How Not to Kill a Story


Australia's most prominent newspaper's decision to kill a profile of media titan Rupert Murdoch's third wife, Wendi Deng, has kicked off a bidding war between book and magazine publishers all the way to China. The fallout looks likely to enrich the author and appears certain to spread the story far beyond what its audience would have been if it had been published as planned.

At least three book publishers and a Hong Kong-based magazine have approached the Singapore-based Australian journalist Eric Ellis about the original 11,000-word piece after it was spiked in April by his former employer the Sydney Morning Herald, which commissioned the story for its magazine Good Weekend, which is widely read in Australia but whose stories don’t usually reach either the web or databases like Factiva.

Ellis, who writes occasionally for the Asia Sentinel, declined comment for the story, although associates say he is mulling offers after the Sydney Morning Herald agreed to pay him a kill fee and reimburse expenses.

The Sydney Morning Herald itself has maintained a studious silence on the story although Fairfax chairman Ron Walker was quoted as saying on April 19, “I've known Rupert Murdoch for 45 years, I speak to him regularly, he's a great friend, and we co-exist together in the same markets.”

Long-term Fairfax director Mark Burrows is also close to Murdoch and, according to one press account, is believed to have led the charge against the Ellis piece at board level. On Friday, however, Fairfax Chief Executive David Kirk issued an internal email to staff saying that "With respect to recent correspondence and communications with some staff regarding Good Weekend, this is, and has always been a matter for the Editor of Good Weekend. Our editors make the editorial decisions, and we stand behind them and their integrity. Neither the CEO nor the board makes decisions or overrules editorial decisions."

Staff suspicions contnue, however. The Sydney Morning Herald, the flagship newspaper for Fairfax Media, Australia’s largest newspaper group, agreed to pay Ellis around A$30,000 (US$24,533) for the profile, which took the author four months and reporting visits to London, New York, Los Angeles, and Xuzhou in Jiangsu province, where Deng, originally named Deng Wenge, which means Cultural Revolution, was born into a family headed by an upper level line manager in a factory.

The story assumes additional significance with reports last week that Murdoch made a US$5 billion bid for Dow Jones Co., the publishing company that controls the Wall Street Journal, offering US$60 per share, a 67 percent premium for a stock that had languished in the US$30-40 range for years. Given Murdoch’s other extensive press interests in the United States, it raises questions whether the concentration of press power in his hands, particularly with America’s most prominent business publication, could play a role in the promotion or suppression of stories in the interest of a rough and ready press baron.

The US-based Bancroft family, which controls 65 percent of the votes on the Dow Jones board with only 25 percent of the shares, declined Murdoch’s offer. But the offer means the company is in play, and many observers are predicting it will ultimately be sold. Lackluster corporate decisions over the past two decades have meant that Dow Jones lost out to Reuters for its financial newswire, and then was overwhelmed by Bloomberg. Its Telerate electronic financial news service was sold at a huge loss.

It’s uncertain whether Murdoch would win a corporate battle for control of one of the top two or three newspapers in American publishing, along with the New York Times and the Washington Post. The idea of a takeover by Murdoch, whose publishing interests generally run far down-market, has sent seismic shudders through the Journal staff.

Although no one is saying whether the Australian-born Murdoch, chief executive officer of News Corp., played an active role in killing the Ellis profile, there is little doubt that his control of an estimated 75 percent of Australia’s media and ownership of 7.5 percent of Fairfax Media itself made him a feared enough figure to result in the death of the story.

Although Fairfax controls, among other publications, the Age in Melbourne and the Sydney Morning Herald, Murdoch’s stranglehold on the Australian press includes widespread television interests as well as newspapers, including the Australian, the Daily Telegraph and a flock of local tabloids.

After acquiring papers in England, Murdoch turned his attention to the United States with a combination of conservative political journalism and box-office sleaze. He became a naturalized US citizen, moved News Corp to New York so that he could get around a requirement that only US citizens could own television networks, and launched the Fox Network, a tits-and-titillation diet of sitcoms, and Fox News, which soon overtook CNN to become the most widely watched cable channel, in particular beating the drums for the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

As controversial a figure as he was in the business world, the gossip mills churned when Murdoch, born in 1931, met Deng, born in 1968, in 1997 when she was an intern at Star TV in Hong Kong, which is also controlled by News Corp. Shortly after, Murdoch divorced Anna Torv, to whom he had been married for 31 years, and married Deng the same year.

According to a bruising entry in Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, Deng had a tumultuous personal life before she met Murdoch. She was said to have moved to the United States in 1988 “under the sponsorship of Joyce Cherry of California, who taught Deng English when she was in China with her husband, Jake Cherry. When Deng arrived in California, she moved into the home of Joyce and Jake Cherry. Within a year after Deng's arrival, Joyce found compromising photos of Deng in a hotel room in Jake's possession. Joyce kicked out both Deng and Jake, who moved in together and eventually married. Within months of this marriage, Jake kicked Deng out after finding out she had been seeing a man in his 20s.”

The story by Ellis, now the Southeast Asia correspondent for Fortune Magazine, is believed to be the most detailed account ever written about one of the world’s most interesting and – through her marriage – powerful women. It follows a provocative Wall Street Journal profile of Deng in 2000, titled "Rupert Murdoch's Wife Wendi Wields Influence at News Corp", which caused a furor within Murdoch family circles because of the information it revealed about the genesis of the Rupert-Wendi relationship and the sensitive area of the breakdown of Murdoch’s 31-year marriage to Anna, the mother of Elisabeth, Lachlan and James.

Asked for comment, Ellis would only joke in an email that “the looming issue here is when/if the piece does eventually air, it could be said is that all the fuss was about.’”