinion shows and really in the office of the PR shop. Roger Ailes, of course, was a very famous political operative for President Nixon and other successful republican campaigns as well as a very smart broadcasting executive in his own right.
FOLKENFLIKWhen he came to Fox, you know, he brought that political sensibility and so the PR shop has just always been a punishing place to work with. You ask them -- you call and ask a question and they ask you why. You call and say you want to have an interview they ask you who else you're talking to. They tend to delegitimize what you're doing. If you're interviewing people heaven forbid from CNN or MSNBC, well, they don't want to be in the same story because their ratings are so good they think they're in an entirely different business than the rest of cable news.
FOLKENFLIKBut here's where it gets interesting. That's just an aggressive approach and tone. You deal with it, it's fine. It's not personal. What they've also done over the years -- I was able to show in the book -- is that they manipulated in some ways conversations online. So they went after -- every time a blogger, you know, talked about them or an industry news site they would go in to the comments section and respond, but they wouldn't do it under their own names. They would assign staffers to take on alias.
FOLKENFLIKOne described having 20 aliases.
FOLKENFLIKAnother described having over a hundred alias and they would go back and forth and argue not only with the postings, but sometimes with the commenters to 1:00, 2:00, 3:00 in the morning. The depth to which they descended to do this was, in some ways, comical. They would get old laptops so that they couldn't be traced to News Corp. They would use -- one guy was required to use an AOL broadband -- excuse me, dial-up account because they feared that broadband would be more easily traced to their internet protocol address and that dial-up would be easier to mask.
REHMYou talk about...
FOLKENFLIKThis was a big one.
REHMYou talk about the story of Matthew Flamm...
REHM...At Crain's New York business being set up by Fox's PR machine.
FOLKENFLIKAnd this was the most extraordinary incident of all confirmed to me by not only people who knew what Flamm was going through at the time, but through somebody who was at Fox News at the time. Here was a guy who was doing a story in 2008 about CNN improving its ratings. Fox News, you know, had responded to a reporter for the New York Times who did a similar story by leaking the fact that he had gone through substance abuse treatment to some gossip magazines, excuse me, websites simply to try to punish him and to show others that they'd be punished if they went after similar stories.
FOLKENFLIKMatthew Flamm was just a guy who covered, you know, media for Crain's New York Business. He interviewed people from CNN and MSNBC about how during that really vital democratic primary between Obama and Clinton, you know, that ratings went up and they were doing better against Fox than they had been. Fox didn't want any talk about this. They didn't respond to his story, but he got an email.
FOLKENFLIKHe got an email from a woman who was a senior producer on "The Bill O'Reilly Show" and she said, look, people are flipping out over this ratings issue. You're absolutely right. Nobody can talk about it. I can't talk about, but you should know they're so concerned thing to put our biggest star, Bill O'Reilly, in the anchor's chairs during the political party conventions this summer. It's that big a deal.
FOLKENFLIKHe went, he confirmed this woman is, in fact, a senior producer at the O'Reilly show. He couldn't confirm it with other persons. His editors say, you know, what it's not strong enough to use as a story just post it as a blog item. Their mistake. He puts out the story. Within an hour there are items up in major industry websites saying who is Matthew Flamm, you know, if this is his reliability he's an idiot and you can't trust him...
FOLKENFLIK...Because actually we would never do that. We only have news anchors do that. We don't have our opinion hosts do that. That's absolutely untrue. He calls the woman back. He gets her finally on the phone and said what the heck happened there. And her response is, "Who are you?"
FOLKENFLIKAnd he says what do you mean, I got this email from you. And she says what email. I don't know what you're talking about. It turned out that an email account had been set up by a Fox News PR person to set him up, to make him publish false information and then to try to discredit him after the fact.
REHMDavid Folkenflik and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go back to the phones to, let's see, Ahmed in Peterborough, N.H., you're on the air.
AHMEDYeah, hi, Diane.
AHMEDI need to ask your -- David, how strong or what's the percentage of Murdoch compare in relation to other media moguls in the United States?
FOLKENFLIKWell, I mean there's certainly other major media companies if you think of Comcast is now not only the nation's largest cable distributor. It owns NBC. It owns the very liberal MSNBC which found profits only in recent years as it attempted to mimic the Fox News formula, but from the left. And it has, you know, CNBC and Bravo and a bunch of other outfits.
FOLKENFLIKTime Warner Cable is no longer part of Time Warner so you don't have the unification of both the distribution and the content in that way, but, you know, you have CBS owning Showtime and a bunch of things. There are a lot of major media companies out there. There's no company that I can identify that is so big and so influential and so important on a national scale that reflects the voice and thinking of a single person to such a degree. You know, Fox News is to the right of Rupert Murdoch, but it certainly reflects his brawling and political sensibilities.
REHMBut that leads me to your subtitle, David. Why do you believe Rupert Murdoch olds the last of the old media empires? What do you mean? Are you looking forward to the new media empires?
FOLKENFLIKI think we're seeing -- you know, there still is going to be these enormous, lumbering media empires for a while, but you're seeing -- you know, once he's gone, you know, it's unlikely that you'll see News Corp or the Murdoch family empire retain these newspapers for so long. They are in deep decline. They are in deep financial trouble in ways that have nothing to do with hacking and they're scrambling to figure it out just like everyone else.
FOLKENFLIKNone of us in the media have perfectly figured out this new world. And you're going to see new actors. You're seeing these multibillionaires from the digital sphere. You know, Jeff Bezos taking over The Washington Post.
REHMPierre Omidyar promising to spend something on the order of a quarter of a billion dollars to create a news organization from scratch. These guys aren't what we think of as old media guys. They didn't come up through newsrooms. They don't have they in their skin and their blood, but yet they're really interested in taking part. It's a new generation of moguls and you're seeing people like Arianna Huffington at The Huffington Post or Nick Denton at Gawker in a smaller way, you know, with his gossip sites or ESPN, a very different kind of empire that, in some ways, is the most impressive of them all that itself doesn't have the same kind of political imperative, although it's part of the Walt Disney empire, such a huge organization.
REHMSo you believe what could come of the trial?
FOLKENFLIKI think the trial is -- just even this morning and in the ensuing months is going to be deeply embarrassing for the Murdoch media empire. They're hoping to weather it. They're hoping to weather it in such a way that they can make the case plausibly to American authorities that they have been so cooperative with British authorities there's no need to throw additional penalties over here to the, you know, the home country. And I think the political police and media leads are going to be held, to some degree, accountable in this incredible odd celebrity trial for what happened in the preceding years.
REHMWell, it's a fascinating story, David. Thank you for being with us.
FOLKENFLIKThank you so much, Diane.
REHMDavid Folkenflik, his new book is titled, "Murdoch's World: The Last of the Old Media Empires." Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
Most Recent Shows
Yahoo says information from 500 million users was stolen by hackers. This comes amid growing concern over intrusions into U.S. election systems. In an era of increasing state-sponsored cyber threats, protecting our personal data and the integrity of U.S. voting.
Charlotte police release video of the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott — but questions and doubts remain. The Washington Post's Wesley Lowery brings us the latest from Charlotte, North Carolina.
A fragile truce in Syria appears to be crumbling after new airstrikes in Aleppo. More than 100 migrants are reported drowned after a boat capsizes off the Egyptian coast. And the U.S. allows Boeing to sell passenger planes to Iran. A panel of journalists joins guest host Amy Walter for analysis of the week's top international news stories.