Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 2003, pages 24-26

Neocon Corner

Rupert Murdoch and William Kristol: Using the Press to Advance Israel's Interests

By Richard H. Curtiss

Rupert Murdoch: Despite Affairs Worldwide, His Heart Stays With Israel

Press lord Rupert Murdoch was born in Melbourne, Australia, on March 11, 1931. His grandfather was a Protestant minister who immigrated to Australia from Britain. Rupert's father, Sir Keith Murdoch, was a newspaper publisher, and his mother an Orthodox Jew, although Murdoch never offers that information in his biographies. He later became an American citizen for business reasons. Depending on which biography you choose to believe, Murdoch either had humble origins as a newspaperman (Murdoch's version), or was given a first-rate education at Oxford's Worcester College and eventually turned his inheritance into a multi-billion-dollar company.

At any rate, after finishing his degree and working for two years at Britain's Daily Express, Murdoch returned to Australia in 1952 and learned the publishing business from his father, publisher of the Melbourne Adelaide News. It is clear that Murdoch was financially comfortable before embarking on his meteoric rise, as he quickly added the Sydney Mirror and the News of the World and The Sun in London to his expanding collection of media outlets.

Murdoch was a gambler in every sense of the word as he moved into the newspaper and publishing market. Time and again, his willingness to take chances led him to risk putting an entire deal together on a shoestring. Murdoch acquired newspapers in Australia, always on a tight budget, and always eventually turned a profit. His detractors maintain that he managed this mainly by featuring titillating material in his newly-acquired publications.

As Murdoch moved into the international arena, such bad taste remained the hallmark of all his achievements. Even the august Times and Sunday Times of London were overrun in the 1980s by an unending diet of racy stories after Murdoch's News Corporation took control.

As it turned out, Murdoch was absolutely right in believing that sensational photographs and so-called "juicy" material cheapened a publication but vastly increased its circulation. More recently, the same has been true of Murdoch's acquisitions in the United States. Of the two most sensationalistic newspapers in New York—the New York Post and the Daily News—the former is run by Murdoch, the latter by Morton Zuckerman.

Notably, while Zuckerman's employees frequently complain about his constant meddling, New York Post reporter Gersh Kuntzman insists that "in the newsroom, everyone loves [Murdoch]. He's really charismatic, a very intelligent person, not just a figurehead."

Although Kuntzman denies that Murdoch pressures his employees on the paper's content, he admits that page two of the Post is referred to internally as the "Pravda Page"—meaning that whenever a business or political interest of Murdoch's makes news, it appears on page two, regardless of whether that news would interest Post readers. "Maybe our editor, Ken Chandler," Kuntzman suggests, "is trying to catch Murdoch's eye."

According to former Murdoch executive David Salter, that is what most News Corporation executives do, "[falling] over each other trying to out-praise his business acumen and flair, conveniently forgetting that [in the early 1990s] the whole News Corporation empire was one tiny financial heartbeat away from total collapse."

Former Times of London editor Harold Evans disagrees with Kuntzman, insisting that Murdoch does indeed make it known what he wants to see printed or broadcast—by constantly disparaging politicians he doesn't like, generally criticizing articles, and sending along copies of articles from other (often right-wing) publications to his employees with notes like "Worth reading!" Clearly, Murdoch indirectly orders his employees, supposedly independent journalists, to adopt positions that are in line with his own politics. Says former Times East Asia correspondent Jonathan Mirsky, the media mogul "does not need to tell [his] editors what to write, they just know."

Murdoch's personal life is a story in itself. He married his first wife, Patricia Booker, in 1956. After having one child, Prudence, they divorced in 1960. He later married Anna Torv, a reporter at Sydney's Daily Mirror, with whom he had three children: Elizabeth, Lachlan and James. They were married 31 years and divorced in 1998—four years after Murdoch became an American citizen to satisfy foreign ownership regulations. His current wife is Wendy Deng, a former Star TV executive whom Murdoch met in Hong Kong after acquiring the satellite station (which has audiences from Japan to the Middle East) in 1993. They have one daughter, Grace, and another child on the way. Murdoch's oldest son, Lachlan, is now a major player in his 72-year-old father's activities.

Not much has been reported on the numerous loopholes, operating waivers, and other gambits Murdoch employed in expanding his mega-conglomerate News Corporation. Murdoch's acquisitions (fully- or jointly-owned), which fluctuate occasionally, so far have included: Twentieth Century Fox, HarperCollins publishing, TV Guide, the Village Voice, the New York Post, Fox Broadcasting, Fox News Channel, Fox Sports Net, The Weekly Net, and television stations in New York (WNYW), Washington, DC (WTTG), Los Angeles (KTTV), Philadelphia (WTXF), Chicago (WFLD), Atlanta (WAGA), Boston (WFXT), Phoenix (KSAZ), and 14 other cities.

Most recently, Murdoch spent $6.6 billion to purchase a controlling interest in DirecTV, the nation's largest home satellite television service. This gives him the ability to promote Kristol and his other favorites into 11 million U.S. homes.

In addition to these major acquisitions, most of which are part of News Corporation, Murdoch owns dozens of newspapers, is a former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, and owns the National Rugby League, Broadsystem, and Fox Interactive. In Britain, Murdoch effectively controls some 35 percent of newspaper circulation nationwide. The net worth of his News Corporation is $5.3 billion, and, although it is not the world's largest media corporation, it is among the top five (along with AOL Time Warner, Disney, Bartelsmann and Vivendi-Universal).

Murdoch always has been known as an opportunistic buyer, and likes to consider himself a "catalyst for change." He is also recognized for what some have called his "special brand of synergy," or "corporate cross-pollination," using his various corporate holdings to publicize and reinforce one another. An example of this is the Murdoch financial columnist who advised readers to buy stock in News Corporation.

Another example of Murdoch's synergy is his investment in a small Israeli company that specialized in encryption—a service that turned out to be quite profitable when combined with his digital satellite empire. Thanks to Murdoch's proven ability to combine business interests, the Israeli encryption technology became the industry standard for satellite receiver boxes.

Murdoch's strong personal and business attachments to Israel led him to become a strong political backer and close friend of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. His favorable coverage of the Israeli government has not really been reciprocated—Murdoch has faced legal trouble in Israel for tax reasons—but he has received recognition in the U.S.: in 1982 the American Jewish Congress in New York voted Murdoch "Communications Man of the Year."

Murdoch's close relationship with Sharon and heavy investment in Israel led former Times Africa correspondent Sam Kiley to resign his position. "The Times foreign editor and other middle managers flew into hysterical terror every time a pro-Israel lobbying group wrote in with a quibble or complaint," Kiley said, "and then usually took [the lobby's] side against their own correspondent...No pro-Israel lobbyist ever dreamed of having such power over a great national newspaper." After one conversation in which Kiley was asked not to mention a 12-year-old Palestinian boy who was killed by Israeli troops, the reporter "was left wordless, so I quit."

Murdoch uses his various "acquisition binges" for far more than simple financial gain. HarperCollins often pays huge book advances to public figures with political influence. For example, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich received an initial $4.5 million deal from HarperCollins at the same time as major telecommunications legislation was before Congress. Gingrich eventually was shamed into returning some of the money, but the fact remains that since most of these books never make their advance money back, they appear to be generous "gifts"—or worse—from Murdoch to the individuals in question.

Murdoch uses his newspapers in a similar manner. His publications worked diligently to bolster former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's career, attacking her opponents. Thatcher also received at least $3 million from HarperCollins for her memoirs. In addition, ex-British Prime Minister John Major is believed to have accepted a seven-figure advance from Murdoch for his memoirs, and there is talk of an attempt by a coalition of publishers to outbid Murdoch for the rights to the future memoirs of current Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In addition to supporting politicians both financially and by running favorable stories about them, Murdoch does the opposite with those he dislikes. A prominent example is former U.S. President Bill Clinton, whose election Murdoch worked furiously to prevent by running tips and speculation in many of his media outlets about Clinton's personal and political affairs. For example, when Clinton aide Vincent Foster died mysteriously, although the verdict was suicide, Murdoch printed a great deal of speculation on whether or not Foster was in fact murdered. Another example was the well-known Monica Lewinsky affair, during which Murdoch ran incriminating headlines—although the content of the respective articles was not nearly as cut-and-dried.

Although Murdoch, who some have called "the Teflon man," has weathered more criticism than any other media tycoon, some of his detractors insist there has not been enough. The National Broadcasting Corporation's West Coast president, Don Ohlmeyer, regularly ridiculed in Murdoch's Post, noted that, "Until the rest of the media decide to take a hard look at Rupert's empire the way his media look at other people's empires, he's won. People genuinely fear him, and that's a good position to be in, in this business."

William Kristol: Using The Weekly Standard To Push for War on Iraq

The steady beating of war drums by neoconservatives like William Kristol was, in the eyes of many, the most influential factor in the U.S. decision to go to war against Iraq. Referring to Kristol's numerous articles and media appearances in support of the war, Washington Post syndicated columnist Richard Cohen even dubbed it "Kristol's War."

One reason Kristol was able to help create this war was the fact that he had a ready-made platform, courtesy of the Australian press lord Rupert Murdoch, who underwrites Kristol's magazine, The Weekly Standard. Never mind that, according to Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz, the magazine has operated at a financial loss ever since it was founded. It succeeds in its main purpose, which is to provide legitimacy to the ubiquitous Kristol and other staffers of the little-read Weekly Standard in their primary role as television talking heads.

The son of Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb, Kristol, like his parents, is a charter member of the group known as the neoconservatives, a loose network of hawks whose influence is perceived by many to be a primary factor behind the president's decision to attack Iraq. Kristol was raised in Manhattan and educated at Harvard, where his roommate was Alan Keyes, a perennial Republican "presidential candidate" and sometime talk show host. Interestingly, the African-American Keyes has been wildly pro-Israel for many years.

Early on, Kristol worked for Democrats such as Senators Hubert Humphrey and Henry "Scoop" Jackson (of which neocon Richard Perle also was a protégé). By 1976, however, Kristol had become a Republican. He also taught briefly at the University of Pennsylvania and at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

In 1985 President Reagan's secretary of education, William J. Bennett, hired Kristol. In 1988, with the election of George Herbert Walker Bush, Kristol was appointed chief of staff for Vice President Dan Quayle. At the time, The New Republic called Kristol "Dan Quayle's brain."

When Bill Clinton and Al Gore defeated Bush and Quayle in 1992, ABC TV official Dorrance Smith—a former Bush communications director—hired Kristol at the network. After the Republicans took Congress two years later, Kristol approached Murdoch to propose that he finance The Weekly Standard. Since then, the magazine has made no significant increase in circulation from the original 60,000. A large part of this figure includes gratis mailings of the magazine, all subsidized by Murdoch.

Kristol hired former Reagan official Robert Kagan as a contributing editor, and together the two published an influential think piece in the journal Foreign Affairs that chided the Republicans as being too isolationist. "In the realm of foreign policy," the piece began, "conservatives are adrift."

The media had mixed reactions to the pair. Conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote that the two were "the main proponents of what you might call the American greatness school." The New Republic chided Kristol and Kagan, arguing that "this sanctimonious preening is a recipe for endless and reckless intervention everywhere." Despite all criticism, in 1997 The Standard ran a cover piece titled "Saddam Must Go."

Kristol then co-launched the New American Century group, of which the most prominent neocons are members, and which in 1998 petitioned then-President Clinton to "[remove] Saddam Hussain and his regime from power." Co-signers of the petition included Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Elliott Abrams, John Bolton, Paula Dobriansky and Robert Zoelick—all senior officials in the current Bush administration. While Kristol's government connections are clear, less certain are the facts surrounding his various business dealings. He was definitely paid $100,000 to serve over two years on an Enron advisory board.

Today, in addition to The Weekly Standard, Kristol operates a think tank that boasts big-name scholars and former government officials, and is a regular figure on Murdoch's Fox News Channel.Among his regular coterie are Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz and Perle, who recently resigned the chairmanship of the Defense Policy Board due to allegations of conflicting interests.

Kristol also was an early backer of Presidential hopeful John McCain in the 2000 elections. Kristol's support for McCain was the source of some discord following the election of President George W. Bush, especially between Kristol and incoming Vice President Dick Cheney. Kristol had also angered important GOP figures Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole. The result was that, early in the current Bush administration, Kristol was persona non grata in the White House.

Kristol persisted with his hard-right commentaries, however, even criticizing Bush when the president apologized in order to secure the release of a U.S. flight crew from China. Bush's apology, Kristol and Kagan wrote, was a "profound national humiliation." Cheney, who called the piece "one of the more disreputable commentaries I've seen in a long time," accused the pair of trying to "sell magazines," and called their comments "absurd."

Aside from that personal animus, Kristol remains very well-wired in much of Washington. For example, he meets regularly with National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, with whom he has been on good terms since she was provost at Stanford University. Kristol also holds regular meetings with administration election strategist Karl Rove.

Relations with the White House improved further after the Sept. 11 attacks, as the Bush administration shifted its focus first to al-Qaeda, then to Iraq. The Weekly Standard became a beacon of support for the administration's "war on terrorism," and later on Iraq. Like President Bush, Kristol regularly blurs the line between the two.

Richard H. Curtiss is executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

sidebar

From the May 25, 2002 15 Minutes magazine:

"This is how Mike Bloomberg decided to go for the gold at City Hall. Last spring, he asked Ed Koch what it was like to be mayor of New York...

"[Koch] said that in 1977 the editors of the New York Post interviewed the seven [mayoral] candidates. Koch stood sixth in the polls. A week later his phone rang. 'Is Congressman Koch home?' 'Who's calling?' Koch asked.

"Murdoch proceeded to inform the candidate that the next day's New York Post would endorse him on the front page.

"'Rupert,' Koch replied, 'you just elected me mayor of New York.'"