That American journalism is facing so many crises simultaneously has the effect of immobilizing a concerted response to any of them. From the Administration’s war on the press, to the relentless attention lavished on Paris and Britney, to the domination of “serious” punditocracy discourse by friends and acolytes of the discredited Bill Kristol, to the way the upstart blogosphere has all but destroyed the prestige and authority of so many of the “wise men” with aggressive fact-checking and relentless questioning, to the fact that young people are more likely to be killed by terrorists than to buy a daily newspaper subscription or turn on the evening news–there are more problems than any one person can hope to address. Meanwhile, corporate owners are demanding 20 percent profit margins every year, thereby forcing cuts in coverage and diminishing the product, giving people even less reason to read or tune in. All one can really do is press on and hope for a miracle.
Rupert Murdoch might profitably be viewed as the Frankenstein monster of this multifaceted identity crisis. Take a look at his flagship American publication: the New York Post. It’s dumb, celebrity-obsessed, spineless, corrupt, unreliable and reactionary, and even with all its pandering, it still manages to lose, by its own estimation, $30 million to $50 million a year.
It’s not just the Post that Murdoch operates as a de facto nonprofit. The Times of London lost $89 million in 2004, and according to a News Corp. executive quoted in a recent Wall Street Journal article, even the Australian “doesn’t consistently make money.” Murdoch doesn’t care. Newspapers make up just 14 percent of News Corp.’s operating income. What they cost in cash, they more than make up for in political and propaganda value. Examine any Murdoch newspaper–or book publishing or network news operation for that matter–and you will find any number of clear, inarguable abrogations of journalistic principles in the service of the immediate interests of Murdoch’s corporate empire. Sometimes they curry favor with, or put pressure on, local politicians. Sometimes they manufacture “grassroots” support for some company-owned enterprise or Murdoch-friendly politician. Whatever actual news the media properties report is almost beside the point. When news values and business interests clash, business wins. When Murdoch’s right-wing ideology and his business clash, business wins. Business always wins. Hence, Murdoch’s editors and producers will sometimes find themselves forced to slant the news on behalf of center-left politicians like Tony Blair or Hillary Clinton. It’s not that Murdoch is open-minded; it’s that he’s single-minded.
The genius of Murdoch’s propaganda network is that by aping real news organizations, he helps himself to all kinds of tax breaks and constitutional privileges unavailable to nonmedia moguls, to say nothing of effects on elections and popular opinion. That he devalues the privileges and responsibilities of the press in America matters little to Murdoch, who appears to care nothing for traditional notions of respectability and treats journalists as no more important than the people who use his newspapers to wrap fish and chips. But it is rather shocking that so many people who care about the future of journalism remain silent or sanguine about his impact on one of democracy’s most important professions. The news pages in the Wall Street Journal are about the smartest and bravest of any newspaper in America. Some people, like Dow Jones CEO Richard Zannino, enjoy stock holdings that offer roughly 20 million good reasons to believe that such journalism can continue unimpeded within the Murdoch empire. But the rest of us might as well believe in Peter Pan.
For nonconservatives the Dow Jones dance of death with Rupert Murdoch presents an additional complication. For all the–deserved–praise being heaped on the paper’s news pages of late, its editorial pages already operate with Murdoch-like sleaze. News staffers frequently wake up to find their reporting attacked and undermined by the editorial page ideologues. When speaking anonymously, Journal reporters have been known to say things like “To have [editorial page editor] Paul Gigot as our captain is bullshit. It’s not for real,” and “They’re wrong all the time. They lack credibility to the point that the emperor has no clothes.” And yet without the power and prestige of the newspaper in which these edit page opinions come wrapped, they would be taken no more seriously than, say, the latest ravings of Rush Limbaugh or David Horowitz.
Alas, this very quality makes the edit page a perfect fit for the Murdoch modus operandi, so it comes as no surprise that Murdoch says he loves it–or that Fox News scooped up its taxpayer-funded talking-heads program, which failed so miserably to find an audience when Bush Administration operatives foisted it on PBS. The silver lining of this takeover is that when Murdoch destroys the credibility of the Journal–as he must if it is to fit in with his business plan–he will be removing the primary pillar of the editorial page’s influence as well. In this regard his ownership is a kind of poisoned chalice.
The editors of The New Republic argue that the Murdoch takeover of Dow Jones comes at a “pivotal moment for liberals–a time to dial back their relentless hostility to newspapers and start crusading for them.” It’s a lot to ask of liberals to “crusade” on behalf of an enterprise whose editorial pages routinely call them cowards, traitors and criminals. Liberals would like nothing better than to take up the cause of the media’s crucial role in rooting out corruption and speaking truth to power. To do so, however, we need media that take those responsibilities seriously. And given the MSM’s performance on Whitewater, the Clinton impeachment crisis, the 2000 election, Florida and almost every major Bush Administration undertaking, that’s an awfully tough case to make. If a Murdoch-owned and -operated Wall Street Journal clarifies matters, so much the better. Sometimes when God closes a door, He opens a window.