Sunday, December 31, 2023

Flashback, December 1973: Murdoch Gains American Toehold With San Antonio Paper Acquisition

Completing a $19.7 million purchase of the morning San Antonio Express and afternoon San Antonio News from Harte-Hanks Newspapers Inc., Rupert Murdoch was able to secure his first American properties 50 years ago this month.

The purchase launched the Australian on a course that made him the most formidable media baron of the 20th and 21st centuries, with properties around the world, a perch from which he finally stepped down a few months ago at age 92.

At age 21, Murdoch inherited a single afternoon Australian tabloid from his father, the foundation of what became News Corp. In 1969, having bought a string of papers in his own country, he turned to the British market when he bought the weekly News of the World and the daily London Sun.  

With his San Antonio acquisitions, he planned to import the same formula that had made him a success on Fleet Street, what I would call “3C X S”: i.e., crime, controversy, and cheesecake times scandal.

More specifically, it meant in his papers screaming headlines, faux anti-elitism, and manufactured outrage—and, in the newsroom, ousters of key managers and staffers as well as broken promises about editorial independence.

Murdoch entered the American market just as the Watergate scandal was slowly but steadily eroding support for Richard Nixon. Disdain for Tricky Dick’s opponents was as much a part of the publisher’s DNA as scorn for journalistic objectivity or ethical newsgathering methods. (“The American press might get their pleasure in successfully crucifying Nixon,” he said, “but the last laugh could be on them. See how they like it when the Commies take over the West.” He could never imagine a world in which both Nixon and “the Commies” would be gone.)

Given that Murdoch was far more enthusiastic about Nixon than he has been in private about Donald Trump, I think it highly probable that Nixon could have survived his growing scandals if he had Murdoch’s backing when the publisher’s American holdings reached their eventual peak.

Even as he was getting ready to invade San Antonio, he was seeking a wider arena for his outsized ambitions. He would have those in just a couple of years, launching The National Star (later, renamed simply The Star) as a supermarket tabloid competitor of The National Enquirer in February 1974 and transforming the faded liberal daily The New York Post into a rabid right-wing publication after his acquisition in 1976.

Nevertheless, it is one of the ironies of the past half-century, when daily newspapers withered successively under the assault of the evening news, 24-hour cable stations, and the Internet, Murdoch remained one of the most enthusiastic supporters or print against electronic journalism. 

(The newspaper portion of his empire might be considerably slimmed down, if his successor, son Lachlan Murdoch—notably less enthusiastic about the old medium—has his way, according to this September 2023 AP article by Pan Pylas and Jill Lawless.)

Though the Murdoch empire has, with more than a little truth, been credited with creating the conditions for Trumpism, the denial of climate science may be the most lasting and pernicious legacy of the publisher’s.

Had Murdoch’s influence merely extended to America, he would just bear responsibility for the rise of a homegrown demagogue. But because he is invested in six continents, he has been able to undermine climate-science advocates and erode diplomatic and legislative efforts to curb the greatest existential threat of our time.

It took two screenwriters, Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles, to depict in fictional terms one of the early “yellow journalists”: William Randolph Hearst, in “Citizen Kane.”

In contrast, Murdoch was translated into fiction by the novelist Edward St Aubyn, in Dunbar, a 2017 retelling of King Lear, and Jesse Armstrong and his team of writers for the recently concluded series Succession.

Compared with other newspapers that he kept alive despite constant losses (notably, The New York Post, which only recorded its first annual profit in modern history this past year), San Antonio’s News and Express fell by the wayside relatively quickly in the Murdoch stable of newspapers.

After bamboozling readers for a decade with headlines like “Ax Attacker Kills Sleeper,” “Armies of Insects Marching on S.A.,” and “Uncle Tortures Tots with Hot Fork,” Murdoch began to hedge his bets with the two papers he’d bought, closing the News in favor of a reconstituted Express-News in 1984, then selling that to his longtime rival in the San Antonio market, the Hearst Corp.

Now, it was America, not just San Antonio, that he was looking to conquer. In the end, it would involve telling people what they most wanted to hear, even if his private views were far different.

To satisfy the legal requirement that only American citizens could own U.S. TV stations, Murdoch became a naturalized citizen in September 1985. Still, there is reason to wonder if he has anything other than contempt for the great mass of his adopted countrymen—or if he feels any sensitivity at all to those less fortunate than him.

In Michael Wolff’s recent book about the Murdochs and their empire, The Fall, Rupert is quoted taking a swipe at both his Fox evening anchor, Sean Hannity, and, implicitly, in the most insulting manner possible, many in the latter’s audience: “He’s retarded, like most Americans.”

In word and action, Murdoch might be the best example of what columnist H.L. Mencken meant nearly a century ago in concluding, “No one in this world, so far as I know...has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people."

No comments: