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From AJR,   April/May 2007

Barbarian at the Gates   

Online Exclusive Rupert Murdoch's audacious bid for Dow Jones. Posted May 3, 2007.

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

Here we go again.

Another in the shrinking list of great journalistic institutions is under siege.

Rupert Murdoch's bold ploy to acquire Dow Jones and its flagship Wall Street Journal couldn't be more unwelcome news.

It's no secret that recent years have seen the sad deterioration of many journalistic stalwarts. You know the bullet items: the death-of-a-thousand- cuts whittling away of Knight Ridder's once-great Philadelphia Inquirer and Miami Herald (and the eventual vanishing of Knight Ridder itself); the endless budget cuts and staff reductions, the closing of foreign bureaus and elimination of Washington reporting slots that marked the death throes of the old Tribune Co.; similar ax-wielding at dailies across the land; the massive retreat from foreign news by the television networks; and on and on.

Even the New York Times Co. ownership is under assault by stockholders over its sagging stock price.

Most of this depressing litany is due to one thing: money. Network news audiences, while still massive, have dropped sharply in the face of countless cable alternatives. Newspaper readers and advertisers are moving online. The media business is in the midst of a dramatic transformation; the future media model remains elusive.

But if Murdoch were to nab the Journal, the primary fear wouldn't be the ascension of the counting house. Murdoch, riverboat gambler that he is, has shown a willingness to spend money and even to absorb losses in his quest to build the empire. (Just as Al Neuharth endured years of losses at his beloved USA Today until it matured into a serious national newspaper and a major moneymaker.) I'll have to admit that, after years of observing the timidity of so many major media executives, I find something refreshing, even admirable, about Murdoch's audacious spirit.

So what's the problem? Easy: the fortifications that separate the editorial page policies and the news coverage at major media outlets.

So many times when I've given speeches to civilians about journalism, I've encountered great skepticism that such a wall exists. It is, after all, counterintuitive: If you own the damn thing, you should be able shape the news coverage just as you do the editorial positions.

The Wall Street Journal is Exhibit A that the separation is real. The paper's unrelenting hard-right editorial stance warms the heart of the staunchest conservative. But there's not a trace of that worldview affecting the way the paper covers the news.

While church-state separation is an integral, even sacred, part of America's news tradition, it's by no means universal. Count Murdoch among the exceptions. The mighty press lord has shown no reluctance to use the news pages of his New York Post and the content of his Fox News Channel to advance his point of view.

It would be a tragedy for the Wall Street Journal, one of our remaining journalistic treasures, to go that route.

So now it's up to the Bancrofts, Dow Jones' amazingly low-profile owners, to man the barricades, which they can do thanks to company's two-tier stock structure.

Murdoch has made a very attractive offer. Let's hope the Bancrofts, whoever they are, hang tough.