No one who enjoys even a passing acquaintance with modern media would accept Rupert Murdoch’s promise to preserve the editorial independence of a newspaper. Yet the Bancroft family, for a century the hands-off managers of the global economy’s newspaper of record, proposes to accept just such a pledge–and $5 billion–for the Wall Street Journal and the Dow Jones empire it sits atop. Jim Ottaway Jr., an old-school publisher and the largest voting shareholder on the Dow Jones board outside the Bancroft family, is right to dismiss such talk as a “fig leaf” to justify a sale that “would not be a good thing for Dow Jones, for the Wall Street Journal, for American journalism or for the integrity of business and financial news in America, upon which our free markets rely.”
Ottaway’s concerns are seconded by Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf, who questions whether Murdoch’s fifty years of media moguling have “created even one serious, authoritative and truly independent newspaper.” The Journal‘s news division, as distinct from its editorial page, is all those things, a lonely holdout for serious reporting and analysis in an age when the craft of journalism is endangered by media consolidation, Paris Hilton-obsessed “content” and record profit-taking. It’s one of the major daily newspapers that are not routinely referred to as “once great.”
But the paper that Americans–surveyed by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press–rate as the nation’s most credible won’t survive as an independent voice under Murdoch. The remarkable thing about the Journal is that in an era when large papers are casually pegged as liberal or conservative, this newspaper with a rabidly right-wing editorial page maintains a global newsgathering operation so free of ideological bonds that it wins high marks from just about everyone–except Murdoch, who makes little secret of his view that the Journal is too thoughtful and, yes, too independent.
Naïve analysts of Murdoch’s maneuvering fantasize that the press baron won’t alter the Journal because he values “the brand.” They fail to recognize that Murdoch will use the paper’s good name to enhance his digital and cable operations. He wants Dow Jones because he needs it in order to dominate business news online and on television. He knows he will never establish that dominance if the Journal‘s parent company, with fresh investments or under more enlightened ownership–such as Ronald Burkle and Brad Greenspan–gets smart about new media.
For the newspaper itself he has different plans–plans that have less to do with making money than with setting agendas. Murdoch wants to re-create the Journal as a counterbalance to what he sees as a liberal print press, suggests a former editor for his papers, Ken Chandler. “I compare what he would do there to what he did to CNN when he started the Fox News Channel,” explains Chandler.
It is not enough that the Journal‘s editorial page already expresses the same neoliberal economic views and neoconservative enthusiasm for warmaking as the opinion pages of the New York Post–a paper Murdoch purchased in 1976 with a promise to “maintain its present policies” and promptly shifted hard to the right. Though the Journal‘s ponderous editorials are the product of committed conservatives, the writers are not inclined to bark in tune with the boss. In a cheeky editorial on the possible sale, the authors–fully aware of the fact that Murdoch pulled the BBC from his Asian satellite system when its reporting ran afoul of the Chinese government–noted that “we’re proud to continue fighting for freedom and human rights today in China.” And no matter what the editorials say, the wall of separation between the Journal‘s opinion pages and its news sections is the thickest in the business. That cannot be said of the Post or the scores of other newspapers on three continents owned by Murdoch.
Murdoch’s newspapers march in lockstep. Of his more than 175 papers, not one objected to the rush to war in Iraq, which was promoted by politicians–President George W. Bush, Prime Minister Tony Blair and Australian Prime Minister John Howard–who were elected with the overt support of the opinion sections and friendly boosts from the news sides of those publications and broadcast networks like Murdoch’s virulently right-wing Fox News Channel. Murdoch always seems to get something in return for his election season services: Bush’s Republican Congress altered rules to allow him to own more television stations in the United States; Blair dropped his Labour Party’s longstanding support for strict media ownership limits; Howard stands accused of letting Murdoch dictate media policy.
But there is more to Murdoch’s method than a cynically manipulative media mogul playing footsy with corrupt politicians: He is a true believer in the extremist ideologies of the moment. Murdoch didn’t just cheer the Iraq War into being; he continues to defend it, with a Bush-like refusal to face reality, even going so far as to refer to US combat deaths–more than 2,800 at the time of his comment–as “minute.” And he’s done a lousy job of concealing his desire to join the Journal‘s news operations to his ideological cause.
As a publication targeting serious investors and serious citizens, the Journal has a news division with a history of pursuing the elusive truth more vigorously and successfully than most papers. That upsets conservatives who, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson, “can’t handle the truth.” And Murdoch, who regards Fox’s bent news as “playing it straight,” proposes to remake the Journal as a globe-spanning business newspaper–with affiliated digital and broadcast platforms–that will soothe conservatives’ delicate sensibilities. He wants to replace the in-depth articles that have been a staple of the Journal‘s front page with “popular” news to counter his perception of the New York Times as a liberal bastion. “My worry about the New York Times is that it’s got the only position as a national elitist general-interest paper,” Murdoch said. “It has a huge influence. And we’d love to challenge it.”
This challenge would come not merely from the right but from a place of partnership with Murdoch’s political allies. Murdoch’s never been “the ultimate outsider” imagined by Time magazine’s recent cover story. From the early 1950s, when he inherited part of his father’s Australian media empire, he has made a fortune–his News Corporation is valued at $68 billion–by working with power rather than speaking truth to it. Murdoch doesn’t practice journalism; he molds diverse media into a single voice. It’s a dangerous uniformity–threatening the democratic discourse a free press sustains as well as enabling wars by conniving with bellicose politicians. Those dangers will grow, exponentially, if the Journal joins Rupert Murdoch’s chorus. And the shrinking list of still independent American newspapers will be reduced by one.