As a journalist and avid reader of The Wall Street Journal, I feel pressure to join the chorus of handwringers about the pending sale of Dow Jones to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.
The deal moved forward this week with a tentative agreement for the sale of The Journal's parent company and its affiliates for $5 billion. The next hurdle is the biggest — getting approval of the various branches of the Bancroft family, which controls 64 percent of the voting power in Dow Jones.
If I’m reading the cue cards correctly, I’m supposed to see Murdoch as a journalistic vampire, his wings flapping at the window of a sleeping newsroom. The monster enters the bedchamber, the victim’s tresses tumble across an alabaster neck.… You get the picture.
Murdoch is a corrupter. He interferes. He converts his newsrooms into machines to serve his rapacious business interests. His tabloids run photos of naked women on Page 3. He coarsens the discourse of American democracy. He printed Judith Miller’s stories about weapons of mass destruction and led us to war in Iraq. (I made the last one up; actually, that was The New York Times.)
Isn’t all this a bit overblown?
Love him or hate him, Murdoch is an exceptional figure in journalism, one of the last individuals whose personality can be felt throughout his empire. His holdings include newspapers around the world, the 20th Century Fox movie studio, Fox News, HarperCollins book publishers, Fox Broadcasting, the DirecTV satellite network and MySpace. Murdoch newspapers run from the trashy Sun of London (home to the Page 3 Girl) to the irreverent (the New York Post and colorful Page One headlines) to the sober and respectable (Times of London).
There is little dispute about the basis for criticism. Murdoch uses his assets to hammer enemies and reward friends. He curbs journalists when his business interests are threatened. In China, he dropped news programming and killed a book contract to placate government regulators. His companies have given generous book contracts to useful politicians.
But for all his flaws, Murdoch may be more a symptom than a disease. He’s not the person who started consolidation in the communications industry. He didn’t put NBC into the hands of General Electric, CBS into Viacom or ABC into Disney.
(MSNBC.com is a joint venture of NBC Universal and Microsoft.)
In many respects, he’s done some good in the industry. He’s revived dying newspapers — and preserved jobs in an industry roiled daily by layoffs. He expanded regional coverage of sports. The competitive presence of DirecTV helped pressure nervous cable companies to invest billions of dollars to accelerate service improvements, such as phone service. Fox has given us some great TV shows including “The Simpsons,” “X Files” and “24,” not to mention the guilty pleasure of “American Idol.”
I sometimes watch Fox News and have little doubt that its reporting tilts right, sometimes shamelessly. Bill O’Reilly is a windbag. But I have a problem when people blame Murdoch for the downfall of broadcast journalism. Look at CNN, where Lou Dobbs pursues a largely anti-immigration agenda. Or MSNBC, where you have Keith Olbermann calling for Bush to resign and stoking a feud with O’Reilly. And if dignity is a concern, who let MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson do “Dancing with the Stars?”
For those who are alarmed by Murdoch’s conservative bent, there may be comfort in his shift toward the middle and his support for Tony Blair in Great Britain and Hillary Clinton in New York. Besides, it’s not as if Murdoch could make The Wall Street Journal’s editorials much more right-wing than they already are.
The immediate fear, of course, is that Murdoch will tilt the Journal’s coverage to serve his political or business agenda. Author Tina Brown said Murdoch’s ownership would be “a horror show. Very sad.” Her husband, Harold Brown, was forced out of the The Times in 1981 by Murdoch.
But another view is that Murdoch always puts his business interests first, and he would be foolish to tarnish the luster of the Journal. In 2003, James Fallows, writing in the Atlantic magazine, predicted that journalism under Murdoch and others would continue to move toward a more partisan style as in early 19th Century America.
“News addressed to a particular niche — not simply in its content but also in its politics — may be the natural match to an era with hundreds of satellite and cable channels and limitless numbers of Internet sites,” Fallows wrote.
So I’m not convinced there’s a villain here. But if we need one, how about the Bancroft family? They’re clearly animated by Murdoch’s enormous offer of $5 billion. That’s a 67 percent increase over the company’s share price before the offer became public.
If anything, Murdoch did them a favor. He caused a family that at times was inattentive, erratic or squabbling to grasp their company’s long-term vulnerabilities and see the errors of their stewardship. Though the family is divided, at least some accepted Murdoch’s central point that Dow Jones alone cannot compete long term in a global communications environment. Murdoch is exploiting some painful realities, but he’d get nowhere without the family's interest in that fat checkbook.