Rupert Murdoch's latest advances in the United States media market have got his supporters and opponents trading opinions about his character and business. Admirers praise this Australian as a savvy businessman who has managed to build a media empire spanning three continents. Moreover, they point out, he runs it profitably. One of his editors says Mr. Murdoch is a strong leader with ''a mind like a computer.''
But look at some of the building blocks supporting his empire, critics argue. They decry his sensationalist newspapers. They also judge him as ruthless in business, power hungry, and amoral.
A half hour with Murdoch, his lawyer seated beside him in his spacious office at the New York Post, gives only a clue to this man's personal character, journalism philosophy, and business plans. This winter, though, he has made headlines on all three counts.
His purchase of the Chicago Sun-Times in January has Chicagoans wondering whether their paper will turn into a Boston Herald or New York Post, both owned by the magnate and described by critics as sensationalized and one-sided. News Corporation, Murdoch's parent firm, is also entangled in an attempt to acquire a major interest in Warner Communications, the $3.3 billion company best known for motion pictures. And Harold Evans, former editor of the Times of London, Murdoch's most distinguished newspaper property, comes down hard on Murdoch's character in a new book, ''Good Times, Bad Times,'' which details Murdoch's purchase of that paper and the eventual ousting of Mr. Evans.
Settling into a couch, a wide coffee-table away, Murdoch clearly puts distance between himself and his interviewer. His office is decorated in simple elegance, and one wall of windows looks over the East River toward Brooklyn. His manner, however, is brusque. He starts off with one- or two-word answers, punctuated with uncomfortable silences.
Q. What do you think is the responsibility of the press?
A. To inform.
Q. Is this the top priority?
Q. To inform about what?
Q. Does the press have any responsibility to society? To do any consciousness raising?
A. It's all part of the duty to inform. What else is there other than consciousness raising?
When asked specifically about the Sun, his British paper that features racy pictures of women, Murdoch answers that ''it doesn't concentrate on sex and crime any more than the other papers in the city. Secondly, the Sun is for a certain market. Don't type all our newspapers like the Sun.'' Murdoch's $1.4 billion News Corporation also owns well-respected papers like the Australian, a national daily, and the Times of London.
The Sun's market is a ''popular'' market. ''We have a phrase in Australia that sums it up: 'Horses for courses,' '' he adds after a long pause. ''Some horses run better on (certain) courses than others do. And so do newspapers.''
A paper galloping after the popular market has to ''appeal to the working class,'' he lectures. And what does the working class want to know? ''What's in or out. They want to know what's happening in sport, in politics, and they want to be entertained, too. Certainly the Sun talks a lot about pop music, certainly it publishes pictures of pretty girls and good-looking men. It's a popular paper , and it certainly is the duty of the publisher not only to inform but to try to make the newspaper so attractive that it appeals to as many people as possible.''
Circulation figures for the Sun, and in this country, the New York Post, show that Murdoch has hit the bull's-eye of one part of the market at least. (In large part, perhaps, because of lottery-game come-ons to buy the paper). The Sun's circulation tops 4 million; the New York Post's has doubled since Murdoch bought the paper in 1976 and now stands at 961,000. Last year the Sun accounted for an amazing 41 percent of News Corporation's operating profits. Neither the New York Post nor the Boston Herald is profitable.
Ben Bagdikian, a frequent analyst of US newspapering and a former assistant managing editor of the Washington Post, says Murdoch's foray into popular journalism in this country has ''set back American journalism 100 years. It cheapens the whole idea of what news is.'' He believes Murdoch's emphasis on sex , crime, and the bizarre in his American tabloids ''is designed to appeal to that one part of everyone. But it won't pay off in the end. That's a very small part of human interest,'' Mr. Bagdikian insists.
Murdoch disagrees emphatically. ''This is the sort of thinking you get in so-called media-critic circles in America, which I find profoundly ignorant. Media critics in this country . . . are basically elitists.'' And, he adds, the problem with the US press is that it is noncompetitive.
The New York Post is not profitable, he goes on, ''because I've been reluctant to put the price up.'' His strategy is circulation growth first, advertisers second. He points out that the paper's losses are going down.
Business associates type-cast Murdoch as an ''opportunist.'' He agrees. Takeovers of losing companies are great game for Murdoch. His acquisitions have helped him build an empire that includes more than 80 newspapers and magazines; television stations; book companies; half an airline; interests in oil and gas; and a broadcast satellite network. News Corporation netted $70 million in profits for fiscal year 1983, a major turnaround from the year before.
Murdoch ''explains'' his corporate strategy in barely audible sentences. He has no plans to expand further in the United States in the near future, he says. ''We have an enormous job to do ahead of us in New York, Boston, and Chicago.'' (One of Murdoch's city reporters chuckles, however: ''That's what he said before he bought the Herald and the Sun-Times.'')
Murdoch is vague about plans for the Chicago Sun-Times. The paper already has ''changed dramatically,'' comments a former senior editor who quit the paper after it was sold to Murdoch. The most noticeable changes have affected appearance - bigger headlines, bigger and more photos. ''No doubt he could increase sheer numbers of sales by downscaling and depending on titilation,'' says the senior editor who asked not to be named. ''Whether advertisers will put much of a premium on that kind of circulation remains to be seen. It hasn't happened in Boston and New York.''
While the US press may blast Murdoch as a betrayer of the integrity of the press for the sake of profits, the view of him on London's Fleet Street is quite different. ''Rupert is an enormously professional manager of newspapers,'' says the editor of one of England's ''quality'' dailies, who also asked not to be identified. But he feels uncomfortable about the fact that Murdoch owns four British papers. ''If you carry four nationals you do carry the opportunity to wield very considerable political influence. My own feeling is that Rupert is far more interested in politics than people think.''
A number of people who have worked for Murdoch say his conservative political bent comes out in his papers. This was one of Mr. Evans's charges - that Murdoch interfered editorially, putting the pressure on for pro-government sentiments in behalf of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to appear in news columns of the Times. This, and personnel switches, says Evans, broke Murdoch's ''non-interference'' promise to the paper and to the British government.
In the US, the New York Post's economic coverage, critics note, highlights only the good statistics about Reaganomics. Murdoch's unqualified support for Mayor Edward I. Koch appears not just in the Post's editorial pages but seeps into news pages as well.
On the issue of Murdoch's influence in the editorial process, Charles Kilpatrick, editor of the Murdoch-owned San Antonio Express-News, jumps to his boss's defense. Every newspaper owner influences news judgment in some degree, he says, but characterizes Murdoch's interest in the San Antonio papers as more financial than editorial.
Murdoch himself says that while he has political beliefs, he has no political interests. And as for influence, ''The power of the press - of the media and television - is enormously exaggerated. . . . I've seen in election after election . . . a vast majority of the journalistic establishment being in favor of a particular party, with the public voting exactly the other way.
''I believe the man in the street has got quite enough brains to think for himself. It's our job to inform, to give the impartial facts, so they can make up their own minds.''
But as media critic Bagdikian notes, the selection of facts - even if those facts are conveyed impartially - can be telling. Bagdikian argues that Murdoch's overwhelmingly sensational news treatment actually ''holds the public in profound contempt.'' Rupert Murdoch:
US Interests and holdings: Newspapers (US)
New York Post
* Chicago Sun-Times
* Boston Herald
* San Antonio Express
* The San Antonio News Magazines
* New York
* Village Voice News Services
Independent Press Service
* Field Newspaper Syndicate Electronic Publishing
* Keycom Electronic Publishing
(16% interest with Honeywell and Centel Corp) Television
* News Group Productions
Direct Satellite Broadcasting
* Skyband Other Communications
* Warner Communications
* Metromedia Other Interests
* Games Management Services
(50% interest - operates New York State lottery)