Conservatives have reason for concern, but it has chiefly been liberals worrying themselves silly about Rupert Murdoch’s $5 billion deal to purchase Dow Jones & Co., publisher of the Wall Street Journal. They should cheer up. The incessantly maligned media mogul has conceivably saved a publication that, among mainstream newspapers in this country, may be without leftist peer. In its news sections, that is.
The Journal is in steep trouble. Its ad revenues have been tumbling of late, and efforts to find its way back to the halcyon days of yore seemed less likely than newsroom layoffs and a continued decline that Dow Jones lacked the means to halt. A buyer was needed, and there was just one with faith enough in a troubled newspaper industry — and dollars enough — to step in. That would be Murdoch, the 76-year-old chairman of News Corp., whose holdings include film companies, cable networks, broadcast TV, Internet businesses, magazines, and other newspapers here and abroad.
It’s largely because of those holdings that the purchase made sense for Murdoch and that the prospects of the Journal are vastly lifted. He can use the Journal’s outstanding talent to help create an interlinked TV-newspaper-online financial-reporting organization that just may leave competitors far behind while soaking up oceans of advertising.
That likelihood bodes well for the continued vitality of a news section that is rich in varied, enlightening, and useful content, but also in a bias underlined a few years ago in a study by scholars at UCLA and the University of Missouri. They looked at 20 major media groups and concluded that in its news presentation, the Journal was the most liberal of all. Quarrel with such quantitative measures of qualitative issues if you like, but then turn to reflective judgment based on reading Journal stories. The study, you figure, is on to something.
The likelihood of rising profits also bodes well for a commentary section that shines with keenly analytical defenses of vigorous foreign policy and a free-market economy. Unlike editorials in the New York Times that so often pronounce public-policy verdicts as if from Mount Olympus, the Journal’s editorials actually amass facts and argue, aiming to persuade with evidence and logic grounded in serious, consistent principle.
The disquiet expressed by some in the newsroom and by any number of comments from rival newspapers and liberal pundits is that Murdoch might enforce outright partisanship on the paper, as a New Yorker piece tells us he did at the Times of London to help along the purposes and career of Margaret Thatcher. His attachment to certain politicians does seem to be something other than ideological — he has become buddies with Hillary and Bill Clinton — and it’s therefore not as if the Journal opinion writers can assume he’s an unswerving conservative just like them.
Still, a Journal editorial argues that there’s no way staffers “will abandon the habits of a lifetime,” adding that it is an insult to “700 career professionals” to say as much. The editorial says, yes, “there is no separating ownership and control,” while adding that Murdoch has signaled his intention to “maintain the values and integrity of the paper.”
One such signal is a caveat in the Murdoch-Dow Jones deal that goes like this: There shall be a committee of respected journalists to keep an eye on things and yelp in instances of interference beyond the bounds. Head of the committee is none less than Thomas Bray, the estimable opinion writer who once served as editorial-page editor of the Detroit News.
Comfort can be found in this fact, though it would be more comforting, still, if American journalism returned to the sort of standards pronounced early in the history of the paper as it began to establish itself as America’s foremost financial news source: Opinion is to stay out of the news. Get that old ideal more firmly entrenched in mainstream media outlets today, and it would be yet more difficult for even so forceful a personality as Murdoch to push editors around, which can in fact happen. The writer of the Journal editorial surely concurs with what the editorial-page editor, Paul Gigot, once said himself at an editorial writers’ conference I attended some years ago, namely that there were news writers on the staff who seemed to be competing in the opinion field with the editorial writers.
For all of that, let’s be more than a little grateful to Murdoch, so harshly castigated by Bill Moyers in an anger-filled diatribe on a recent PBS show and by other voices of the hateful left. He is doing the sort of thing innovative entrepreneurs do in a system that allows it. He is coming up with new ideas and capital that may very well rescue a venerable U.S. institution that otherwise could have been in for a series of stumbles and finally a mighty fall.
– Jay Ambrose is a former editor of two daily newspapers.