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.