In case you hadn’t heard, Rupert Murdoch, the crude, shrewd Australian-born right-winger, now owns Dow Jones & Company, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, making him the single most powerful media mogul in the world.
"It’s sad," said a veteran reporter at one of the domestic bureaus, who did not want to be named because of concerns over his career. "We held a wake. We stood around a pile of Journals and drank whiskey."
Not a bad idea. Rupert Murdoch’s political views may even be slightly to the left of Paul Gigot’s and the rest of the crew on the Journal’s editorial pages, so there’s likely to be little change there. But the news pages of the paper – which the editorialists often don’t seem to have read before typing their screeds – are now at the mercy of News Corporation’s whims. Those pages are well-respected for good reason, not least of which has been the inclusion of some of the finest long-tailed English-language journalism to be found anywhere.
Anyone who has watched – from afar or close-up – the agglomeration of media control over the past four decades can only sigh. If you’ve been one of those many American journalists – young or old – who actually tries to get some good reporting published between assignments on ridiculous stories, you know full well how much consolidation of the media has contributed to throwing up barricades against your best efforts. It’s not the personality or politics of some two-bit Murdoch imitator that gets you so much as the bottom-line-is-everything publishing philosophy that now considers anything under a 25% profit margin too small. Three decades ago, one of the best small newspaper chains, Knight (before it was Knight-Ridder), got along fine on 3%-5% margins.
Interviewed by Keith Olbermann last night, the always spectacular Rachel Maddow of Air America fame had an interesting take on just how much damage Murdoch may do. (Any transcription errors are mine):
KO: This is far more than a business acquisition for Rupert Murdoch. I think that’s fair to say. But what are the actual dimensions in his mind, do you think?
RM: Well, it’s interesting. Anybody who is trying to make money right now, anybody who is looking for a pure business proposition isn’t in the market for a newspaper. If you just look at Rupert Murdoch’s own media empire, newspapers make up less than 15% of his operating income. The New York Post alone loses tens of millions of dollars a year. He holds onto them because they offer him a pulpit, a great megaphone for his political views. And it’s pretty clear, it’s no secret that in this case, that this makes him – along with the plans for a Fox business channel – the single, unchallenged, dominant voice in the American media on news about business. ...
KO: Any chances though if under these circumstances of a reader backlash if Murdoch tries to position, as he has said, the Wall Street Journal as a conservative counter to The New York Times as the national newspaper. And by this I mean, the Journal’s editorial page is just to the right of Attila the Hun, but people who buy the paper for the paper itself generally have wanted insightful business news and perspective that they can carry to and from the office and ways to make money and more ways to make money. Can he conceivably blow that by getting all political on them?
RM: One thing that will be interesting to watch is that ...is the way that Murdoch showed his editorial influence in the past. Because, yes, it is rightwing politics, and a willingness to stretch the truth in order to further his rightwing political aims on the one hand. But the other thing that he is really known for is just sheer tastelessness. I mean, this is the guy who puts the naked ladies in the paper every day he promises. And he runs these win-go games to try to entice people to buy the paper when naked ladies aren’t enough. The experience ... with the Chicago Sun-Times, for example, is remembered almost as much for that sheer cheesy tastelessness as it is for his political eccentricities. And so, we may see a number of different kinds of reader backlash with this Wall Street Journal takeover.
KO: And the Daily Kos today reminded its readers of a lawsuit that had been filed by two employees against a Fox News station in the Tampa area in 2003. They had been fired by the station – this is opposed to the national network – for refusing to distort a story, they said. And Fox News actually argued in the appeal that broadcasters have the First Amendment right to lie or deliberately distort news reports on the public airwaves, and Fox News – Fox Corporation anyway – won, although on slightly narrower grounds than that. First Amendment protections are strong, but Fox is brash enough to claim we can lie and the Constitution says we can lie?
RM: This is getting, I think, to the really big issue here, the really big story. Because this is not just about media consolidation. It’s not just about supporting Republican candidates or conservative policies. The big issue here is, and the big agenda here, I think, is to just make news worse. To undermine the idea of a discoverable truth about information that can be researched, and conveyed and believed in. When you bill the work of Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly as news, when you call that the Fox News channel, you’re degrading the very idea of news. You’re making news something that should be questioned alongside propaganda or opinion. You’re putting the very idea of news in the gutter where it lives with equal stature to propaganda. It simply undermines the very idea of journalism as something that deserves respect. It gets us very much back to the Bush Administration’s assertions about the reality-based community being something that should be questioned by people who live outside that reality-based community. That’s the big agenda here, undermining the whole idea of journalism, and that’s the eall thing to worry about.
KO: The good old Ministry of Truth has another outlet ...
Given the new technology, however, and the downsizing of older employees, even Winston Smith might have a tough time holding down a spot in Murdoch's new acquisition.