The new Economist features -- who else? -- Rupert Murdoch on the cover against a stark white background with the cover line "The Last of the Moguls." As usual, a leader inside picks up the theme and races away with it, like a dog chasing rabbits into the bushes. Right off the bat, one has to wonder: Why is Murdoch the last mogul? What has changed in the world that will banish the media mogul as a rare, if persistent, species of corporate manager? The Economist leader is murky about that, but this seems to be the point:
Politicians and the public see Mr. Murdoch differently from investors. To the first group he is the wily builder of a global media empire, the maker and breaker of political careers. To the second he is, increasingly, a liability: an impediment to the smooth running of News Corporation. The closer he seems to retirement, the stronger the company appears; for the media business has changed in a way that makes Mr. Murdoch seem like a man out of time. He is the last media mogul.
If this confuses you, you're not alone. That passage insists he's the last mogul, but skirts the issue of why.
The magazine then tries to elaborate, arguing that Murdoch has been brought down by trying to run a giant family company or that he's simply lost his touch or that he's planted himself on the wrong side of history; the magazine actually seems to avoid the questions of character, culture and criminality that the rest of the world is fixated upon. The family theme recurs, as if moguldom and family ownership were synonymous, if endangered and inefficient, phenomenon. There's the Internet, which The Economist believes threatens every concentration of power and probably will forever. Why are family media operations fading away? Because of the Internet, stupid.
Generally, the magazine seems to implicitly argue that we've somehow risen to a more advanced phase in corporate development, where moguls, with their "feudal" management styles, can no longer thrive. Murdoch, we are told, is the last of a breed, an evolutionary dead-end, the end of something, as Ed Sullivan used to say, very big; the magazine even has the grandiosity to swipe a title from an oft-cited essay by Francis Fukuyama -- himself no stranger to grandiosity or to definitive statements that turn out to be less than definitive -- as a subhead to the final section of the piece: "The end of history and the last man." In this context, what can this mean? We have heard endlessly now that Murdoch is a Shakespearean tragic hero -- The New York Times felt compelled to run an Op-ed over the weekend for those folks not up on the Bard's plot points as they relate to Rupert -- but this is even richer: Murdoch as a giant standing at some point in the Hegelian dialectic of history. Of course, Fukuyama thought of the "end of history" as a positive development, the final phase of an unfolding history; The Economist uses it as a sign that personal moguldom is dead, replaced by corporatist managers like Jeff Bewkes and Robert Iger. In fact, the progenitor of the term "last man," Friederich Nietzsche, used it to describe the weak, passive antithesis to his superior "Over Man." These CEOs are thus "the last men" of the subhead, and Murdoch is an Over Man, which sort of confuses the overall thrust of the piece.
And guess what? By the end of the essay, The Economist has decided that while Murdoch is the last media mogul, he will not be the last "builder of a media empire." Really? The distinction here begins to grow extremely thin. The magazine cites Michael Bloomberg for building a media empire, but then he's also been busy in his other career as New York City mayor. But why couldn't he return to the company and act in classically mogul-like fashion, as he has shown a propensity to do? No answer. The magazine lumbers forward. "Proto-moguls like Mexico's Emilio Azcárraga are appearing in the emerging world," admits the magazine. "But the era of the global mogul is over. Mr. Murdoch would do his shareholders and his family a service if he recognized that, and stepped back." This is head-scratching logic. Emerging-market entrepreneurs can never be global moguls?
Even if The Economist were right about Murdoch as the last mogul, how would we ever know it today? Why is the Internet, which features some pretty mogul-like figures such as Steve Jobs, Barry Diller, the Google twosome, not to say Mark Zuckerberg, so resistant to building large, global media franchises? The Economist plays a shell game with the word, first identifying it with family ownership (the Chandlers of Los Angeles, the Rothermeres of London, but one could add: the Pulitzers, the Hearsts, the ineffable Sulzbergers), then with media, then with global reach. A mogul is simply a powerful and influential player; it has little to do with family (some moguls have passed off their companies to children, some haven't), and while to be powerful these days means a pretension to be global, it's still not necessary (neither the Chandlers nor the Rothermeres were global players in their now-distant heydays). Was Murdoch a "global mogul"? Close. But why would the era of global mogul be over, just because Murdoch has serious problems in London? What if, hypothetically, Sumner Redstone's Viacom swept in and acquired News Corp. from Murdoch? OK, it's a reach, but think about it. Redstone may be ancient, but wouldn't he be a global mogul? And what if Zuckerberg at some point decided he wanted to buy, say, Microsoft, Apple or Google? He'd seem pretty globally mogul-like. Are we so sure that China, Hong Kong, India or Brazil won't eventually produce a global mogul who would go out and maybe buy The Economist?
The Economist seems to be aiming this essay at two goals. First, to make an argument for shuffling Murdoch into retirement, as if telling him he's out of date would have much effect. Second, it seems to suggest that managerial corporatism is far more efficient and far hardier a structure than the rule of a single mogul. Maybe it is, sometimes. But dynamic individuals like Murdoch do have a habit of suddenly appearing and making their pale corporate care-taking rivals, with their corporate governance concerns and procedures, seem like total wimps.
Entrepreneurs exist in large numbers. They will continue to emerge as long as there's capital for them to build their self-aggrandizing dreams. Some will construct dominant, even bullying, franchises all over the world; many will fail. Some will be swashbuckling, devious, corner-cutting moguls; a few, like the unquiet Conrad Black, will go to jail. And as they pass from the scene, whatever media we have in those days will cluck and shake their heads and say: We'll never see the likes of them again. And they'll be wrong.