Rupert Murdoch's move to acquire the Wall Street Journal is sending shock waves across the media industry, as well-documented reports fill the pages of our most credible newspapers and magazines detailing the media tycoon's consistent practice of using his media properties to advance his political ideology and business agenda: from Fox News to the New York Post to The Times of London. The latest rumors are that a deal is imminent, as a UK business news site recently reported an unconfirmed agreement.
But the debate over News Corp.'s $5 billion acquisition of the Wall Street Journal and its parent company Dow Jones goes far beyond Rupert Murdoch's quest for power. To a broken media system brought by rampant consolidation and the commoditization of news, this potential acquisition is another major blow to hard-hitting journalism. It means one less national outlet watchdogging our government and big business -- and one more chasing after "infotainment" stories about Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith.
During the first three months of 2007, according the Project for Excellence in Journalism, Murdoch-owned Fox News' coverage of Anna Nicole Smith's death "trailed just barely the airtime spent on the Iraq policy debate. Fox also stood out for its lack of coverage on the firings of the U.S. attorneys, compared with the other (cable news) channels."
Murdoch's defenders emphatically argue that he is hands-off with his editorial staff, but history shows that he backs away only after he has replaced senior editorial staff with those in line with his personal ideology. In 1976, Murdoch bought the liberal New York Post and pledged to "maintain its present policies and traditions." It is now a right-wing tabloid with nary a pre-1976 policy or tradition intact.
When the rising mogul bought The Times, a major London daily, in 1981, he agreed to an independent oversight committee and guidelines to maintain editorial independence, much like he is doing now with owners of the Wall Street Journal. It took little time before Murdoch was forcing content deemed "tasteless" by Times editors, complaining that stories had too much of a liberal bent, and exclaiming that a Times reporter was "a Commie." When pressed, he infamously said to then-editor Fred Emery, "I give instructions to my editors all around the world; why shouldn't I in London?"
To achieve his goals, Murdoch didn't hesitate to block channels like BBC from his satellite company in China to curry favor with the government. He publishes bad books by powerful politicians with his $1.3 billion Harper Collins label to win political favor around the world. The list goes on.
While the Wall Street Journal has an editorial page more in line with Murdoch's world view, its newsroom is one of the finest -- and most influential -- in the country. The cost of allowing him to shape the Journal's reporting is a cost that is simply too high. And to those who say that the Wall Street Journal is yet another declining newspaper yielding to the great power that is the Internet, traditional media are still the overwhelming source of news for the vast majority of Americans. The Journal is one of just three national newspapers that lead the news cycle -- determining what makes the headlines each day.
Longtime Dow Jones director James Ottaway owns 6.2% of the company's super-voting shares. While declaring his opposition to the sale, he declared: "To me, the first biggest issue is more media concentration in the hands of people who use their media power for personal, political and business interests, as Murdoch does so blatantly with the New York Post, Fox News network, Star TV in China, Phoenix TV in China. .... There's no moral compass."
The other major media empires -- Disney (ABC), Viacom/CBS, General Electric (NBC) -- and the other powerful newspaper and radio conglomerates sacrifice journalism and democracy in the name of profiteering. But News Corp. has taken it a step further by abandoning critical journalism and debate while repeating their "fair and balanced" mantra.
What can be done? The first step is for the Bancroft family -- owners of the Wall Street Journal for more than 100 years -- not to hand their birthright to a buccaneer like Rupert Murdoch. They should keep the company or sell it to a more honest broker. And Congress must start rolling back media consolidation -- starting with legislation that prevents the owners of the largest TV networks from owning a major national newspaper. If they don't, Rupert Murdoch will score yet another stunning victory at the expense of an informed democracy.