The rock-solid loyalty that held Rupert Murdoch's empire together for years is showing signs of strain.
Last week, for the first time in years, I felt sorry for Rupert Murdoch.
I didn’t feel sorry when he appeared, frail and uncertain, before a British parliamentary committee in July 2011, as it investigated the appalling phone hacks conducted by his tabloid News of the World — hacks that resulted in the temporary demise of one of his loyalists, Rebekah Brooks, and the permanent demise of his paper. The media baron managed to get away scot-free, and even got props from his then-wife, Wendi Deng, who took a swing at a would-be assailant before he could plaster her husband with a shaving-cream pie.
I didn’t feel sorry, either, when Murdoch lost one of his key aides, Roger Ailes, after the Fox News chief was forced to resign last summer following a sexual harassment scandal that looked progressively worse the closer one got. Ailes may have polished the most glittering jewel in Murdoch’s crown, but after the London brouhaha, there’s no way the corporation could weather another storm.
Nor did I feel sorry (well, just a tiny bit) when Deng moved on in 2013 — or was it Rupert who did the moving, after allegedly finding a “mash note” about Tony Blair? The pair was estranged; Murdoch had taken a much bigger hit in his $1.7 billion divorce from his previous wife, Anna Torv, and he’d soon find a fourth spouse in Jerry Hall.
But I did feel sorry when the news broke last week that Megyn Kelly was leaving Fox for NBC.
Rumblings of discontent had rolled across the horizon for months, but I’d misinterpreted them, wrongly assuming they were negotiating ploys to guarantee the newswoman a bigger and better deal. When she knocked Ailes in her recent memoir, revealingly titled Settle for More, it seemed like a summer squall following the thunderclap of the original revelations, rather than the signal of an upcoming tornado.
Even when she spoke at The Hollywood Reporter’s Women in Entertainment breakfast in early December, and gave hints of a break from Fox orthodoxy in her praise of Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton, I misread their importance. “Michelle…set the example in how to stand up for what you believe in with grace and class,” she observed. As for Hillary, she “broke a barrier no other woman has ever done in America, and told little girls: ‘Listen up — you’re next.’”
These were signs that Kelly wasn’t quite the liberal-loathing, lefty-masticating ideologue of Fox’s dreams. Still, I fully expected her to remain.
Because that’s what Murdoch’s favorites have always done. They’ve stayed loyal to him, just as he has to them. It’s a loyalty that rarely snaps, the kind you might once have found in La Cosa Nostra, but not in the media at large. A different kind of conduct. A bond that blends filialness and fear. Call it omerta.
* * *
Omerta has never taken deep root in the media/entertainment industrial complex. Because it doesn’t do its practitioners much good.
Loyalty is one thing; but the kind of stitch-up-your-lips, fall-on-your-sword etiquette that the Sicilian word implies simply didn’t suit a business that was always in flux. Institutions could crumble, bosses be fired, paychecks bounce far too readily for the long-lasting affiliations that omerta needed.
Way back when Martin Davis was running Paramount Communications in the 1980s, he warred with his key deputy, Michael Eisner, just as Eisner in the 1990s warred with Jeffrey Katzenberg, who’d followed him to Disney. CAA’s Michael Ovitz fell out with the Young Turks he’d backed at the agency, as they’ve now fallen out with the agents who ankled the company for UTA.
The duo of Jon Peters and Peter Guber proved more disposable than dynamic when their run at Sony Pictures hit the shoals. Peters was bumped, even as Guber tried to salvage his own position — and then was bumped in turn by his Japanese employers.
Hollywood is littered with the résumés of people who professed fealty until fealty gave way to failure. Look at the recent history of Sony: First Marc Weinstock was pushed out by Jeff Blake; then Blake was pushed out by Amy Pascal; then Pascal was pushed out by Michael Lynton; and one day Lynton will be pushed out by someone else.
Same in the news business. Just ask Katie Couric and Ann Curry and David Gregory. Like every other product on the consumer’s shelf, they came with a built-in expiration date. Because that’s standard practice in our society. If you’re not protected by an ironclad contract, you won’t be protected at all.
Loyalty schmoyalty. Omerta has ceded to obsolescence.
* * *
But the Murdoch empire was different.
As Rupert rose, so did his key lieutenants. When one proved effective in a particular job, he’d be shifted to another, adding to his résumé and, not incidentally, his bank account. That’s what happened with Peter Chernin and Chase Carey, and continued with the likes of Peter Rice and Dana Walden and Gary Newman. If you did well by the old man, he’d do well by you. The only ones who left were the ones who asked too much.
Only, that equation has begun to change. Murdoch is 85 years old now, and anyone trying to hitch a ride on his spaceship is doomed to fall back to Earth soon.
It’s not just Murdoch’s age but also the shift in power from the pere to his two fils that’s marked a watershed between the old school and the new. Among the first steps James and Lachlan took following their promotions to run the company in 2014 was a series of lay-offs, sending a current of fear rippling through longtime loyalists. Their covert message: the longer you’ve been here, the more urgent it is for you to go.
When Fox Filmed Entertainment chairman Jim Gianopulos was edged aside last year, it was clear a new code of behavior had settled in. You didn’t need to burn out to be fired; you just needed to burn less brightly.
At least Ailes brought his exit on himself. Murdoch kept him around for years, and his followers maintained their silence all the while, knowing silence was part of the code. Because that’s what omerta meant: take a punch now, and we’ll promote you later.
But later doesn’t count any more. That’s why Netflix has been so successful in peeling away Fox staffers, and why Fox has hit back, guns blazing, filing a suit against Netflix in September charging it with unlawfully poaching Fox execs. Netflix responded that it didn't believe Fox's use of its employment contracts was enforceable.
Once upon a time, you-scratch-my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours was the norm; now people are just afraid of being scratched.
Omerta meant: you go down for us and we’ll go down for you. But in the post-omerta era, everyone knows they’re going down alone.
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