Alienating Rupert Murdoch

Michael Wolff is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the founder of news aggregation site Newser.com. He is a two-time National Magazine Award winner, and his latest book, "The Man Who Owns the News," is a biography of News Corporation Chairman Rupert Murdoch. Wolff's work has been widely anthologized and appeared in numerous publications, including New York Magazine, where he was a long-time columnist. He has also been an entrepreneur involved with the start-up of several online businesses.
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TRANSCRIPT

Question: Describe a day in the life of Rupert Murdoch. 

Michael Wolff: It's an incredibly boring day. He gets up, he has his bowl of oatmeal, he heads to the office where he stays right up until dinner and then he goes home or there's some event, more and more, because his wife Wendy likes to go to events. Then he'll go out to an event of which he will struggle to stay awake through and then he will go to sleep and get up again and have his bowl of oatmeal, and commence the next day. 

Question: Why did your biography make Murdoch so angry? 

Michael Wolff: Well one of his key lieutenants called me up and said, after reading the book, and said, "But it's all about him." And I said, "Well, it is a biography." And then he says, "But it's so personal." So I think that one of the things that happened is Rupert was just surprised by the nature of the book. I really think... there was a point actually I interviewed Rupert's mother who's 102 years old and she lives in Australia and I arrived there and she said, "Oh, it's very curious that my son is helping you with this book because you know he's never read one." 

So, I actually think that this is part of the issue that he really was a kind of unfamiliar with what a modern biography might be like and was rather anticipating sort of a recitation I think of his deals and the course of his career rather than a book that tried to understand who this man is and actually give a taste of his true character. 

Question: Have you reconciled? 

Michael Wolff: We have not. I think the cold war between us has just gotten colder. 

Question: What was it like running into Murdoch’s son at a restaurant? 

Michael Wolff: Tense. It was one of those moments where I think, well, James turned to me and said something like, "Oh, not you." And then there was a moment in which—I mean, James actually has kind of a hair-trigger temper and you could see him measuring whether he should fly off the handle or stay in control and he in fact stayed in control and I was with my son who he turned to and was polite and charming to, turned away from me. 

Question: You’ve said Murdoch’s moral center is different from yours and mine. Why? 

Michael Wolff: I think his family matters, his company matters, his newspapers matter to him. His moral center is different because he doesn't feel necessarily part of our world. It is his world that he is a part of. I think he sees himself as relatively remote from the rest of us. He is in a sense a nation/state unto himself and so his first interest is protecting his world. 

Question: Why? 

Michael Wolff: Remember, for 100 years the Murdoch family has been among the most important and prominent and powerful families in Australia. So I think he's always had a sense of himself as a person apart and as he's built his company, and he built it for more than 40 years, has been building this company in countries other than his own. I think that it has been a very key aspect of how he regards everyone else and himself that he is not quite of the communities he lives in. 

Question: What’s Murdoch’s future? 

Michael Wolff: Well the future for Rupert himself is death. He is 79 years old; this is inevitable and that will be the key factor in the future of his company. This is a kind of unique company because it's a very large company, it's a public company—but nevertheless is the expression of one man. It's about his interest, his obsessions, his point of view. So it necessarily changes dramatically, radically, and quickly when he's no longer there. One of the key focuses of his company, one of the key businesses remains newspapers and there are very, very few people in the media business and few people in his own family who believe that there is much currency or economic life left in newspapers, whereas Rupert himself believes that they are continued to be singularly the most important influence in his life, our lives, and in the life of his company. 

Recorded on May 19, 2010
Interviewed by Jessica Liebman

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