Off Message May 2007

Digging Murdoch

The idea that The Wall Street Journal needs Rupert Murdoch is a howler.

It's been funny watching media people try to wrap their minds around the idea that Rupert Murdoch may be the next owner of Dow Jones and its most famous asset, The Wall Street Journal. Not funny ha-ha, but funny as in tragicomic, as in every laugh is also a sob.

The biggest howler is the idea that Dow Jones—and The Journal in particular—desperately need Murdoch, without whom they can't possibly survive in the big, bad world of 21st-century media. The basic argument is that traditional newspaper publishers, and the journalists who work for them, just don't grasp what it takes to thrive in the new marketplace of information. Murdoch, meanwhile, is a bold, creative genius who utterly "gets it." The man bought MySpace, for God's sake, and his empire is all about "synergy." Now he can use MySpace to promote X-Men. Maybe The Journal could do that, too!

Please, Mr. Murdoch, sprinkle some of your synergistic billionaire fairy dust, teach us to be citizens of the modern world.

This argument has been propagated all over the place in the last week, mostly by business writers who do a kind of two-step on the big Murdoch question: 1) concede that his journalism record isn't all that great, and actually, it's often pretty darned schlocky; then 2) genuflect and sing hosannas to the man's amazing market savvy. Which is to say: He pulls in large cash—and that makes everything OK.

Thus Andrew Ross Sorkin, writing on the front page of The New York Times Sunday business section, says he personally is no regular viewer of Fox News, and yes, Murdoch comes from the journalistic "tradition" of sensationalism. But "Mr. Murdoch is also part of another tradition: farsighted, creative, and risky business gambits. He has made piles of money by thinking ahead of many of his competitors." The Dow Jones empire, Sorkin contends, "once held a dominant position in business journalism, and they let that lead, and the financial gains that came with it, slip through their hands."

No question that Dow Jones has had a lousy business record over the past few decades. The mistakes and missed opportunities are notorious. But if The Wall Street Journal doesn't hold the "dominant position in business journalism," who does? Isn't that exactly why Murdoch is willing to pay such a premium to get his hands on it? One of the miracles of The Journal has been how consistently excellent it remained—brave, principled, beautifully written and edited—despite frequently daft corporate oversight. In short, it has been a mediocre business but a terrific news outlet. It does not follow that the best way to fix this imbalance is to reverse it, by selling one of the world's great newspapers to a man who, in order to keep making his piles, is almost certain to undermine many of the things that made the paper great in the first place. But that's what they're saying.

"No one sensible, and surely not I, would ever claim that Murdoch hasn't exhibited a pronounced tendency toward the down-market," writes John Heilemann in New York magazine. And: "God knows Murdoch's politics aren't my brand of vodka. But you have to admire the way he's been an unrelenting force for change and modernization in the media racket, the way he's shaped and adapted to epic transformations of platforms and technologies."

Do we really have to admire that? When you hear anyone in the media talking about "platforms," check your wallet. This is the language of business hipsterism, a code designed to make you feel lost and out of it. If you don't get Murdoch's "epic transformations," and his brilliance, you're stuck in the past, man.

In a cover-story Valentine to Murdoch, BusinessWeek waxes rhapsodic about the magical things that "Roop" might do with his prize. He might "launch Journal-branded TV programs," or use various Dow Jones properties to "tailor financial information for investors." Hooray. "What's more, Dow Jones' higher-end readership could be exploited by a recent acquisition made by Fox Interactive Media, a behavioral tracking firm that helps point advertisers to certain groups with particular habits and tastes."

Some day, if we're really lucky, maybe we'll all get to be exploited by Murdoch. Oh happy day.

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