Tracing the rise of Murdoch's publishing empire

Citizen Murdoch, by Thomas Kiernan. New York: Dodd, Mead. 337 pp. $18.95. On the day I began reading this book, Rupert Murdoch reached agreement to buy Harper & Row, Publishers. On the day I finished reading it, Murdoch's Fox Television was unveiling its new lineup of prime-time programming, the beginnings of what Murdoch plans will ultimately become a fourth American network.

This bespeaks a central problem with any book on Murdoch, the William Randolph Hearst-Citizen Kane incarnate who came to America and American media from Australia by way of England. He is so mercurial a figure, his presence in the marketplace changing with the wind, that it will be years, perhaps generations, before we can begin to understand his effect.

Author Thomas Kiernan is mindful of that, and it becomes his book's greatest strength. In a work based largely on his 10-year friendship with Murdoch, Kiernan gives the reader a pretty good fix on Murdoch's adventures to this point: his parlaying of his father's good name and the two small Australian newspapers his father left him into a $2 billion newspaper-television-publishing-and-film empire - much of it based on sleazy sensationalism and a wanton disregard for fact - with dominant holdings on three continents. Kiernan also traces Murdoch's passage from socialist to strident reactionary; and he does not let his friendship with Murdoch (inexcusably unexplained in either the author's note or the narrative itself) stand in the way of his condemnation of Murdoch's journalistic excesses.

But Kiernan refrains from drawing any sweeping conclusions on how Murdoch will ``affect our cultural and political values as he continues to hawk distortion and exaggeration in the guise of truth and fact,'' acknowledging in his peroration that Murdoch ``has only just begun to build his empire of power and influence in America.''

Kiernan is himself guilty of some Murdoch-like misleading sensationalism. He asserts that Murdoch once blackmailed a government, that he may have worked for a foreign intelligence agency in Australia, that he is an unseen power in another nation's government. But the documentation for these charges is either nonexistent or unconvincing. Such journalism is certainly not fair to the reader. And it wouldn't be fair to Murdoch either, except that it is probably fitting, or at least inevitable, that someone who traffics so heavily in reckless innuendo would ultimately be hoist by his own petard.

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