Inside Story

Making media moguls

Weren’t these guys dying out?

Jock Given Books 3 November 2023 1237 words

Flanked by his security detail, Elon Musk speaks to journalists after the Artificial Intelligence (AI) Insight Forum on Washington’s Capitol Hill in September 2023. Michael Reynolds/EPA

Some years ago, early in the century, a conceit took hold in media circles: the era of “media moguls” was ending.

Michael Wolff, prolific chronicler of American media mega-trends, wrote a book about it, Autumn of the Moguls. Network TV was a mess, he said. The music business was a mess. Jayson Blair’s saga of journalistic fraud at the New York Times had left Arthur Sulzberger Jr “not at all a sun god, but merely a mogul manqué.” A “countdown” was under way for ageing Rupert Murdoch at News Corporation, Sumner Redstone at Viacom, Michael Eisner at Disney. Barry Diller was giving the media industry “the finger,” leaving behind his “old mogul life” in charge of a Hollywood studio and TV network to concentrate on a company that owned Expedia, Ticketmaster and other digital businesses.

The idea resonated strongly in Australia. Rupert Murdoch had started out there a long time ago and now dominated the commercial media scene with another elder, the third-generation Packer mogul, Kerry. When Kerry died in 2005 and son James sold the family’s cherished television business, the forecast for moguls looked on target, though not especially astute given the older Packer’s heart had stopped once before.

Moguls generally, though, were hanging on. “Self-made” media boss Kerry Stokes was now being described as a mogul, having taken control of the Seven Network in the 1990s and then added newspapers when cross-media ownership rules were relaxed in the 2000s.

In America, the autumn proved long. There is still enough life in Murdoch moguldom for Michael Wolff to have published another book about its impending death, The Fall: The End of the Murdoch Empire, just the other day. While Redstone did finally die, Eisner’s successor at Disney, Bob Iger, stayed and stayed, buying and buying. He stepped down, only to be called back as CEO last year. Tech titans Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos added “media” to their realms, Jobs through his own investment in Pixar and Apple’s pioneering plays in digital music, movies and television; Bezos by acquiring the Washington Post and founding Amazon Studios and Prime Video.

Then, a year ago, the CEO of another Silicon Valley giant decided to buy one of the town squares of online speech. Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter might be going as poorly as AOL/Time Warner, the fin-de-siècle merger that Wolff thought marked “the beginning of the end” and the start of “a new phase, a whole new era, of resistance and revision.” But it happened, Twitter continues to exist, though with a new name and direction, and Musk is still in charge, behaving much like those mercurial, autocratic moguls of old. Obituaries are being written for the company and the deal, but so too is a new book about Musk. It devotes a lot of pages to the Twitter/X saga and its content-moderation challenges, and it is written by no less than the biographer of Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Benjamin Franklin and Henry Kissinger: Walter Isaacson.

Media moguls don’t endure merely because particular men live long: they all die in the end. Nor do they survive because the specific media technologies they happen to control turn out to be attractive to users, although that helps: some moguls have been good at parlaying control of one medium into dominance of another, from radio and newspapers into television; from movies to programming for TV, video cassettes and DVDs; from free-to-air broadcast television to multi-channel cable and satellite subscription services. Not even the propensity for some with fortunes from other fields to crave power over a society’s messages can fully explain the dogged durability of media moguls.

Moguls endure because their ranks are constantly replenished by a culture that craves them and because storytellers find subjects to satisfy the hunger. Exactly which of society’s messages constitute “media” has proved malleable. Of newspapers, news and information, Wolff wrote in Autumn, “If you knew anything about anything, you understood them to be not just equivocal businesses but plastic concepts. They were in transition and if you weren’t ready to be part of that transformation you and your business would die.”

More broadly, he thought a mogul was “an adventurer, a soldier, a conqueror, even a crusader, and, yes, a saviour, willing to march off and take territory and subdue populations and embrace the unknown and do whatever was necessary to do to make the future possible ― no matter what the future was.”

That is the kind of person Walter Isaacson saw in Elon Musk — pioneer of Zip2, PayPal, SpaceX and Tesla — and it was why he wanted to write about him. He had seen the type before. Steve Jobs, too, was a man with huge ambition and capacity to direct the building of new products and experiences, to transform the lives of the people who used them and the industries that created them. Jobs is referred to several times in Elon Musk, and it is clear that Isaacson sees the two in a similar frame. They are heroes standing in the way of American Decline, outsized personalities who think big and take risks while controlling every detail. They stamp themselves on their enterprises and outputs. Their personal quests, he thinks, shift the nation and the world.

Musk agreed to let Isaacson “shadow” him for two years, and Isaacson tells us what he saw and heard. With Musk’s encouragement, he interviewed “friends, colleagues, family members, adversaries, and ex-wives” as well, and he tells us what they told him. This method makes it a book in two parts.

In the first part, the biographer is assembling evidence about things that have already happened. A lot of this is familiar from other works about Musk, especially the amateur psycho-sleuthing about a brutal upbringing and possible Asperger’s producing a ruthless guy who struggles with empathy but dreams big, drives people hard, sometimes sleeps in his own factories, and achieves the impossible over and over again. Ashlee Vance and Tim Higgins have covered this and it is not clear that Isaacson adds much to their excellent work beyond the constant presence of Musk’s own voice.

Once Isaacson is there himself from 2021, in the thick of the unfolding events, the second part of the book becomes a different exercise. The biographer is now a witness to the roiling present, not an inquisitor about history. How reliable a witness is for the reader to judge, but we are there for the thrilling ride. Isaacson becomes part of Musk’s family, a trusted confidante. He is in Musk’s house, his car. He receives messages from him at crazy hours about really weird stuff. He offers advice, judges Musk’s moves.

While he is doing all this, he gets lucky. Musk, already a mogul, decides to buy Twitter. Is this “media”? If so, Michael Wolff’s autumn is over. Elon Musk is going to become a media mogul in front of Walter Isaacson’s eyes.

Or is it the other way around? Is it Musk who has got lucky? With his road-tested storyteller in the passenger seat, his every word, every angle, every image, will be recorded, stored, shaped. A book, half-written already. What better time for “an adventurer, a soldier, a conqueror, even a crusader, and, yes, a saviour” to march off and take media? •

Elon Musk
By Walter Isaacson | Simon & Schuster | $59.99 | 670 pages