It's hard to find anyone indifferent about News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch.
Fans see him as a visionary — someone who has used shrewd understanding of finance and a keen sense of popular tastes to shake up the media business as he built a movie, TV, newspaper, magazine and book empire. Fox Broadcasting — his biggest achievement — helped to break the collective lock on prime-time TV by ABC, CBS and NBC. Fox News offered a lively alternative to CNN.
"He has a broader perspective and greater patience than any of the other media" leaders, says Christopher Dixon, managing partner for media investments at Gabelli Group Capital Partners. "If he sets his eye on a target, he usually will get it."
That patience was on display after he set his eye on Dow Jones.
Critics, however, say he has coarsened the culture by pandering to popular tastes in news and entertainment. They also charge that he has used his enormous media power to inappropriately promote his business interests and political views.
"His success has been at the expense of the public interest," says Andrew Schwartzman, president of Media Access Project, a consumer advocacy law firm. "The concentration he has achieved is antithetical to Federal Communications Commission media policy and bad for free speech."
The son of a powerful Australian newspaper owner, Murdoch initially resisted following in his father's footsteps. He was known as "Red Rupert" at Oxford University in Britain, where he studied political science and kept a bust of Vladimir Lenin on his dorm room mantel.
Family business pulled apart
His life changed after 1952, however, when his father, facing mounting debts and a boardroom coup, died of a heart attack. The family had to sell most of its newspaper interests, although Rupert was able to take charge of The Adelaide News.
"He grew up in Australia in an atmosphere of ritual feuding with other media," says Australian Financial Review reporter Neil Chenoweth, who wrote a Murdoch biography. "It's a tribal thing."
By the late 1960s Murdoch had built a profitable newspaper and TV station company in Australia and New Zealand that included The Australian, a national daily he founded. But he couldn't keep his company growing there without running afoul of government limits on media ownership. So he turned his attention overseas, where he became known as a publisher of racy tabloids including The News of the World and The Sun in Britain and The Star in the USA.
Murdoch also moved politically to the right after run-ins with newspaper unions and in response to what he perceived as a national overreaction in the USA to Watergate.
That's why many people were stunned in 1976 when he snapped up the company that owned two of the Big Apple's most cosmopolitan publications —New York magazine and the Village Voice — as well as the liberal but financially on-the-ropes New York Post.
The Post took on a new identity. Murdoch tried to revive it and other struggling U.S. daily newspapers he later picked up, including the Boston Herald and the Chicago Sun-Times, with a story mix heavy on crime, scandals, sex and gossip.
Murdoch's eye turns to television
By the mid-1980s, however, Murdoch's interest in the USA shifted to electronic media. He became a U.S. citizen — a prerequisite to buying TV stations — and sold some properties, including New York and the Voice. He then borrowed heavily from banks, as well as through sales of junk bonds, to launch a massive acquisition spree.
He created Fox Broadcasting after buying the 20th Century Fox studio and Metromedia's TV stations. Shortly afterward, he picked up the owner of TV Guide, using the magazine to help legitimize his fledgling network.
And he developed a passion for satellite broadcasting, first with a U.K. system and later in Asia.
But he also got overextended. In 1990 he couldn't make a payment on his bank loans and needed funds to keep his operations going. Wall Street, however, showed little interest in bailing out what it saw as a maddeningly complicated company that let him make huge bets on a whim.
"His historical blind spot is that he is not always thinking for shareholders," Dixon says. "That has made it difficult for him to access capital."
Murdoch averted bankruptcy when his banks restructured his debt and fronted extra cash. He soon began to mend fences with The Street.
As an owner of U.S.-regulated electronic media, Murdoch has lobbied federal officials to bend limits on media ownership. He has argued that he is an underdog in most of his markets, and needs help to promote competition.
By the mid-1990s Murdoch was ready to grow again — and stirred up more controversy.
Supporters of democracy in China blasted Murdoch when he bought a struggling Hong Kong-based satellite broadcasting service and it then dropped the BBC. It gave the appearance of a campaign to win favor with the Chinese government. Murdoch has denied any linkage.
Continuing feud with Ted Turner
His pugnacious side was more evident with the launch of Fox News. The news channel also reignited a long-running feud between Murdoch and CNN founder Ted Turner. The New York Post frequently mocked Turner. Time Warner, which had bought Turner's company, refused to carry Fox News, as did other cable operators.
That led Murdoch to cut a deal with EchoStar with the goal of creating a U.S. satellite powerhouse that could threaten cable. He backed out of the plan, though, after Time Warner and other cable operators agreed to carry his new channel.
In 2003, the News Corp. chief finally satisfied his lust for a U.S. satellite broadcaster by buying control of DirecTV. But his ardor for the business here soon cooled, and last year he agreed to sell the stake to Liberty Media's John Malone for the News Corp. shares that made Malone a threat.
News Corp. turned its attention to the Web, notably snapping up social networking site MySpace — a major success, even though some analysts initially said that Murdoch had overpaid.
"He's able to assess the potential (of a business opportunity) and take advantage of it faster than anybody else," Chenoweth says. "He's the fastest swimmer in the pool."