|I was sitting on an airplane on Thursday afternoon, fat-fingering around my phone to continually set (and reset and reset) the wi-fi when I was served the New York Times’ breaking news alert that Rupert Murdoch, the one and only, was stepping down as the chairman of Fox and News Corp. Every time I tried to access the brief written-from-the-press release story, of course, the wi-fi signal faded—the latest reminder of air travel’s indignities in our information economy.
On some level, of course, Murdoch’s decision to finally retire was hardly a surprise. He’s 92 years old, and has experienced well-documented health challenges. His favorite child, Lachlan, is indubitably in charge, and the company is on the other side of a historically disastrous $787 million defamation settlement (though with more to come, perhaps). And yet his departure inevitably signals the sort of enormous sea change in the fraught, unstable, polarizing media ecosystem that he singularly helped to create.
Admittedly, I’d had Murdoch on the mind of late. I was flying back from London, a city where he truly forged his identity as a macher and a mogul, and which proved to be a petri dish for his own American media experiment. Over breakfast earlier this week, in Soho, I sat across from a renowned British media executive and traded notes about the state of the industry. It was obvious, indeed, that so many of this generation’s trends were responses to the world that Murdoch sculpted in his own image.
Sure, everyone knows the man’s impact on politics, but his molding of our age is simply extraordinary, if gory. Murdoch’s decision to create the ultimate affinity brand in Fox News—whether you agree with the network’s politics or abhor them—represented a prescient recognition that mass media was going to splinter and balkanize into niche cohorts. His decision to build the Fox Network around live sports and non-coastal-elite reality TV fare also put him a generation ahead of his peers. And when all his competitors were ferociously empire-building, Murdoch ingeniously knew it was the precise moment to sell—and made off like a bandit to the tune of $71 billion. I’m not here to offer a character assessment of a guy who has been married four and a half times, appears estranged from various kids, platformed Trump and cuts checks to Sean Hannity, but it’s worth noting that Murdoch crystalized the essence of his trade and magnified it in some ways: the media business, after all, is the influence business—and he knew it better than anyone.
Murdoch’s career path also became a paradigm for the moguls of his generation and the subsequent era. He spent the first fifty-something years of his career amassing a portfolio of assets only to sell the majority off in recent years. (As Bill Cohan notes in his excellent piece, The Second Iger Age, he’s not the only mogul embarking on this path.) Furthermore, his challenges with succession were well-documented. (Iger has some experience here, too). His decision to stay in the game till his 90s is a complex model for an industry increasingly run by an older crowd, even as younger generations dictate the future with a preponderance of new behaviors and technologies.
The downside of the influence business, indeed, is that it is so alluring and hard to depart. I had a flashback as I was reading the excerpt of Michael Wolff’s new Murdoch tome, published in New York, from my hotel room near Mayfair. I recalled a moment, nearly twenty years earlier, when I was a young Vanity Fair assistant marooned in London for one reason or another, faxing Graydon Carter’s top-edits of one of Michael’s columns back to headquarters in New York. The story was about some beef, real or perceived, between Murdoch and John Malone. Sometimes time passes and little else does.
On some level, the Shakespearean retirement of a nonagenarian shouldn’t be a big deal. And yet, at Puck, we know better. This move will predicate several forthcoming domino flops. In Murdoch’s Audience of Two, Matt Belloni surfaces the educated theory that Murdoch’s real motive in elevating Lachlan was to insulate him from his siblings, who share a trust—the true sacred scripture of the business. In Lachlan’s Dowry, Dylan Byers details what to expect from Lachlan, a largely incurious executive who finally can wrap his arms around a power that he has dreamed about since birth—a royal succession if ever there were one. I say this every week, but this time it’s really true: what happens with the Murdochs and Fox is the story of our time, and precisely what you should expect in the days and weeks ahead from Puck.