Press Box

What Does Rupert Murdoch Want?

Former Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Paul Steiger hasn’t a clue.

I see no evidence, nor do my friends there report any evidence, of the bad Rupert showing up, trying to move the [Wall Street Journal’s]coverage in a way that advances his business interests. So, to me, my fears haven’t been realized.

—Former Journal Managing Editor Paul Steiger this week, as reported by Jeff Bercovici on

Rupert Murdoch 

I, too, have seen almost no evidence of the bad Rupert in the newspaper’s pages, but Steiger’s asinine comments indicate that he either 1) is playing stupid or 2) has no idea of how Murdoch actually operates.

I think he’s playing stupid.

Murdoch would no more make a policy of twisting Wall Street Journal coverage to News Corp.’s benefit than he would of publishing women in the buff on its Page 3. As anybody who has read a profile or biography of the genocidal tyrant   knows, he can be either subtle or obvious in the way he flexes his publications’ power.

In a May 2007 piece, Felix Salmon described Murdoch’s modus operandi perfectly: “[W]here editorial independence is valuable, Murdoch values it. Where it isn’t, he doesn’t.”

To expand on Salmon’s observation, Murdoch values the Journal’s editorial independence because he knows it is the paper’s primary asset. Without the reader trust that editorial independence has created, the paper would go bust in a year. Salmon explains that Murdoch is free to muck about with Fox News, the New York Post, the Sun, and other less prestigious appendages in his media domain because their regular readers and viewers don’t care. These outlets are stink-proof.

But just because the money-losing Post is stink-proof doesn’t mean that it’s powerless. As Murdoch-watcher Nick Denton noted earlier this year, the newspaper “has given Murdoch influence over New York City and State politics” but scant pull in Washington outside New York Sens. Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer, both of whom have been beneficiaries of Murdoch-sponsored re-election fundraisers.

The business-influence formula Murdoch has followed in the U.K., Denton writes, is to make his profits on sports and entertainment and use his newspapers to “provide political protection” for his business interests. Political protection comes in all shapes and sizes. A 2006 op-ed by former Tony Blair spin doctor Lance Price titled “Rupert Murdoch Is Effectively a Member of Blair’s Cabinet” describes the mogul’s role in the Blair government he helped to elect:

[A]t times when I worked at Downing Street he seemed like the 24th member of the cabinet. His voice was rarely heard (but, then, the same could have been said of many of the other 23) but his presence was always felt.No big decision could ever be made inside No 10 without taking account of the likely reaction of three men—Gordon Brown, John Prescott and Rupert Murdoch. On all the really big decisions, anybody else could safely be ignored.

Price writes that Murdoch’s London newspapers “received innumerable ‘scoops’ and favours. In return, New Labour got very sympathetic coverage from newspapers that are bought and read by classic swing voters—on the face of it, too good a deal to pass up.”

As Adrian Monck puts it in his new book, Can You Trust the Media?, “Tony Blair granted him something of the power that Walter Bagehot ascribed to a constitutional monarch—’the right to be consulted, the right to advise, and the right to warn.’ ”

Murdoch has guaranteed himself a seat at the political table in the United States by directing his family and his company’s political action committees to donate heavily to both parties. A June 2007 analysis by the New York Times found that “since 1997, Republicans have received only a slight majority—56 percent—of the $4.76 million in campaign donations from the Murdoch family and the News Corporation’s political action committees and employees. Since Democrats won control of Congress in the 2006 elections, the company and its employees have given more than twice as much to Democrats as to Republicans.” (See this Times chart for the handsome advances the book-publishing wing of his empire has paid to politicians and Supreme Court Associate Justice Clarence Thomas.)

Nobody has captured Murdoch’s methodology in fewer words than the Atlantic’s James Fallows, who wrote in 2003 that “some aspects of News Corp’s programming, positions, and alliances serve conservative political ends, and others do not. But all are consistent with the use of political influence for corporate advantage.”

Murdoch’s primary goal has always been for power. A bigger seat at the policy- and regulation-making table is all the direct influence he expects to derive from owning the Journal. If the $5 billion he paid for the paper and its mother company, Dow Jones, swells his captain’s chair into a sofa, the price will have been a steal.

There is no bad Murdoch. There is no good Murdoch. And Steiger knows it. There is only Murdoch.


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