You can no more injure Rupert Murdoch by calling him a purveyor of sensationalism and trash than you can offend gangrenous flesh by calling it stinky. The man doesn't have calluses. He is a callus.
That's not to say Murdoch is completely impervious to what is said and written about him. His weak spot is his family, as the Wall Street Journal learned in 2000 when it published a 3,500-word Page One story (subscription required) about his wife titled "Meet Wendi Deng: The Boss's Wife Has Influence at News Corp.—Murdoch Spouse, 31, Has Come A Long Way Since Leaving China a Dozen Years Ago—A Yale Connection in Beijing."
The piece angered Murdoch, whose News Corp. is currently bidding for the company that owns the Journal. News Corp. executive Gary Ginsberg told the New York Times last week that the Deng article "wasn't a legitimate news story, in that Wendi had no role in the company at that time. What they were doing was looking for a pretext to write a public story about a private individual."
The mogul is obviously still sensitive about his latest bride. Rupert-watchers in Australia and the United Kingdom speculate that Murdoch may have played a role in the recent spiking of a 10,000-word-plus Deng profile. (Crikey.com broke the story.) Written by Fortune magazine contributor Eric Ellis, the profile was commissioned by Good Weekend, the Saturday magazine Fairfax Media inserts inside its Melbourne and Sydney dailies. At the time the spike was delivered, Murdoch's News Corp. owned 7.5 percent of Fairfax, which raises the question: Is Rupert the sort of guy who would kill a critical story about his wife? If so, is he the sort of guy we want to own the Wall Street Journal?
The Financial Times reported April 24 that "after the [Deng] story landed and was much praised by editors for the quality of its research, a sudden decision was made last week not to run it." Journalists at The Age, the Fairfax paper in Melbourne, demanded to know whether the piece had been pulled on editorial grounds or as a result of boardroom machinations, i.e., Murdoch intervention. Whatever happened, Murdoch couldn't have been very happy. Just days later, News Corp. sold its Fairfax stake.
So, who is Wendi Deng, and why are they writing all those horrible things about her? Contrary to News Corp. assertions, Deng wielded real power inside News Corp. at the time the Journal story ran. The third paragraph of the piece states:
Though she doesn't have a formal position with her husband's media empire, she has quickly asserted influence over News Corp.'s operations and investments in Asia, the most important growth market for the company.
Working with her stepson, James Murdoch, 27, Ms. Deng has initiated or advocated Chinese Internet investments totaling between $35 million and $45 million, according to a top News Corp. executive. With her advice, News Corp. has also formed partnerships with cable companies in the region looking to upgrade their systems for high-speed video and Internet access.
Today, Deng is integral to the launching of News Corp.'s MySpace in China. MySpace China is taking on a partner, reports the April 27 Wall Street Journal, and News Corp. will have at least three seats on its board, "one of which will be occupied by Mr. Murdoch's Chinese-born wife, Wendi, who has spearheaded MySpace's push into China."
Leaked excerpts of the Ellis piece have appeared on the Web site of Media Watch, a program about the press run on Australia's ABC-TV. The site summarizes the piece as a "portrait of a young woman with stars in her eyes, spying opportunities, with not a lot of talent to back up her quest."
A senior News Corp. flack told Media Watch that "Rupert has certainly not applied any pressure to anyone on this profile…To my mind, Rupert is no more sensitive of gossipy coverage of his wife than any other husband." [Ellipses in the original.] And Good Weekend Editor Judith Whelan insists in an staff e-mail that her decision was "based on editorial judgments."
"Yet no-one has explained what 'editorial judgments' led to a long running and expensive project suddenly being deemed unworthy of publication," Media Watch reports. Expensive project? How expensive? Asia Sentinelreports that Good Weekend promised Ellis $24,500 for the profile, that he visited London, New York, Los Angeles, and Jiangsu province—where Deng was born—to report it.
The 2000 article in the Wall Street Journal established that Deng was a News Corp. player, despite Murdoch's protest that Wendi Deng was just a housewife "busy working on decorating the new apartment" in Manhattan, as he told Vanity Fair in 1999. What presumably disturbed Murdoch was the Journal's portrayal of Deng as a gold digger.
To short-form the Journal piece, Deng was born the daughter of a factory director and came to the United States in 1988 as a teenager when a California couple, Jake and Joyce Cherry, sponsored her. In 1990, after the Cherrys divorced, Deng married Jake, then in his early 50s. Cherry tells the Journal the two lived together for four or five months, but that she started seeing another man. Deng and Cherry divorced 31 months after they wed.
From California State University at Northridge, Deng jumped to the Yale School of Management, where she earned an MBA. She joined News Corp.'s satellite network, Star TV, as an intern in its Hong Kong office in 1996. The Deng-Murdoch romance was public by summer of 1998; the two married on June 25, 1999, 17 days after Murdoch divorced his wife of three decades. The curious won't have to wait much longer to find out what's in Ellis' profile. The Monthly of Melbourne intends to publish it June 6.
If I were Rupert Murdoch, I'd take the Wendi Deng punches and relax. Note to Murdoch: If Charles Foster Kane had been mellow about dumping his wife for Susan Alexander instead of trying to shove her down the opera crowd's throat, he probably wouldn't have died a miserable old man.
Deng has a past; Murdoch has a past. Lots of people combine ambition with romance. So what if she extracts from the life of Sammy Glick a role model instead of a cautionary parable? Their match is hell-made and perfect. Deng's grounding in Chinese culture obviously makes her useful to Murdoch, who wants more than anything to conquer China before he dies.
Asia Sentinel waxes more cerebral about what the Deng furor means for the future of journalism:
Given Murdoch's other extensive press interests in the United States, it raises questions whether the concentration of press power in his hands, particularly with America's most prominent business publication, could play a role in the promotion or suppression of stories in the interest of a rough and ready press baron.
Don't miss my previous Murdoch bashing: why I don't want him to own the Journal, and the sequel, "Eight More Reasons To Distrust Murdoch." And while we're on the subject, where is the Murdoch biopic? I want something with more sweep than the Law and Order: Criminal Intent episode "Proud Flesh," a murder mystery based loosely on the Murdoch family. Who should star as Rupert in the big-screen feature? As Deng? As the kids? What's his Rosebud? Who should script? Who should direct? Send your nominations to firstname.lastname@example.org, and if Murdoch doesn't put the squeeze on the Washington Post Co. board, I'll publish the best of the lot. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)