NEW YORK -- Rupert Murdoch has never been shy about voicing a political opinion, using his worldwide empire of television and newspaper outlets to promote conservative causes. Now, with a raft of complaints about Republican Mitt Romney, the billionaire media baron is signaling that he intends to boost his visibility in U.S. politics--even if it comes at the expense of the man conservatives hope can defeat President Barack Obama.
Murdoch is the founder and CEO of the global media conglomerate News Corp. which owns several outlets popular with conservatives in the U.S., including Fox News Channel, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Post. Until now, Murdoch has been far less influential in U.S. politics than he has in his native Australia and until recently in England, where a phone hacking scandal involving several Murdoch-owned newspapers has shaken his status as a fearsome power broker.
The hacking scandal forced the departure of many Murdoch's deputies, peeling away a protective layer around him while also liberating him to take such risks as openly criticizing Romney, some who know him say.
Murdoch, 81 and a naturalized U.S. citizen, chose to launch his critique of Romney on Twitter, the social networking site where information is exchanged in 140-character blasts known as tweets.
"When is Romney going to look like a challenger? Seems to play everything safe, make no news except burn of Hispanics," Murdoch tweeted from his iPad on June 24. "Easy for Romney to spell out restoration of the American dream and bash incompetent administration. But not a word!" he said later that day. "Tough O Chicago pros will be hard to beat unless (Romney) drops old friends from team and hires some real pros. Doubtful," Murdoch tweeted on July 1.
On Monday, Murdoch appeared to acknowledge his tweets might be causing consternation for the Romney campaign. "Romney people upset at me! Of course I want him to win, save us from socialism, etc but should listen to good advice and get stuck in!"
The Wall Street Journal's editorial page followed Murdoch's lead Thursday, unleashing a surprisingly harsh attack on the Romney campaign's response to the Supreme Court's affirmation of President Barack Obama's health care law. News Corp. purchased the Journal in 2007 and the paper's editorial page is viewed as an authoritative voice among conservatives.
The Journal responded to mixed messages from the Romney campaign about whether the mandate to buy health insurance constituted a tax as the court suggested, calling the confusion "politically dumb." The paper also urged Romney to shed staff and offer more detailed policy proposals. And it dinged him for playing into Democrats' "rich-guy" caricature by jet-skiing this week at his New Hampshire lakeside retreat.
"Mr. Romney promised Republicans he was the best man to make the case against President Obama, whom they desperately want to defeat. So far Mr. Romney is letting them down," the Journal said.
The former Massachusetts governor couldn't even catch a break in The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine Murdoch launched. "Is it too much to ask Mitt Romney to get off autopilot and actually think about the race he's running?" asked Bill Kristol, the magazine's editor.
Romney advisers have taken note of Murdoch's public comments, though they decline to discuss them publicly. "Gov. Romney respects Rupert Murdoch and also respects his team and has confidence in them," Romney spokeswoman Andrea Saul said.
The Romney campaign has no immediate plans to make changes to its senior staff, but officials say they are still in the process of hiring new people for the fall campaign.
Michael Wolff, author of "The Man Who Owns the News," a Murdoch biography, said Murdoch's use of Twitter reflects a new determination to address politics using his own voice and to carve out a separate identity from Fox News, which has grown more conservative than Murdoch himself over time.
"He's not a Fox conservative and he's not a tea party conservative. That's why he's angry about Romney," Wolff said. "Romney is closer to a Murdoch conservative but he is now pandering to the conservative wing of the party that Murdoch has always had contempt for."
Judd Legum, who has researched Murdoch for the liberal Center for American Progress, a Washington-based think tank, agreed that Murdoch was attempting to separate himself from Fox but for a different reason: he believes the network had gone too easy on Romney.
"They've positioned Fox News to be largely supportive of Romney, with lots of sympathetic interviews," Legum said. "Murdoch is suggesting another approach. He wants to push Romney into a more aggressive posture."
As a political donor, Murdoch has contributed to both Republicans and Democrats including Hillary Rodham Clinton during her run for re-election to the Senate from New York. Murdoch also came close to endorsing Obama in 2008, calling Obama a rock star and saying rival John McCain had "a lot of problems."
News Corp contributed $1 million each in 2010 to the Republican Governors Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, prompting the company's board to announce News Corp would disclose its political giving annually on its website.
Murdoch was cool to Romney even during the Republican primaries, at one point musing on Twitter that he wished the candidate would show more "heart and stomach." Murdoch also made a point of praising Romney's rivals as they surged into contention against him, praising former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum's "consistency and humility" and calling former House Speaker Newt Gingrich "brilliant."
Murdoch biographer Wolff said Murdoch may well want Romney to defeat Obama but his tweets suggest Murdoch doesn't think that will happen.
"Murdoch is very, very attentive to political ups and downs. He's a handicapper," Wolff said. "He is always looking to be with the winner."