Every semester, in my Journalism Foundations seminar at The King’s College in New York City, I dedicate a night to the role that Stephen Colbert’s Catholic faith has played in his life and career.
It’s important, of course, to spend some time looking at the humorist’s break-out show — The Colbert Report, on Comedy Central. This show was, of course, a satire focusing on the flamethrower commentary of Bill O’Reilly for Fox News work.
With Colbert, every thing on the show was upside-down and inside-out, with his blowhard conservative character making lots of liberal political points by offering over-the-top takes on some — repeat “some” — conservative stances. I argued that to understand what Colbert was doing, you had to understand O’Reilly and then turn that inside out.
Thus, I asked: What kind of conservative is, or was, O’Reilly? Students always say things like, a “right-wing one?” A “stupid one”? An “ultra-conservative one”? I’ve never had a student give the accurate answer — a Libertarian conservative.
I realize that there have been lively debates about the compatibility of Libertarianism and Catholicism. However, it’s safe to say that most Catholics reject a blend of liberal, or radically individualistic, social policies and conservative economics. Turn that inside out and you have what? Conservative morality and progressive economics?
This brings me to the massive New York Times Magazine deep-dive into the life and career of Rupert Murdoch. Here’s the humble headline on this long, long piece (150 interviews, readers are told) by Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg: “How Rupert Murdoch’s Empire of Influence Remade the World.”
So the question: What kind of conservative is Murdoch? Is it possible that there is some kind of moral or even religious ghost in this story?
It opens with a rather apocalyptic scene in January, 2018. The 86-year-old press baron — on holiday with his fourth wife, Jerry Hall — has collapsed on the floor of his cabin on a yacht owned by one of his sons. Is this the end? The big question, of course, is, “Who will run the empire after the lord and master is gone?”
So here’s what’s at stake:
Few private citizens have ever been more central to the state of world affairs than the man lying in that hospital bed, awaiting his children’s arrival. As the head of a sprawling global media empire, he commanded multiple television networks, a global news service, a major publishing house and a Hollywood movie studio. His newspapers and television networks had been instrumental in amplifying the nativist revolt that was reshaping governments not just in the United States but also across the planet. His 24-hour news-and-opinion network, the Fox News Channel, had by then fused with President Trump and his base of hard-core supporters, giving Murdoch an unparalleled degree of influence over the world’s most powerful democracy. In Britain, his London-based tabloid, The Sun, had recently led the historic Brexit crusade to drive the country out of the European Union — and, in the chaos that ensued, helped deliver Theresa May to 10 Downing Street. In Australia, where Murdoch’s power is most undiluted, his outlets had led an effort to repeal the country’s carbon tax — a first for any nation — and pushed out a series of prime ministers whose agenda didn’t comport with his own. And he was in the midst of the biggest deal of his life: Only a few weeks before his fall on Lachlan’s yacht, he shook hands on a London rooftop with Robert A. Iger, the chief executive of the Walt Disney Company, consummating a preliminary agreement to sell his TV and film studio, 21st Century Fox, to Disney for $52.4 billion. But control of this sprawling empire was suddenly up in the air.
Speaking of moral issues and their impact on a political kingmaker’s life:
The four grown children had differing claims to the throne. The 61-year-old Prudence, the only child of Murdoch’s first marriage, to the Australian model Patricia Booker (whom he divorced in 1965), lived in Sydney and London and kept some distance from the family business. But the three children from Murdoch’s second marriage, to Anna Mann (whom he divorced in 1999), had spent at least parts of their lives jockeying to succeed their father. Elisabeth (50), Lachlan (47) and James (46) all grew up in the business.
To cut to the chase, the only ministers who play any kind of role in this story are prime ministers, not people wearing clerical collars.
There are moral and cultural issues in this long tale, of course, but apparently there is zero content linked to religious life and faith. Thus, in the eyes of the authors:
It would be impossible for an empire as sprawling as Murdoch’s to be completely culturally and ideologically consistent. He is a businessman who wants to satisfy his customers. His assets also include entertainment companies, sports networks and moderate broadsheets. Murdoch embodies these same contradictions. He’s an immigrant stoking nationalism, a billionaire championing populism and a father who never saw any reason to keep his family separate from his business, and in fact had deliberately merged the two.
Does this mighty man have any religious roots at all? Is it important to know if he has abandoned anything, when it comes to faith?
Reader may have seen references to Murdoch being a Catholic of some kind. This Catholic News Agency piece from 2011 offers some relevant clarity there:
There are calls from all sides in British politics for Rupert Murdoch to hand back — or be stripped of — his papal knighthood if he is found culpable in any way for the recent phone hacking scandal involving his British tabloid newspaper, The News of the World.
“I think we need to see the extent of what happened and who knew what and when before we rush to judgment. But if it transpires that Rupert Murdoch was aware of these goings on then, yes, he ought to hand the papal knighthood back,” said former Conservative government minister and Catholic convert Ann Widdecombe on July 13.
Rupert Murdoch was made a Knight Commander of St. Gregory in 1998. Although not a Catholic, he had apparently been recommended for the honor by Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles after giving money to a Church education fund. A year later he also donated $10 million to help build Los Angeles’ new Catholic cathedral.
So, so that was yet another case of money and powerful friends in high places — in this case a Catholic cardinal somewhere left of center, in Catholic terms.
I did find this 1992 quote from Murdoch, a few wives into his past:
Asked if there is any truth to recent press describing his newfound piety, Murdoch replies: "No. They say I'm a born again Christian and a Catholic convert and so on. I'm certainly a practicing Christian, I go to church quite a bit but not every Sunday and I tend to go to Catholic church — because my wife is Catholic, [since divorced] I have not formally converted. And I get increasingly disenchanted with the C of E or Episcopalians as they call themselves here. But no, I'm not intensely religious as I'm sometimes described."
So that question again: What kind of conservative is Rupert Murdoch?
Strangely enough, this rambling piece really isn’t interested in this question. The only gods here are economic and, of course, political.
So I will ask another question: Might this allegedly hollow chest (to use a C.S. Lewis image) have something to do with what many have noted is a strange lack of interest in religion-news coverage in Murdoch news operations?
I didn’t expect The New York Times Magazine to ask that question, of course. I did hope that this profile would offer a few clues, however.
Once again, politics is the only thing that is real. Religion? Not so much.