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American Journalism Review
Getting What He Wants  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   August/September 2007

Getting What He Wants    

Online Exclusive Murdoch nears victory in his quest for Dow Jones.

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


There has been a sense of inevitability about the denouement of the Bancroft Family Soap Opera.

Certainly there has been no shortage of ups and downs and all-arounds as the drama plays itself out. But once the Dow Jones owners reversed field and agreed to consider Rupert Murdoch's oh-so-lucrative offer, the script seemed to write itself. Now it looks as if Murdoch is poised to get what he wants, as is so often the case.

While there has been plenty of angst among the large and much-divided Bancroft clan, the combination of the increasingly turbulent and intimidating media climate, the history of poor management at Dow Jones and, yes, all that money proved a potent trifecta indeed.

So score one, a big one, for the buccaneer. Given the cautious (not to say terrified), corporate nature of much of today's newspaper leadership, it's refreshing to confront a larger-than-life figure with a flair for the bold ploy and that increasingly rare passion, a love of newspapers.

Refreshing, but scary, too.

The Wall Street Journal is a treasure, a national newspaper with abundant resources and big ambitions. But part of what makes it so special is its ability to cover the world by reporting the facts, regardless of business pressures or ideological influences. The paper may have a far-right editorial stance, but the strict separation between the opinion pages and the news is right out of the journalism textbooks.

Underscoring the point, the paper has done an excellent job in recent months of covering its own destiny.

That's not necessarily the way it goes in the Murdoch playbook. Whether it's kowtowing to China to protect business interests or the "fair and balanced" world of Fox News, agenda has a way of working its will in the mogul's news outlets.

There will, of course, be the much-ballyhooed agreement to protect the integrity of the product from the whims of the owner. It may work for a time. And there's no doubt merit to the argument that it would make little sense to buy such a well-respected paper and quickly chip away at one of its invaluable assets, its integrity. Pop psychology suggests one of Murdoch's objectives in his ardent courtship of the Journal is the respectability that has long eluded him. Lobbing a grenade right out of the box wouldn't help him there.

But over time, don't be so sure (see Harold Evans and the Times of London). There's little reason to think that Murdoch won't ultimately be Murdoch. And that would be nothing but bad news for the Journal and journalism.

Of course, such hands-off agreements are at least as much about salving the consciences of the sellers as anything else. And, frankly, a guy who spends $5 billion on something should be able to do whatever the hell he wants with it. You don't like the bidder, don't do the deal.

But that certainly has a big downsize as well. Fending off Murdoch presents its own unwelcome consequences a plummeting stock price, a bumpy economic future, the prospect of sharp staff cutbacks.

As is so often the case in the newspaper business these days, happy endings are hard to come by.

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