PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Featured: Top of Home Page

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?


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.



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.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.


Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.


15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.


'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.


20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.


Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.


The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.


Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).


Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.


Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.


Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.


Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.