In April 2019, The New York Times published a groundbreaking piece of investigative journalism centered on Rupert Murdoch and the dynamics of his media empire. Journalists Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg spent more than six months researching the Murdoch dynasty, a quest that involved travelling to three continents and conducting over 150 interviews. The result, a piece titled “How Rupert Murdoch’s Empire of Influence Remade the World” is an unparalleled deep dive into one of the most influential people on the planet.

Before beginning performances for his play Corruption, playwright J.T. Rogers sat down with Jonathan Mahler to discuss Murdoch’s early days, his force as a global power, and what comes next for the most famous family in media. 

JT Rogers: What’s Rupert Murdoch’s origin story?
Jonathan Mahler: Rupert was born into the newspaper business. His father, Sir Keith Murdoch, had been something of a legend; he became famous as a young newspaperman after evading military censors to report on the slaughter of his fellow Australians during the British-led Gallipoli campaign and subsequently leveraged that fame to become a powerful Australian newspaper executive. He never quite built an empire, though. In fact, when he died suddenly in 1952, Rupert — who was just 21 years old and finishing his degree at Oxford — took charge. One of his two newspapers had to be sold to pay off his debts. So you might say that the modern Murdoch empire began with the one remaining paper that Rupert inherited, the 75,000-circulation News of Adelaide.

JTR: Why did Murdoch gravitate towards newspapers and media as a lever to wield his influence? 
JM: Rupert learned to appreciate the unique power of newspapers — and the media, more broadly — first-hand from his father, who provided a kind of blueprint for him. There's a great, if chilling, line in Tom Roberts' biography of Sir Keith, a book called Before Rupert. Keith had supported an Australian prime minister named Joseph Lyons, who had earlier played an important role in his efforts to clear some regulatory hurdles and start a radio station. But he and Lyons later fell out, and when they did, Sir Keith reportedly said: "I put him there. And I'll put him out." That anecdote really tells you everything you need to know about how Rupert learned to operate in the world.

JTR: When did we first start to see the effects of Murdoch's influences on American politics?
JM: The first time we really got a glimpse of the power that Murdoch would wield in American politics was actually New York City's 1977 mayoral race. He had only recently bought the New York Post, and was in the process of transforming it from a pretty dutiful newspaper to the racy tabloid that we now know it as. During the campaign, he swung the paper behind a longshot candidate — Ed Koch — so completely that he caused an internal revolt among his staff. And, of course, Koch won. A few years later, the Post helped deliver New York State to Ronald Reagan. It wasn't too long after the election that President Reagan waived a federal prohibition against owning a television station and newspaper in the same market, which allowed Rupert to start expanding his reach beyond just newspapers.  

JTR: How is Murdoch viewed from within the industry? Does any other media mogul come close to his influence?
JM: I don't think there's a media executive in America who doesn't have at least a grudging respect for Rupert as a businessman, given the size and scope of what he has managed to build. Though, of course, a lot of these same executives would also probably tell you that Fox News has had a profoundly destructive impact on America's political culture. The reality is that there are plenty of powerful media moguls in the world, but there's really no one else who sits atop a global empire like his. When most Americans think Rupert Murdoch, they probably think Fox News and maybe The Wall Street Journal. But that's just a single continent! Murdoch still has several papers in the U.K., including the hugely influential Sun, and he also still has a huge presence in Australia, where it all began.   

JTR: How did the Murdoch empire’s influence over media and politics differ in the United Kingdom versus the United States around 2010-11, when Corruption takes place?
JM: Corruption is set at a very specific moment in time — before the media revolution, you might say. We were still on the eve of the big disruption to how we consume news. New digital media companies like Twitter (now called X) and Facebook were rising, but the old media companies still ruled the world. Streaming was still relatively new, and so cable was still king. Murdoch was very much at the peak of his power, and all the more so because in addition to all of his news-related holdings, he still owned one of the largest movie studios in the world, 21st Century Fox.

JTR: Are there aspects of Murdoch’s empire that you might consider as having had a positive influence on society and democracy?
JM: I would say that the creation of the Fox TV network was certainly a net good. For those old enough to remember a world before cable, it was a remarkably daring thing to do — launching a new network that would take on the big three broadcast networks. Part of Fox's strategy was to be a bit edgier than its more staid competitors, which is how Fox ended up as the home of The Simpsons. It might be an overstatement to say that The Simpsons has had a positive influence on our society, but it certainly represented a positive contribution to our culture. I also don't think there was anything inherently wrong with the animating idea behind Fox News; a wider array of news sources should, in theory, lead to a better educated electorate. Though in reality, it has of course not turned out that way.

JTR: What effect has Murdoch had on the media landscape of his native Australia? 
JM: Australia is probably the continent on which Murdoch's power is most undiluted. They have a huge print presence there, but they have also built a kind of replica of Fox News in the evenings known as Sky at Night. And they have had a material effect on the country's politics. Murdoch-owned outlets in Australia led a successful effort to repeal the country's carbon tax — a first for any nation — and also helped drive out a succession of prime ministers.

JTR: What do you think might come next for the Murdoch empire? 
JM: This is the big, unanswerable question. It all comes down to what will happen when Rupert dies. He currently owns a controlling interest in the company, and has designated his eldest son, Lachlan, as his heir apparent. But once he's gone, his shares will be distributed among his various children, and so, if they — including James — decide that they want to take the company in a different direction, they will have the opportunity to at least try.