Murdoch Takes a Journalistic Icon

The decision by the Dow Jones Co. to sell a controlling interest in the company to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp marks a sad day for journalistic values, a sign that those who believe that professional integrity trumps the profit motive have lost an important battle.

With the deal, one of the last three major family-owned newspapers in the United States ‑ one whose news pages are arguably the best edited and reported in journalism – becomes another cog in the Murdoch empire, part of a stable that includes the resolutely ideological Fox News, a brace of down-market tabloids and a tendency to subordinate journalism to business motives. The Australian-born Murdoch is now to be arguably the most powerful media baron on the planet. The man who caved in to China for profit is going to be in charge of one of America’s most important journalistic voices.

The deal ends the 105-year stewardship of Dow Jones by the US-based Bancroft family, which owns 65 percent of its shares. It turns the Wall Street Journal over to a corporate pirate who has left a trail of strangled journalism in his wake. It might be charitable to believe his many protestations that he intends to leave the pages of the Journal as they are. But the business of the Wall Street Journal is business. And, given Murdoch’s record, it is difficult to believe that at some point, when a business interest is threatened, there won’t be a call in the middle of the night to pull a story or change a fact.

But even bigger than Rupert Murdoch is the decades-long rise of corporate journalism. Its best exemplar is the Tribune Co. of Chicago, which got its hands on the Los Angeles Times – then another family-owned newspaper that had distinguished itself with decades of strong local and international coverage. The paper won 15 Pulitzer prizes in the first five years of Tribune ownersip before the company decided profits were more important than quality and busied itself with turning it back into another mouldy regional California paper.

The brutal fact is that there has long been a war on within journalism. On the one side are those who believe that profit maximisation for the benefit of shareholders is the only proper goal of a media organization. This is certainly the current logic of Wall Street itself though it has not been of the Journal, which reports the street. On the other are those who believe that the quality of the product matters, as it does in other occupations, be it brain surgery or plumbing.

There are certainly cynics who believe that media owners have always been more interested in profit than reporting fearlessly and accurately. Lee Kuan Yew famously said 20 years ago that he would “hit in their pockets” foreign media which “interfered” in Singapore and they would succumb. He proved at least partly right. This could be put to the test yet again as the Far Eastern Economic Review, which is owned by Dow Jones, is currently enmeshed in yet another legal battle in Singapore over its coverage of the Lee Dynasty. Will Murdoch instruct his new people to walk away?

Compounding the dominance of profit over professionalism has been the merger of many news organisations on the grounds – not always correct – that less competition leads to lower costs and higher profits. The Murdoch deal follows hard on the heels of the acquisition of Reuters by Thomson. Earlier there were internationally significant mergers such the TimeWarner/CNN merger, a fiasco if ever there was one that nearly ruined Time Magazine.

All this has meant a loss of diversity, the other element apart from ethics that gives real value to the news media. Monopolies and the ascendancy of profit over ideas is anathema to a free press.

The common wisdom is that the blogs will save us and that the MSM – the derisive term that some bloggers use for the mainstream media – has become irrelevant. Internet journalism often finds itself aligned with blogs, but the fact is that without the mainstream media, bloggers have very little going for them.

Bloggers sit in front of their computers and read the mainstream press. Then they compare stories and look for holes. Or they comb the web and compare what they find to the mainstream press. While some bloggers are also reporters, adding a crucial element of what has come to be called “citizen journalism” to the flow of information, most lack the resources to dispatch neutral observers to the field. There are precious few bloggers in Iraq.

When there is a war or a major news event, we rely on reporters from the mainstream press. It costs US$1 million and more a year to keep a reporter in Iraq. It requires bodyguards, chase cars, safe apartments, and frequent R&R time. And still reporters die, and not just in Iraq. More than 100 were killed in the first six months of 2007, according to the International News Safety Institute.

According to INSI, 72 of the casualties over the past six months were murdered, including prominent cases such as Hrant Dink, the high-profile editor of an Armenian newspaper in Turkey who was shot outside his office in Istanbul, freelance photographer Edward Chikombo, whose badly beaten body was found in roadside bushes in Zimbabwe, and Ajmal Naqshbandi and Syed Agha, kidnapped with Italian reporter Daniele Mastrogiacomo in Afghanistan by the Taliban, INSI reported.

Iraq accounted for 42 journalists and media workers killed this year alone, up from 28 at the same time last year, the great majority of them local Iraqi journalists murdered by unidentified assailants. A total of 214 media workers have died in Iraq since the invasion in March 2003.

The mainstream media are the only organizations that have the resources to cover wars and to endure those tragedies. And there are complaints aplenty in the boardrooms from investors who believe that they have a right to expect that news organizations, like cog and sprocket producers, will produce an annual 15 percent to 20 percent profit. And the exemplar of that philosophy is Rupert Murdoch and News Corp.

The New York Times, still in the hands of the Ochs Sulzberger family, carried a devastating report earlier this year on Murdoch’s efforts to establish News Corp in China, ranging from the time – after a derisory speech about the Chinese approach to human rights ‑ he caved in and took the BBC off his television network because of the British network’s tough stance on the government. Questions were raised over the role of his mainland Chinese wife, Wendi Deng, in managing Murdoch’s operations in China. Will reporters from the Wall Street Journal and Wall Street Journal/Asia now be subject to Murdochian control?

In May, Asia Sentinel reported on the Sydney Morning Herald’s decision to kill a profile of Deng, raising question about Murdoch’s reach. Although no one would say Murdoch played an active role in killing the profile, there is little doubt that his control of an estimated 75 percent of Australia’s media and ownership of 7.5 percent of Fairfax Media, the Sydney Morning Herald’s parent, made him a feared enough figure to result in the death of the story.

Almost immediately after stories appeared about the Deng profile, News Corp announced that it was selling its Fairfax interests. That does not bode well for Dow Jones or, for that matter, the rest of the mainstream. Certainly the press itself is under threat from proliferating sources of news and entertainment. The Internet has suddenly become the catalyst. Classified advertising, the life blood of journalism, is migrating to the Web at a staggering rate. Display advertising is following equally quickly, and so are readers, with every major newspaper in the United States either stagnant in circulation or falling.

Newspapers all have websites, but the Internet business model is still a work in progress. But the hopes of a lot of people – and the press itself – are riding on the Internet.

With the increasing concentration of journalism in the hands of Rupert Murdoch and other corporate powerhouses, it may well be journalism’s only hope for independence.