Printer Friendly


There is emerging a General Formula by which the quality of a media book may be calculated before reading it: the greater the pre-publication pseudo-controversy the book generates, the worse the book actually is --but never for the reasons that made the book "hot." Richard Clurman's book about Time Inc., To the End of Time, sucked for reasons entirely separate from the Liz Smith-inspired theory that Robert Sam Anson plagiarized the manuscript in Esquire. Eric Alterman's assault on the punditocracy, Sound and Fury, suffered not, as prominent reviewers hulled, from one-sided political bias, but from an acute allergy to any kind of media theory.

Consider, then, William Shawcross's Murdoch, already the subject of scorn in Tina Brown's Vanity Fair Weekly, once known as The New Yorker. In a short salvo months before the book's American debut, a writer called Shawcross a Murdoch "hagiographer" and said that the Aussie baron "has found his Boswell." Shawcross's defenders--notably John Le Carre--counter-claimed that Brown was merely avenging the book's less-than-flattering treatment of her husband, onetime Murdoch editor Harry Evans, an assumption the couple denounced, in the pages of The New York Times and The Washington Post, as "sexist."

Given such highly visible invective, the General Formula predicts that Murdoch is an unreadable disaster--which it is. But certainly not because of excessive to a dying toward Murdoch, or because of its discussion of Evans, a bit player who comes off as a grousing idealist. No, the problem is that somehow the writer who made his reputation by trashing Henry Kissinger has turned as juicy and froth-inducing a subject as Rupert Murdoch into an arid literary equivalent of kitty litter.

Murdoch is drearily written, clumsily organized, and--like too many Simon & Schuster volumes--badly in need of genuine editing. The first chapter--the first!--ends with this cliffhanging description of Murdoch's father Keith: "He was also a generous and discerning patron of the arts." Such resume-dumping typifies Shawcross's "prose" style, as well as his ham-listed sense of structure. Admittedly, it's difficult to capture Murdoch's simultaneous global deals in a straightforward narrative; Shawcross tries by breaking down his chronology into subheadings: "New York," "Hollywood," "London," etc. But the effect, paradoxically, is that each section ends up being both insufficient and redundant. Like too many contemporary chroniclers, Shawcross seems to have spent months trying to understand the intricacies of business deals, without realizing that all this leaves you with is a series of unreadable sections that end with "It was a fabulous victory for Murdoch" or "It was a crippling defeat for Murdoch."

The jacket copy says that "Shawcross has proved his reporting credentials again and again," but the claim is in little evidence in this book. Some of his mistakes are factual, such as when he claims that The New York Daily News, after Murdoch considered buying it, was sold to Joseph Allbritton; in fact, Allbritton decline to buy the paper in 1982, and in 1991 it was sold to longtime Murdoch rival Robert Maxwell. Sometimes Shawcross's errors are in judgment: he completely misses the point of a famous story in which Murdoch went to Washington in 1980 to plead for a quick, cheap and vital loan from the Export-Import Bank. President Jimmy Carter badly wanted Murdoch's New York Post to endorse him over primary rival Ted Kennedy, and although an 8 percent loan was approved, and the Post endorsed Carter, Shawcross concludes that there was no quid pro quo. But Murdoch purposely scheduled his meeting so he could announce to the bankers that he was on his way to dine with the president; this subtlety of clout eludes Shawcross altogether. Then there's just plain dim-wittedness, as when Shawcross--in an apparent attempt to provide a telling tidbit for his British and Australian readers--says that Mnrdoch lackey Steve Dunleavy "would sometimes spend the hight drinking in bars in the fish market area of New York (the sort of place where one is apt to hear Frank Sinatra played on the juke box) ." I would be shocked to find a bar anywhere in New York where you can't hear Sinatra on the juke box.

Shawcross's obtuseness on such points is clearly the result of his distance from the material. In reading Murdoch, one gets little sense of a writer who's engaged firsthand with his subjects, or even one who understands them completely. In the repeated incidents of massive newspaper layoffs or firing for example, Shawcross almost never quotes anyone but an editor or financial expert. Generally speaking, it's been the trade unions which have suffered for Murdoch's greed or blunders, but their plight gets scant attention here. One of the few times his narrative breaks out of its tedious recitation of fact is his account of Murdoch's establishment of Wappins, a union-busting bunker Murdoch secretly constructed in 1985 and 1986. To judge from his footnotes, however, even that drama is borrowed from other books.

Bill Gifford is an associate editor of the Washington City Paper.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Washington Monthly Company
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Ledbetter, James
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:The Lobbyists.
Next Article:Deadly secrets.

Related Articles
Looking into Murdoch's plans: a blueprint for world conquest.

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters