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Margaret Heffernan Headshot

Corporate Kool-Aid Again

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Here we go again. Another identikit takeover in which everyone willingly colludes in fantasies history tells them cannot come true. It's not a takeover, it's a merger. Right. Nothing will change. Of course not. The new owners will love and respect tradition. Sure.

Last week, an anonymous journalist at Dow Jones expressed a preference to Murdoch over GE -- on the assumption that there would be more journalistic freedom under a media man than under legendary cost-cutters GE. What was he thinking? Has everyone forgotten Good Times, Bad Times, Harold Evans's great book about Murdoch and the Times takeover? If journalists this naïve are working for Dow Jones, they really must be in trouble.

Of course the Bancroft family is negotiating detailed clauses about editorial control. It's part of the ritual. Everybody indulges in fantasies like those when it's takeover time. It's a standard takeover cliché to say that nothing will change. And then a few years later, the plot line sadly (but predictably) reveals that everything has changed after all. But then it's too late. Why? Because contracts are only as good as the will and the money to enforce them. Once a deal is done, the money is pocketed, and everyone moves on. The new owners get stuck in and the old owners lose interest. By the time it's obvious what havoc has been wreaked, no one's in the mood to sue to get their company back. It doesn't matter how many fancy clauses get written and signed. Control always rests with those that have the muscle and motivation to seize it and keep it.

The Bancrofts are either naïve or greedy or both if they think they can have their money and their consciences. It's one or the other.