On 28 May 2008, at his Dow Jones Conference in Carlsbad, California, Rupert Murdoch was asked by a reporter from his Wall Street Journal if he’d ever try to offer a dissenting voice on his ultra-conservative Fox News channel by hiring me away from my liberal perch on its rival, MSNBC.
“No,” he replied without hesitation. “I fired him five years ago. He was crazy.”
Thereby hangs a tale.
In the late 1990s, Murdoch experienced one of his first abject failures in American television. He cobbled together a collection of the regional sports networks that owned the local TV rights to professional and college baseball, basketball, football and hockey games, and out of them forged “Fox Sports Net”. He pointed this large uncoordinated cache of slingshots at the giant of sports media, ESPN, and purchased from NBC News for $1m the contract of the largest rock he could find.
I was to anchor the lynchpin that would both connect the formerly Mom-and-Pop television operations and attack ESPN at its heart. I would spend two hours each night as the host of Fox Sports News and try to unseat the show I had helped make famous, ESPN’s SportsCenter; and I would spend a sixth day trying to energise the national baseball telecasts as their host on Fox’s broadcast network.
For once, Murdoch’s mafia failed him. A multimillion-dollar advertising campaign misidentified the hours I was to host. With as many as 20 local game telecasts ending at different times, the regionals sometimes joined our sports news roundup just in time to hear me say good night. Murdoch gave me a record-breaking contract – but that turned out to be an impossibly disproportionate tenth of the network’s entire budget. Weeks in, Murdoch summoned Tony Ball, the executive who knew it would take us at least five years to merely approach the ratings of SportsCenter, back to run BSkyB and directed his replacements to get the ratings up within five weeks. They immediately rescheduled Fox Sports News to make certain it never went head-to-head with SportsCenter, and ESPN’s initial terror that a rival was merely registering a blip on the radar abated.
And when I had a health scare early in 2000 and pleaded to cut back my workload (and my salary) to just five days’ worth, some of Murdoch’s men pinioned me. They threatened to increase my schedule and fly me around the country twice a week unless I gave back 60% of my salary. My incumbency at Fox was doomed (as was Fox Sports News, which was redesigned, renamed, and downsized).
At the same time, Murdoch’s other high-profile American sports disaster was also unravelling. News Corp proved a labyrinthine and tone-deaf owner of baseball’s class franchise, the Los Angeles Dodgers. And while I played out my contract as Fox’s baseball host, I began to get hints that Murdoch was trying to sell the team. By the middle of April 2001, I had two unimpeachable sources who told me that Murdoch’s people were negotiating to return the franchise to its previous owner and a couple of Hollywood producers.
It was a great story – and a great journalistic quandary. My bosses suggested we should run it past Murdoch’s personal public relations department, and the answer came back that provided I made it clear that none of the sources were from inside the company, and provided I run the official Murdochian denial, I should report my scoop. Mr Murdoch, we were told, never interfered in the news.
Silly me: I believed him.