Monday, May 12, 2008

News Corp. ends bid to buy "uneconomical" Newsday: What is the future of Rupert Murdoch and FOX News? Using data to anticipate events

If it is indeed true, as Frank Rich argues in Sunday's New York Times, that we are entering into a post-partisan era of American politics, then it is worth pondering what might be the future of FOX News -- for FOX News is almost certainly the leading partisan media source in the country today. So what will it look like in five years? Bits of data can help put that picture together.

According to the newspapers, News Corp., which controls both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post as well as FOX News, MySpace, 21st Century FOX, and many other communications media in the US and around the world, has pulled its bid to purchase the Long Island-based daily newspaper, Newsday. (NY Times report. FT's report.)

Apparently, it's not entirely clear why the bid was dropped. However, evidence suggests that a rival (Cablevision) has driven the price beyond News Corp. chairman Rupert Murdoch's (left) comfort zone.

From a Yahoo report:

News Corp. spokeswoman Teri Everett didn't immediately elaborate on why the company revoked its earlier offer, but she hinted at the potentially higher price tag, saying, "It became uneconomical for us to continue." Murdoch had indicated earlier that he wouldn't raise his bid.

Mr. Murdoch's bid was thought to be $580 million. Cablevision's bid, according to the Financial Times, is $650 million.

The word choice of his spokeswoman -- "uneconomical" -- is interesting insight. The great questions about Mr. Murdoch and the future of his company revolve around the media mogul's motives. Another way to ask this question, is to ask: Are his personal interests political or economic? Is he interested in political power or economic wealth? While the distinction between economics and politics -- wealth and power -- breaks down if you stick to it too forcefully (because they overlap so much), such categories provide a way of anticipating what to expect from Mr. Murdoch in the future. One can see a distinction, even as they help determine each other. They give us two categories to help discern the motivations at work pushing him, shaping his decisions, and creating the outline of his -- and thus FOX News' -- prospects.

As a great help, in 2006 The New Yorker ran a story about Mr. Murdoch's motivations. For example, the article asked: Will he, or won't he, move left in 2008? By extension, will FOX News, or won't FOX News, move left in 2008? The story should be read in full; it is full of interesting notes and in the end is willing to let the reader decide. Here is how it starts:

Like the legendary press barons to whom he is often compared—Hearst, Pulitzer, Northcliffe, Beaverbrook—Rupert Murdoch has relished playing kingmaker. In the fall of 1977, when he was forty-six and had recently arrived in New York from Australia, by way of Fleet Street, he decided, as the new owner of the Post and New York, to endorse a candidate for the mayoralty. The city was in crisis: the treasury was empty; the serial killer Son of Sam had been terrorizing the five boroughs; the labor unions were threatening to strike; and seven Democratic candidates, including Mario Cuomo, Herman Badillo, and Ed Koch, were vying to succeed the hapless Abe Beame. Murdoch invited them to his office. “Mario Cuomo was Governor Carey’s candidate,” Koch recalled recently. “And Rupert’s preferred candidate, too, initially. Rupert asked each of us what we would do to take on the labor unions. Mario said, ‘Trust me.’ I said, ‘I’ll take a strike and I’ll break it. If they go on strike, it will be illegal, and I’ll defeat them.’ ”

Koch, then a liberal congressman from Greenwich Village, lacked both Cuomo’s eloquence and Badillo’s popularity in the outer boroughs. According to one poll, only four per cent of voters even knew who he was. “Rupert was impressed by what I said,” Koch said. “But he wanted to endorse Mario nevertheless. So he gave him a chance to come back and see him again later in the week. Again, he asked him the same question. And Mario said the same thing: ‘Trust me.’

“A day or two later, I was sitting at home. My campaign truck had broken down, so I couldn’t go out campaigning. The phone rang and a voice said, ‘Is Congressman Koch at home?’ I didn’t recognize the voice, so I said, ‘Who’s calling?’ The person said, ‘It’s Rupert.’ I said to myself, ‘Rupert . . . Rupert . . . That’s not a Jewish name. Who could this be?’ Then I recognized the Australian accent. I said, ‘Oh yes, that Rupert.’ “He said, ‘Congressman, we will be endorsing you in the mayoral race. It will be on the front page of the Post tomorrow.’ I said, ‘Rupert, you just elected me.’ And he had. The Post’s endorsement transformed my campaign. I wouldn’t have won without it.”

Almost thirty years later, Murdoch is arguably the world’s most powerful media executive. His company, News Corporation, owns the Fox Broadcasting network, the Twentieth Century Fox film studio, the book publisher HarperCollins, the Post, The Weekly Standard, MySpace, and part of DirecTV, the biggest satellite-television provider in the country. News Corp. also owns five British newspapers and more than a hundred and ten Australian newspapers, and controls satellite-television providers in Britain, Italy, and Asia.

The success of Fox News Channel, which Murdoch launched in 1996, has secured his reputation as a strident conservative, so it came as a shock to both his right-wing allies and his liberal enemies when, in July, he hosted a fund-raising breakfast for Hillary Rodham Clinton. During the Clinton Administration, both the Post and Fox News pilloried the First Couple with a relish bordering on cruelty. (Page Six, the Post’s famous gossip column, referred to the President as the “horndog-in-chief,” and Sean Delonas, its editorial cartoonist, routinely depicted him in his underpants.) Since September 11th, Murdoch’s media outlets have sometimes seemed like propaganda arms of the Bush Administration, skewering anybody who dares to question the President’s war on terror. (Last year, Bill O’Reilly, one of Fox’s most popular anchors, suggested that the American Civil Liberties Union and the “judges who side with them” are “terror allies.” When the Abu Ghraib prison story broke, the Post didn’t even put it on the front page.)

My guess, right now, based on what I know and imagine, is that Mr. Murdoch will move left a bit on politics (but not necessarily economics) if (a) Sen. Barack Obama wins, and (b) if Sen. Obama pursuades him to move by the force of his popular support in FOX News-viewing areas. (a) is more likely than (b), but the thing about Mr. Obama is that, give 'em hell, he and his campaign are using issues like the economy and religion, and to a slight extent even the war, to go after hard-core Republicans whose conventional wisdom is otherwise strongly shaped by FOX News.

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