Journalists in a snit over Murdoch

Posted: Friday, September 07, 2007

The summer just ending may not be long noted so much for the credit crunch or Barry Bonds, or the incessant yowling about Iraq, as for Rupert Murdoch's successful $5 billion wooing of the Bancroft family for The Wall Street Journal. Or rather for the reaction to Murdoch's success by many, mostly in the establishment press, letting their ideological slips show.

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Consider this sampler of overheated reactions:

• The New Republic, in an editorial: "The prospect of the Aussie vulgarian lording over the paper has whipped up an end-of-days gloom across the nation's newsrooms."

• MSNBC columnist David Sweet: "Murdoch will tarnish a journalist jewel."

• Eric Alterman in The Nation: Murdoch "devalues the privileges and responsibilities of the press in America" and runs a "propaganda network." The sale of The Journal is a "dance of death."

• Former Dow Jones executive and major shareholder James Ottaway: The sale to Murdoch "is a bad thing for Dow Jones and American journalism."

• Democratic senator and presidential wannabe Chris Dodd: "(The sale to Murdoch) poses a serious threat to our democracy."

The principal rationales for this outrage, if any are offered, boil down to: (1) a Murdoch pattern of cheapening serious newspapers with celebrity news and pictures of buxom babes; (2) a Murdoch threat to "editorial independence," hence; (3) a Murdoch threat to impartiality.

Murdoch is reputed at other properties to have imposed his point of view (see 2 above), which is widely known to be conservative (see 3).

And so the doom-and-gloom that has greeted the purchase of The Journal by Murdoch's News Corp. - and that emphatically would not have greeted the successful pursuit of The Journal by just about any other media enterprise on the landscape. The essence of the complaint is this: Murdoch has secured The Journal as a conservative entity - has moved it beyond liberal reach. Oh groan.

The Washington Post's David Ignatius, a former Journal reporter, said strangely in an Aug. 2 column that things began to get tough for The Journal financially when the overtly conservative editorial page "did its own reporting, with equal portions of journalistic hustle and ideological spin" - a "self-inflicted" wound. Advertisers, he wrote, "perhaps weren't enthralled with a newspaper distinguished by vitriolic right-wing attack editorials."

On the contrary, advertisers for the most part are ecstatic at the prospects for advertising possibilities in a bigger, better, financially stronger Journal and related Dow Jones properties.

In a media industry seemingly beset all around by distressing results, Murdoch may be demonstrating a new media/economic model. Among his 110 newspaper properties worldwide, he founded The Australian in 1964 and carried it for 20 years before it made a profit. His Times of London is expected to achieve profitability next year for the first time since its acquisition in 1982. The New York Post, in aggressive pursuit of black ink, would not be around at all if Murdoch had not bought it (for the second time) in 1993.

And of course there is the Fox network, with the Fox News Channel (begun in 1996). Those who knew better said there was no room for another cable news entity. On "60 Minutes," the great Mike Wallace - citing CNN founder Ted Turner - bemoaned: "The news comes with a conservative spin."

Today Fox has left all other cable news channels in the dust, including CNN.

Murdoch may know what too many in and out of the news business smugly refuse to concede - that a public fed up with the obsessive liberalism yearns for conservative outlets and expression. How else explain the popularity of talk radio, Fox News - and the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal?

So, yes, Murdoch may understand very well the success a healthy dose of conservatism - or not-liberalism - may bring.

The Center for Media and Public Affairs' Robert Lichter, the eminent pollster/chronicler of the leftism infusing the establishment press, puts his finger on the Murdoch secret - and what it is about him that so appalls in journalistic precincts (including, given their reaction to the Murdoch purchase, big numbers in The Journal's newsroom):

"Murdoch brings together two things that many journalists think ruin their profession: money and conservatism. Journalists like to see their work as a noble profession rather than a business, and they believe that money trumps ideals. Murdoch is the devil to the old guard, who believe he personifies what is wrong with the profession today."

Or to put it another way: In the view of those hostile to Murdoch's purchase of Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal, what's bad for "American journalism" and "our democracy" is not their definition of "fair and balanced" that has so contributed to driving journalism down - but Murdoch's definition that has demonstrated so much success.

• Ross Mackenzie is a former editorial page editor at the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, now retired.

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