The Threat to the Wall Street Journal

If diversity and freedom are inseparable, beware the big-name Western media. With ownership of Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal and owner of newswires and other electronic media, now in play, the major globe-spanning English language media outfits are in for further consolidation. That means less diversity of views, less originality in the search for news, and less willingness to confront either big business or big government with uncomfortable facts.

Do not imagine this is of no concern in Asia. The Wall Street Journal-Asia (formerly the Asian Wall Street Journal), now a tabloid, may be a shadow of its former self, but Dow Jones is still global and still one of the few English language alternatives to Reuters, Bloomberg or the New York Times.

The bid for Dow Jones by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation may not succeed. It has been rejected by the Bancroft family, which controls the company. But it now looks likely that a bidding war will eventuate and ultimately the Bancrofts, who have scant role in the company’s management, will be under huge pressure from disenfranchised public shareholders to sell, if not to the highest bidder at least to a white knight who promises editorial freedom from the Murdoch gang as well as a big price.

The thought of Murdoch, the notorious one-time Australian dubbed “the dirty digger” in Britain, gaining control of what is arguably as good an example of American daily journalism as exists, is worrying enough. Murdoch is certainly a shrewd and often daring investor but he is about the last person to be accused of believing in journalistic ethics, or any ethics at all other than making money. A now haggard-looking septuagenarian, this bid may be a final hubristic fling, rather like his late-in-life ditching of a second wife to marry Wendi Deng, the glamorous Chinese woman many decades his junior whose earlier advancement also owed much to her liaisons. But further spread of Murdoch influence is, even in his dotage, to be cause for concern.

Not for nothing was one his original successes an Australian publication called “Truth,” which made its name through journalistic invention. His British publications, such as the News of the World, have specialized in exposés of the sex lives of the prominent. Murdoch has naturally been rather less keen on publication of the details of his own sex life or that of his wives. Last month, Asia Sentinel reported on the decision of the Sydney Morning Herald to spike a well-documented article which it had commissioned on the colorful previous life of Wendi Deng, now the mother of small children who will be competing for an inheritance previously assumed to be headed toward two grown sons and a daughter by the preceding marriage.

It is not that the Dow Jones deserves to remain in current hands. The newspaper whose editorials praise US efforts to spread democracy in Iraq has declined to offer democracy to its own shareholders. Rigged voting rights enable the Bancrofts to have 65% of the votes with only 25% of the stock. Dow Jones lost out to Reuters then Bloomberg in financial news, and spent billions buying Telerate, which it later sold for a huge loss. More recently it paid top dollar for another electronic product, Marketwatch. Until the Murdoch bid the share price was languishing in the same range where it was 15 years earlier.

But whoever buys Dow Jones, it is most likely to be another media colossus mostly aiming for further “consolidation” of the sort which has given the world Time Warner/CNN, a combination which has dumbed down both the once-iconic weekly magazine and a TV channel that once challenged the US networks with excellent journalism. CNN now attempts to compete with Murdoch’s Fox News, an organ of the extreme right wing views which gladden Murdoch’s heart. Not that Murdoch won’t support any politician prepared to support media rules which work to his commercial advantage. Money trumps everything, as his pandering to China’s sensitivities caused him to evict a BBC channel from his satellite network and back away from publishing a book by former Hong Kong governor Chris Patten.

The Wall Street Journal’s often bizarrely simplistic editorials, a kind of rightist version of Mao’s Little Red Book, may appeal to Murdoch. But the paper’s real commitment to fair reporting and investigative journalism is unlikely to find much favor with News Corp executives. The London Sunday Times was once famous for its investigative reporting of important issues but under Murdoch it has become a tawdry publication, little more than a vehicle for consumer advertising and celebrity obsessions.

The Wall Street Journal's staff are understood to be extremely concerned about the Murdoch threat, as well they should be. Fair enough. However, they would do well to remember Dow Jones' role in the decline and fall of the once-thriving weekly Far Eastern Economic Review. Ironically, Dow Jones acquired its controlling interest in FEER from Murdoch.

The fundamental problem in the end is not Murdoch or Dow Jones but the assumption that profits can only be achieved by reducing the number of players to the point where survival becomes almost inevitable, regardless of the quality of journalism, or the necessity for free societies have a free and diverse media.

Given the costs of printing and distributing paper products, this may not be surprising. The electronic media – and that includes websites like this one – should be able to flourish in their place. One snag remains however. As far as the written media is concerned, wire services like Bloomberg and Reuters stand out. Bloomberg has even taken over a major chunk of the International Herald Tribune’s news pages. But these are essentially business news wires, and their reporting is geared to the needs of financial markets. They often prefer to quote the views of market participants rather than a wider audience and they are themselves captives of their clients.

Murdoch’s acquisition of Dow Jones would simply make a bad situation much worse. But any take over of the company by another media group, however benign in intent, will inevitably lead to further consolidation, not just of the business side but of news, views and opinions. In short, free people must find new ways to inform themselves and express their diversity.