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All the news that fits the plan: Murdoch and the WSJ

Edward Wasserman [McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)]

Journalists don't usually under-react to bad news about their business, but Rupert Murdoch's move to take over Dow Jones & Co. and its flagship, The Wall Street Journal, has done little more than raise a few eyebrows. With some brave exceptions -- Tim Rutten at the Los Angeles Times and Jack Shafer at Slate among them -- most commentators say Murdoch is a canny old bird who won't do too much harm, since he knows better than to soil the franchise he's offered the owning family a fortune to buy.

Hence, the independence of The Journal, its European and Asian sister papers, its print and online cousins -- Barron's, Factiva, SmartMoney, CNBC and 24 newspapers -- is assured. Guarding their independence is in Murdoch's own best interest.

That's a reassuring argument. It's also simple, logical and wrong, as H.L. Mencken once wrote. But it deodorizes the affair just enough to keep people from sniffing out how uniquely toxic this $5 billion takeover will be.

First, the basics: Dow Jones is not just another media asset, and Murdoch is not just another proprietor.

Dow Jones is the world's foremost purveyor of business and financial news.

Murdoch is the world's most fully converged, most massively globalized, media wheeler-dealer. His company, News Corp., is no mere operating entity, but an aggressive vehicle for acquisition, leverage and accumulation.

The scale of his holdings is staggering, from scores of TV stations and the top U.S. cable news network, to 20th Century Fox studios, book publishers, space-based broadcast systems spanning the world and newspapers on three continents, to the Internet's top social networking site.

He is exactly the kind of industrial colossus papers like The Journal exist to cover.

Little in the world of business and finance does not affect Murdoch's prospects and ambitions, his suppliers, rivals, creditors, customers and dependencies. He has worlds to gain from tilting the most influential source of news in that realm to favor his interests, punish his foes, illuminate his options, advance his designs.

The best antidote to conflicts of interest isn't to hope they're exposed; it's to prevent them.

Murdoch is already a big fish. The question is whether he will control the water.

The perception alone that he would have that kind of newsroom clout would be an asset of immense value, and over the past half-century he has indeed put media properties he owns to such uses, on matters great and small. His legendary meddlings range from making his peace with the Chinese by knocking the BBC off his Asia satellite system to endearing himself to the Bush administration by fashioning Fox News into its megaphone.

But surely, messing with The Journal would be stupid. If Murdoch's paying a huge premium for its integrity, how can corrupting it make sense? Would he really try to use The Journal as a tool in his quest for industrial supremacy?

Unquestionably.

First, it wouldn't seem like that. Murdoch would simply be exercising the editorial influence that comes with his proprietorship, suggesting avenues of coverage that seem natural and sensible. "Why pay so much attention to this? (I think it's a loser, which is why I'm betting against it.)" "Shouldn't we give our readers an in-depth look at that (which I happen to believe worth staking with my money)?"

His editorial judgments would accord with his business judgments. After all, he's a predatory capitalist, not a hypocrite.

Second, since Murdoch would have the means and the motive, what would stop him? The only strong reason for self-restraint would be fear that exposure would tarnish The Journal's good name.

Now, faith in accountability is seductive, but the actual mechanisms to keep the media in line are pathetic. Newsroom wrongdoing is seldom clear-cut and rarely brought to light. Influence works through suggestion and innuendo, through stories soft-pedaled or buried and coverage ignored. Even when improper influence seems obvious it's seldom unequivocal, its source never altogether clear. That's what keeps sacred cows unbloodied and whipping boys in pain.

A slogan, not a reality

Worse, the media themselves are terrible about self-disclosure. Newsrooms are among the toughest institutions for outsiders to penetrate. Transparency, for journalists, is a slogan, not a reality. People rat out Murdoch only when they no longer work for him. They're called disgruntled.

The best antidote to conflicts of interest isn't to hope they're exposed; it's to prevent them. That's why the Washington Post Co. should not be owned by Teresa Heinz Kerry or Karl Rove or Neil Bush. Once in the hands of a political player, its signature political coverage could no longer be trusted.

That obliteration of trust will be Murdoch's first gift to The Journal's readers.

___

ABOUT THE WRITER

Edward Wasserman is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University. He wrote this column for The Miami Herald. Readers may write to him at edward_wasserman AT hotmail.com.

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