If you take him at his word, Rupert Murdoch will make no colossal editorial changes at the Wall Street Journal if he acquires its parent company, Dow Jones.
Of course, nobody should take Murdoch at his word. Whatever soothing music he sings about no meddling by the CEO and maintaining high editorial standards, he’ll quickly identify enemies in the Journal’s newsroom and show them the door. Many of the Journal’s 600 news-gatherers won’t need an escort: They’ll quit in protest, just as 60 Chicago Sun-Times reporters and editors did in the opening weeks of Murdoch’s ownership of that paper in 1984. It was a gutsy move on their part, as the job market was extraordinarily tight that season.
The Journal’s very best journalists will be the first to defect because 1) the very best can always find better jobs and 2) they know Murdoch rarely makes good on no-meddling pledges. Harold Evans complains in his working-for-Rupert memoir, Good Times, Bad Times, that Murdoch violated every promise of editorial independence he made after purchasing the Times of London * and appointing him editor. Upon confronting Murdoch about the broken promises, Evans claims the mogul replied, “They’re not worth the paper they’re written on.”
How bad will the Murdoch-owned Journal be? Not as bad as you may expect. Many Chicagoans recall that Murdoch destroyed the Sun-Times with his down-market tabloid formula, but a study conducted by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism indicates that the ruination of the Sun-Times was more a matter of perception than reality.
As William Shawcross writes in his book Murdoch, the Medill team combined content analysis of the paper and its competition with a reader survey. The study asked Sun-Times readers what sorts of changes they had noticed since Murdoch’s arrival, and more than one-fourth of respondents answered “sensationalism.” But few could distinguish Sun-Times headlines from the headlines in the city’s broadsheet Chicago Tribune. Some survey respondents even found Sun-Times headlines from the paper’s pre-Murdoch incarnation more sensationalist than current heds. Stories were shorter in the Murdoch Sun-Times, wrote New York Times reporter Andrew H. Malcolm in a July 13, 1984, article about the study, and pages contained more type. But the paper was more like the mid-1970s Sun-Times than the conventional Murdoch paper, Malcolm concluded in his reading of the study. “Nonetheless, the study said the image of poor quality and sensationalism clings,” he wrote.
Murdoch has had the Journal on his wish list for a long time, so it’s safe to predict that he has a lot of changes in mind. The Murdoch Journal will probably be snappier, contain more gossip, and pack more graphic excitement than today’s version. He’ll probably spend more money on editorial, too, and pour media synergy out of Journal buckets into all of his enterprises.
But Murdoch’s Journal will be best defined by the stories it avoids, not the ones it runs. Given Murdoch’s business ambitions in China and his history of appeasing its leaders, would his Journal have published the series about pollution, dangerous working conditions, and income inequality in China that won the paper the 2007 Pulitzer in international reporting? Or how about the series by Ian Johnson on Chinese suppression of the Falun Gong movement that won a 2001 Pulitzer in international reporting? As you scroll down the list of stories for which the Journal has won Pulitzers in recent years, it’s hard to imagine Murdoch dispatching reporters to dig into the stock-option backdating story, critique defense spending, probe the tobacco industry, or expose working conditions in dangerous, dead-end jobs in the United States.
Murdoch doesn’t exasperate because he’s a conservative; he exasperates because he has no principles. In building his media empire, he’s been primarily interested in exercising power. Murdoch will ride a left-leaning politician, a right-leaning one, or a political pretzel, just as long as he can ride into the winner’s circle on the politician’s back.
For a savvy appraisal of how Murdoch works and thinks, see this 2001 piece by Tunku Varadarajan that appeared in the Journal opinion pages. Varadarajan recently departed the paper’s editorial pages for its news pages, where he now works as an assistant managing editor.
Varadarajan calls Murdoch “a master practitioner of the corporate kowtow” as he details instances in which “Murdoch-owned media have drawn in their horns on the subject of China.” Here’s a taste of his views of the mogul:
… Mr. Murdoch is an apologist for the Chinese regime. The only qualification is that a government, or a politician must be ready to go along with his business requirements.As a close Murdoch-watcher told me yesterday: ‘What the Murdochs have specialized in is trading newspaper support to governments in return for regulatory favors in nonprint media and business generally. While others may do this from time to time, they do it all the time, and without intermission.’What does one make of the Murdoch position on China? In my view, it is a form of corporate prostitution, something quite different from ideological blindness or agnosticism. …
There’s a lot to admire about Rupert Murdoch. His entrepreneurial genius. His willingness to compete and prevail. The Simpsons. But at the risk of sounding like a goofus from the Committee of Concerned Journalists, let me say it straight: He isn’t the right owner for Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal. The Pulitzer examples listed above demonstrate that the Journal practices a kind of journalism that just isn’t in Murdoch’s wheelhouse, something that should be obvious to him. The Journal succeeds as a business property because readers trust it, and somebody as innately treacherous as Murdoch can be relied on only to destroy the thing he loves.
Will Varadarajan be the first out the door? Send me your candidates for early departure: firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Correction, May 8, 2007: Due to a copy-editing error, the original version of this article misidentified the newspaper Rupert Murdoch bought and hired Harold Evans to edit. It was the Times of London, not the Sunday Times. (Return to the corrected sentence.)