Read Jack Shafer’s complete Murdoch coverage.
The story flows down the page like a Wall Street Journal feature: A passel of haughty heirs controls a major corporation that transmutes every business opportunity into disaster, driving the firm’s stock off the cliff. A takeover bid arrives but melodrama ensues as the heirs squabble—first over the bidder’s character (it’s bad) but ultimately over how much money will be thrown their way as the heirs settle for what they can get.
So goes Rupert and the Bancrofts, in which the family that controls Dow Jones & Co. delivers it to Rupert Murdoch’s own News Corp. family dynasty. For the rotten old bastard—and I mean that affectionately—the Bancroft episode is only one chapter in his multivolume history of double-down wheeling and dealing. But having won the prize, will Murdoch come to regret it as he has so many of his acquisitions and investments and discard it?
The last time Murdoch made a controversial purchase of a family-controlled operation was when he picked up the Los Angeles Dodgers in the late 1990s from the O’Malleys for $350 million. The team was supposed to be the basis of his big sports media thrust, but after a couple of years he dumped the team. At one point he was assembling a tabloid newspaper empire in the United States, with titles in San Antonio, Chicago, Boston, and New York. Switching gears, he dumped them all before returning to buy the oddly influential New York Post. He battled his way into satellite broadcasting, making a run on a couple of operations before acquiring a controlling interest in DirecTV. Now he’s bailing out of it. He entered the American magazine market in a big way (Automobile, Mirabella, New York, Seventeen, et al.) and is now almost completely out. In 2002, he wrote off $6 billion on his Gemstar investment, the Journal reported recently, and is trying to unload his company’s share.
Call the Murdoch method fickle. Call it improvisational. But never call it sentimental. He wasted millions at the beginning of the first Internet boom, buying Delphi—an Internet service provider—and forming an Internet and media alliance with MCI and British Telecommuncations to move programming through their pipes only to bail from it, too.
I’ve predicted that Murdoch will be a bad Wall Street Journal owner because of his instinct to foul every journalism nest in which he roosts. I need to reiterate my view that Murdoch fouls his nests not because he’s a bad news man but because he’s no sort of a news man. He’s an impresario, a politician, and empire builder who pushes the truth only when it serves his business interests.
Today’s Wall Street Journal moves financial markets with its news accounts because readers believe—rightly—that the paper serves no master but the reader. Even the slightest tinkering by Murdoch will shatter the trust relationship the paper has with its readers, who are a thousand times more discerning and a thousand times less forgiving than the tabloid readers and viewers Murdoch has made his money on. Will readers be able to trust the Murdoch Journal’s coverage of television? Of cable? Of publishing? Of China? Of the Internet? Of any place Murdoch holds a business interest?
What of his promises of “editorial independence” for the paper? I’m glad you asked. Murdoch loves to make promises but loves even more to break them. The day will come that Murdoch decides that the newspaper and its parent company no longer fit in the colossus’ ever-shifting plan to straddle all the world’s media. After extracting a bit of the Journal’s prestige value for his forthcoming cable business news channel, I predict he’ll grow tired of the criticisms and sell it off.
Will he have permanently crippled it? I suspect so. It takes decades for a newspaper to establish its good reputation. Murdoch will show the world how little time it takes to trash it.
And so commences the “MurdochJournal Watch.” Send tips and observations to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)