Rupert Murdoch has created a reputation over many years as being a ruthless businessman who always gets what he wants. For many of us, the outraged talking heads on his Fox News channel are almost surrogates for the man himself — conservative, rude, disparaging of others' views, always confident of their own superiority. The Man Who Owns the News, by Michael Wolff, cements Murdoch's reputation, but also attempts to go beyond the caricature of the man that most us have in our heads. (That is, of course, if we've ever thought about Murdoch to begin with.)
Author Wolff uses Murdoch's purchase of Dow Jones (and thus The Wall Street Journal) as the central event in his narrative, detailing the protracted negotiations between Murdoch's News Corp and the dysfunctional, inept Bancroft family, whose spoiled, scattered members own a legendary newspaper but have absolutely no business sense. While this is a fine and understandable device, most of us are probably more interested in the other parts of the book, those that seek the answer to what makes Murdoch tick.
Problem is, Wolff can't quite seem to figure out what make Murdoch tick, and Murdoch himself doesn't seem to know or care. Wolff has to do a lot of imagining and a lot of reading between the lines, making his look back on Murdoch's life very interesting, but making it easy to question whether Wolff's take is accurate. Does Murdoch really lust for power for its own sake? Is he really as much of an automaton as Wolff makes him out to be? Why does he construct every business deal as a fight against an enemy? Why does he only surround himself with "yes" men?
Wolff was given all sorts of access to Murdoch, interviewing him for hours on end. However, it feels like much of that time was wasted, as the real "story" of Murdoch comes out through his family, who humanize him in a way that Murdoch himself can not. Still, we end up with not much more than a portrait of an old man who keeps on acquiring, acquiring, acquiring, without any vision, but simply with a need to vanquish his enemies — and death, too, if he can.
If you love a business book that takes you inside big deals, showing you how the players think, how they are connected, and the strategies they use to win in the end, The Man Who Owns the News has a lot to offer. If you're looking for true insight into one of the most powerful people of our time, however, Murdoch wins again — he's not letting you in.