Friday, May 25, 2007

The Complicated Corruptions of Rupert Murdoch and The Wall Street Journal

Center for American Progress
Eric Alterman
The Complicated Corruptions of Rupert Murdoch and The Wall Street Journal

It is with considerable reluctance that I address the topic of Rupert Murdoch's takeover bid for the Dow Jones corporation, and with it, The Wall Street Journal. While the point of the Journal's reportorial excellence has been made repeatedly, a no less salient point regarding the irrelevance of the paper's editorial page frequently gets lost.

On the day the takeover bid was announced, I appeared on CNBC's "Kudlow and Company" and heard the claim, made over and over, that a Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal might somehow even out the balance of The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, etc.

The point is misguided in myriad directions simultaneously. First off, those papers all have objective-seeking journalists doing the news, not liberals as Kudlow was implying. The frightening thing about Murdoch's brand of journalism is that he does not merely weight his editorial pages to the right; he purposely corrupts the news pages as well.

Second, the Journal's editorial page is so far to the right that it cannot be compared to that of The New York Times on the left. The Times also carries conservatives like David Brooks and liberals who often sound like conservatives such as Tom Friedman and Nick Kristof, while the Journal's right-wing ideology is perfectly monochromatic and would likely only get more so under Murdoch's direction.

Third, The Washington Post long ago ceased to have a liberal editorial page and is now closer in its views to that of The Wall Street Journal than The New York Times or The Boston Globe.

But perhaps most significantly, the true journalistic objection to The Wall Street Journal edit page's modus operandi is not its politics, but its lack of concern for the truth. Long after the so-called "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" spread demonstrable falsehoods about John Kerry's war record, for instance, Journal editors endorsed these lies as "no doubt contentious, but they are of a piece with the contemporary bipartisan standards of adversarial politics." Excusing lies is not usually considered part and parcel of journalistic editorial ethics, but at the Journal, it's all part of the plan.

After presenting plenty of evidence, my Media Matters colleague Eric Boehlert calls it "The Wall Street Journal Riddle," and writes:

"But therein lies The Wall Street Journal riddle. While cheering each anti-Murdoch statement from the families, I'm left perplexed by the fact that the Ottaways and the Bancrofts are so (admirably) focused on maintaining journalistic integrity at the Journal that they are willing to leave Murdoch's billions on the table, yet they're the same trustees who allowed the newspaper's right-wing editorial page to practice, and perfect, a noxious brand of misinformation that doesn't even qualify as journalism. If owning the newspaper remains such a deep public trust for the families, why have they allowed the editorial page to stain the entire Journal news operation?"

That said, my point is not to dispel the myth that a Murdoch-owned Wall Street Journal might "even out" The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post. My point is that most of the cognizant world understands the distinction between The Wall Street Journal's news and editorial pages. Ben Bagdikian, founding dean of the Journalism school at the University of California at Berkeley, explained the dichotomy between the editorial page and the news pages decades ago:

"Executives and stockholders really do want to know the unpleasant truth about corporate life when it affects their careers or incomes. At the same time, however, most of them are true believers in the rhetoric of free enterprise, whose imperfections and contradictions are standard content in The Wall Street Journal. By reporting critical stories about realities in particular industries in the in the news columns, but singing the grand old hymns of unfettered laissez-faire on the editorial pages, the Journal has it both ways."

Murdoch presents the danger that the "news" pages in the Journal will disappear entirely. In other words, it would become like Fox News, The New York Post, The Weekly Standard, and just about any other Murdoch property. This is not to say that they will always be conservative. They will usually be conservative, but if it serves Murdoch's larger business interests, they will sometimes be liberal, sometimes libertarian, and with perhaps surprising frequency, they will on occasion even be Communist (or at least pro-Communist).

In a letter to members of the Bancroft family, which controls Dow Jones, Murdoch promised that "maintaining the heritage of independence and journalistic integrity" of the Journal "would be of utmost importance to me and to News Corp." But as Andrew Neil, a former editor of the now Murdoch-owned London Sunday Times noted in the Journal's own reporting, "I think he would want the news to be informed by the editorial agenda." If Murdoch did not use a media product to promote his larger business interests, it would certainly be a first.

His publishing company, HarperCollins, for instance, once offered a $4.5 million book advance to U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (who was forced to give it up) while waiting for Murdoch's favored telecommunications bill to pass. (The book, a collection of Gingrich speeches, barely earned back its printing costs.)

Murdoch handed over a million bucks to the daughter of Chinese Communist leader Deng Xiaoping's for another HarperCollins book for which commercial appeal barely extended beyond her immediate family. Of course the deal took place when Murdoch was hoping to receive official Chinese Communist approval to expand his satellite broadcasts into China. When he agreed to remove the BBC from Star TV's offering there, he explained, "We're trying to get set up in China. Why should we upset them?" He later added, "The truth is--and we Americans don't like to admit it -- that authoritarian societies can work."

And then there's The New York Post. Nobody--at least no one who's speaking about it--will explain just how much money Murdoch flushes down the drain on that bathroom-unworthy scandal sheet. One reads estimates that range from 10 million to 50 million a year. Politically and commercially, he is determined to put "synergy" to work.

Murdoch's magazines and newspapers support his television programs and movies, and vice versa. His reporters make up news that other companies would have to pay public relations firms millions to try to place. No newspaper in America is less shy about slanting its coverage to serve its master's own agenda--be it commercial or political--than The New York Post. Judging by the Post, almost every Fox program is either "jaw-dropping," "mega-successful," "highly anticipated," or all three.

Columnist Gersh Kuntzman once revealed that editors consider page two to be the "Pravda Page." "When there's a major [Murdoch] business deal going down, with no interest to readers," he explained, "it's on page two. Or when [then-conservative New York Sen. Alfonse] D'Amato makes a pronouncement of no particular interest to readers, it's on page two." Oftentimes, this tendency turns the paper into kind of an extended inside joke in the media, where it is carefully read because of its obsessive media-oriented gossip.

For instance, The New York Post declared that that the film Titanic, a Murdoch property, was expected to receive "the first endorsement of any Hollywood movie by a Chinese official." The paper did not mention just who believed it or why this mattered. The entire article was based on a premise so far-fetched--that the entire Chinese nation was agitating to see the sappy film a full month before it was scheduled to open--that the article read as a kind of satiric self-criticism session of the kind Maoists used to undergo in the days when they plotted to overthrow the evil government of "Amerikkka."

Last week, we woke up to yet another fresh example of Murdoch-style journalistic ethics when The New York Post's Page Six ran a column that described an affidavit from Ian Spiegelman--a former writer for Page Six who was fired three years ago. In it we learned--or were reminded--that Spiegelman's superior at Page Six, Richard Johnson, accepted cash-filled envelopes for favored treatment from restaurateurs and received a gift of a $50,000 bachelor party from Joe Francis, the felon responsible for the "Girls Gone Wild" empire. (Everyone at the Post apparently gets into the act. According to Spiegelman, the paper's editor, Col Allan, even accepted unknown favors at Scores. Something tells me they didn't include tea and scones.) Slightly more seriously, Spiegelman also argued that New York Post coverage alleged that the gossipers were instructed to lay off the Clintons after Murdoch decided he didn't hate them so much after all.

No big deal, you say? It's only The New York Post?

But as New York Times media columnist David Carr asks, "What would [people] say if it appeared in The Wall Street Journal?"

They'd say America lost a great newspaper (with a lousy editorial page).

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow of the Center for American Progress. His weblog, "Altercation," appears at, and his seventh book, Why We're Liberals: A Political Handbook for Post-Bush America, will appear early next year.