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The Power of News: The History of Reuters.

From the sub-slime to the sublime is a tempting way to summarize the commonwealth contributions chronicled in these two books. But that's too glib.

Viewed close up, media baron Rupert Murdoch isn't as demonic as expected, nor is the Reuters information service as magisterial. In muscling their way to international prominence, both have left multiple imprints and stirred plenty of controversy.

Murdoch's story is certainly sexier, and William Shawcross tells it that way. He views Murdoch as the heir from birth to a delicious dual legacy - one grandfather, Rupert Greene, was an irrepressible gambler, and the other, Patrick Murdoch, a stern preacher. The result, as the New Yorker's Tina Brown noted after meeting Rupert Murdoch, was that "although he'll be trouble, he'll also be enormous fun."

Shawcross starts with Murdoch's low point, an early 1990s short-term debt crisis that almost erased his empire. Begun in the 1950s when Murdoch inherited a small Australian paper, News Corporation came to include Britain's archetype tabloid, the Sun, and its stately Times and Sunday Times; America's supermarket tabloid Star as well as the New York Post, Boston Herald and Chicago Sun-Times; the Village Voice, TV Guide and New York magazine; the Twentieth Century Fox studio, Metromedia television stations and the upstart Fox Broadcasting Network. Its 1992 revenue was $7.8 billion.

Murdoch had surged from continent to continent through shrewd bargain hunting, hardball management and brutal cost-cutting. And Shawcross presents numerous examples of what seems a pattern of double-dealing: the ingratiating Murdoch saying almost anything to get a small piece of the action, then moving, despite commitments otherwise, to take over.

In an early deal for London's News of the World, Murdoch aligned himself as white knight with the biggest shareholders, the Carr family, and agreed not to seek more than 40 percent of the stock. Then, as the Carrs saw it, he abrogated the agreement within a month, consolidated power, and rousted them from the business.

Murdoch journalism has been characterized by unrepentant down-marketing of his papers. His "brew of sex, fun and sensationalism," including bare-breasted pinups, either "livened them up or dragged them down."

"All newspapers are run to make profits," he once said. "I don't run anything for respectability."

Shawcross does pay tribute to Murdoch as "an entrepreneur of genius and a dedicated publisher." He understates the uglier side and credits Murdoch with charm, directness and enough of a reputation for integrity that, when his debt crisis arose, 146 world banks signed on to help save his company.

Compared to Murdoch's saucy saga, the Reuters story proves far more sedate, especially in historian Read's commissioned, workmanlike version.

Still, the Reuters rise, like Murdoch's, raised its share of hackles and questions. The service began in London in 1851, founded by Julius Reuter, a German who had changed his name from Israel Beer Josaphat. As it grew, its relationship to the British government produced constant questions about subsidies, secret agreements, nationalism and objectivity. Its ever-expanding business ventures brought collisions on nearly every continent.

During World War 1, the German background of its founding family led to suspicions that it had "been subverted by German influences." A small cell of Communists and fellow travelers operated out of its editorial floor during the 1940s, leading to an embarrassing shakeup.

Read's main storyline, however, isn't journalistic at all. It follows how Reuters astutely positioned itself as a global financial service, providing information 24 hours a day around the world. By 1989, only 9 percent of its customers were media; 85 percent were in finance and business.

Sadly, then, neither of these books turns out to be about journalism. At Reuters, it's the story of business positioning, featuring the gradual overshadowing of news people by the finance crowd. With Murdoch, it's the corporate chase more than the content of his properties. While the Reuters legacy to journalism proves grander than Murdoch's, the most dismaying point is how irrelevant both can seem in the media's entrepreneurial age.
COPYRIGHT 1993 University of Maryland
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Stepp, Carl Sessions
Publication:American Journalism Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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