How does Rupert Murdoch get away with it every time? Despite his storied history as a destroyer of journalistic standards, he has still managed to step in and buy The Wall Street Journal, where he will inevitably begin to suborn its journalistic credibility.
Let’s look at the deal itself. Questions are already being raised about conflict of interest after Murdoch’s company agreed to pay Dow Jones’ lawyers and bankers to the tune of $30 million. The New York Times asked: “By paying the bankers and lawyers for the family, did the News Corporation essentially buy off the advisers and, more important, did the family receive unconflicted guidance or was it pushed to do the deal by high-priced Wall Street advisers who stood to make far more if a deal was consummated?”
Do you even need to ask?
It wasn’t a surprise, either, when the paper’s reactionary editorial board applauded the deal with the right-wing mogul, going so far as to warn readers that the board set up to protect the paper’s editorial independence was more or less a charade. They noted, “readers also shouldn’t misinterpret the ‘editorial independence’ agreement between Mr. Murdoch and the Bancrofts. This isn’t intended to be some heat shield protecting Journal editors from their new owner. We know enough about capitalism to know that there is no separating ownership and control.” And boy, do these guys know about capitalism. In other news, Murdoch has already pledged a $2.5 million donation to a foundation run by a member of the impartial board.
Journalists have been following The Wall Street Journal’s sale like hawks (Slate’s Jack Shafer has put out enough material to fill a book on the issue). Of course, others aren’t so perspicacious in their search for the facts. When one journalist suggested that some Dow Jones employees “secretly feel pleased that Murdoch” had taken over their company, Eric Alterman noted on “Altercation” that journalists or politicians who attribute secret feelings to others are lying. They are simply making stuff up and crediting it to people with whom they disagree in order to discredit them.
And speaking of discredit, what can we expect from a Murdoch Journal?
Well, if it’s anything like his young years running The Australian, we’ll see what one political reporter described to Ken Auletta: “The journalists’ copy was being altered. They were given specific instructions on what they could write and what they couldn’t write. And where the instructions weren’t specific, they learnt pretty bloody quickly because nothing appeared in the paper if it didn’t follow the line. It was the most extraordinarily ruthless and one-sided political coverage I think any of us can remember and we devoutly hope we never see it again.”
Maybe Murdoch will use the star journalists at The Wall Street Journal to further his own business goals, as when he employed three of The New York Post’s reporters to dig up dirt on a business rival for his lawyers, or just have them run articles to benefit his vast media empire.
Or perhaps The Wall Street Journal will become another vehicle for carrying water for the Chinese. Murdoch has a history of doing the bidding of the Chinese government, going so far as to kill a book critical of the Chinese government, downplay its human rights abuses, and even make business deals to their benefit. Maybe that’s why The Journal’s Pulitzer-winning China reporters sent this letter in protest of the deal. Their job security will be a key barometer to determine Murdoch’s plans for the newspaper.
And this isn’t even mentioning the Fox News Channel, whose distinct lack of both fairness and balance are too egregious to even begin covering here. Well, we’ll mention it a little. Of the numerous, numerous reports and studies of Fox’s blatantly conservative outlook, this Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting product from 2001 manages to catch everything from Fox’s emphasis on conservative pundits and its conservative staff to its emphasis on Bill Clinton’s sex scandal and refusal to air a story about challenges faced by blacks. More recently we saw the Fox News memo urging its employees to “lookout for any statements from the Iraqi insurgents …. must be thrilled at the prospect of a Dem-controlled Congress.”
Even if Murdoch didn’t have a history of corrupting journalism to power his own media empire, the sheer vastness of his corporate media holdings should worry anyone concerned about the dangers of consolidation—lack of perspective, conflict of interest, crowding out local markets.
There’s not much to be done about the Dow Jones deal now that it is made, except chronicle the descent of a once-great news organization. But at least Murdoch probably took a billion-dollar hit in the pocketbook because of all this baggage.
Tim Fernholz is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.