We may be losing interest in newspapers but our fascination with the people who publish them has never been stronger. Before William Randolph Hearst was morphed into Citizen Kane, mega-news lord, we've been gaga over a handful of buccaneer publishers. We love them, we fear them, but mostly we elevate them to celebrity status because they hit the jumbo trifecta: power, wealth and the ability to influence millions.
Think Horace Greeley, Joseph Pulitzer, Joseph Medill and those Los Angeles Times sunshine boys, Harrison Grey Otis and Harry Chandler, whose audacious water-piracy scheme literally created the sprawling San Fernando Valley.
Not all powerful publishers generate major public awareness. Some notable nabobs like The New York Times' Sulzbergers and The Washington Post's Graham family feature more behind-the-curtain discretion.
Our current dread-and-awe buccaneer is the audacious Aussie, Rupert Murdoch, The Man Who Owns the News, according to Michael Wolfe's recent biography. Just how much DOES he own? The New York Post, Dow Jones & Co.(which includes The Wall Street Journal, Barron's, Dow Jones Newswires, Smart Money, MarketWatch and Financial News), the U.K.'s London Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun; book publisher HarperCollins and entertainment properties including:20th Century Fox, 20th Century Fox Television, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Fox Television Studios Fox, Fox Television Stations Group, Fox Turkey, Fox Serbia, Fox TV Studios France and Fox Studios India - a lot of foxes in the world's media houses.
It's the 2007-2008 Dow Jones acquisition by Murdoch's News Corp. that particularly fascinates former WSJ reporter Sarah Ellison in her exhaustive history, War at the Wall Street Journal. Ellison calls it an "epic clash" between the bankers and lawyers incentivized to make a deal, and the group dedicated to the values of the old journalistic establishment. 'Clash' and 'war' are good sell words but this story is more 'submission' and 'capitulation.' Given the WSJ's weakening finances and the large cast of people involved, the outcome was never really in doubt.
Murdoch and his senior management know how to do acquisitions. Step 1: Overwhelm your opponent. Murdoch's offer for the whole Dow Jones ball-of-news was an overwhelming $5.6 billion.
Step 2: Play nice, tell your opponents what they want to hear. Murdoch promised NOT to interfere with The Journal's independent journalism in its news pages.
Step 3: Once you own it, forget about the 'independence' thing and get rid of anyone who stands in your way.
Standing somewhat in his way were a few members of the unwieldy Bancroft family, heirs of founder Clarence Barron and a large brood with three disparate branches with nothing in common except their hands-off, legacy ownership of Dow Jones.
There were a few of these Bancrofts, along with many of The Journal's reporting staff, who feared Murdoch made editorial decisions to advance his business interests and sacrificed journalistic integrity to satisfy personal or political aims.
So Rupert gave them what they wanted to hear - the same assurances that were "...not worth the paper they're written on," he later said. He believed the Bancrofts understood they were sops and he never expected the family to take his promises seriously. This, of course, is what makes Murdoch Murdoch, the consummate player whose eye is always on the bottom line.
And fortunately for the deal, most of the Bancrofts had the same bottom line: "Dow Jones exists to make money for its shareholders." The family, Ellison writes, was not looking for great journalism but great financial return. What war?
Do we learn anything new about Murdoch in these pages or in the audiobook? Rupert's game is flash and dash. Subtlety and nuance is not his style, writes Ellison. Okay, got that. We also learn that Plan A was to BUY The New York Times. When that didn't work out, Plan B kicked in: buy The Journal and CRUSH The Times with it.
That hasn't happened. But since the takeover, the big question is: has The Journal's former journalistic independence in its news pages been subsumed by Murdoch's personal agenda? Aside from considerably improved layout and graphics, Ellison suggests it has. She writes that political reporters often heard requests for more stories on republicans. Education reporters were told by Murdoch's trusted editor, Robert Thomson, to write their stories as if the most conservative reader in the world was reading it.
Recent coverage of Supreme Court nominee, Elena Kagan might offer an angle. On June 5, The New York Times story read, "Glimpses of Kagan's Views in Clinton White House." The Los Angeles Times and The Chicago Tribune had: "documents paint...Kagan as a pragmatist." The Wall Street Journal's story that day was, documents "...show the high court nominee holds strong, often liberal views." Hmmmm.
Most of War at the Wall Street Journal breaks down to BEFORE and AFTER the sale. The before part - the offer and negotiations - make up the bulk of the book and Ellison exhausts the reader with a huge cast of characters who only serve to blur what might have been a more focused story. The art of good story telling is the art of knowing what to overlook. This is mostly a battleship of words to sink a rowboat of thought.
The story might have been better served as an in-depth Vanity Fair article. But if you're part of the news business and it's must-reading for you, the 10 hour audiobook might be your best choice.
Judith Brackley's narration adds a helpful insider quality to the words. And you can zone out on the really blurry parts and not miss a thing.