Mr. Murdoch Goes to War

Rupert Murdoch wants his Wall Street Journal to displace The New York Times as the world’s paper of record. His ambitions could be good news for the newspaper industry— or another nail in the coffin of serious journalism.

The old days of freewheeling newspaper competition ended with the advent of telecommunications. It was a gradual process, but by the middle of the last century, television and radio were delivering breaking news instantly and universally, eliminating one of the most compelling reasons to buy a newspaper. The print product still had a huge audience, but not large enough for most cities to profitably support more than one or two newspapers. The larger cities—New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Washington, Miami, Atlanta—still supported two or three, but usually only one newspaper “of record” and two or three scrappy tabloids that still relied on street sales, or were targeted to specific regions, like Newsday, the Long Island newspaper, or to specific slices of the readership, like The Wall Street Journal. The Journal didn’t try to compete head-to-head with The New York Times. Instead, it effectively sold itself as a mandatory “second read” for a certain class of New Yorker, and eventually a certain class of reader all over the United States.

In those fat and happy days, the glory days of “serious” American journalism, the concepts of objectivity and editorial independence grew into a kind of public religion. The old yellow era of Hearst and Pulitzer, publishers who threw their weight around vigorously and would even instigate a shooting war if it boosted circulation, had given way to a time of more-genteel ownership, often the Ivy League–educated sons and daughters of the press barons. Even the name Pulitzer was expropriated; it became an annual award given to the best examples of serious journalism, and in most newsrooms became a far more coveted goal than increased circulation. There was a high wall, we were assured, between the business side of the newspaper and its editorial staff, and newsrooms were increasingly peopled by a new generation of white-collar journalists, gentlemen (and ladies) of the Fourth Estate, arbiters of style, taste, and decency, who took upon themselves the tasks of keeping government honest and educating the public. (In my 20-plus years as a newspaper reporter, I was always amused when skeptics suggested that I wrote just what the newspaper’s owner told me to write. If only they knew how mightily the newsroom looked down its nose at the business side of the operation.)

This vision of a newspaper, one that prevailed at the highest levels of the craft for decades, ensured that the paper was not just a propaganda mill, the house organ of some rich man or political party, but a community of street-smart shoe-leather scholars who worked as the eyes, ears, and conscience of their city. This was the world of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, of David Halberstam’s and Neil Sheehan’s courageous reporting from Vietnam, and of countless other public-spirited examples of a responsible, serious journalism.

Even literary ambition began to creep into the pages of the great newspapers. At the best ones, when the material justified it, reporters were encouraged to write creatively and at length. A certain kind of reporter—and I was one—competed against others not so much for scoops, but for recognition, prizes, and tenured positions at papers where the rarefied work of “serious” journalism was underwritten. Mine was The Philadelphia Inquirer, where my byline read not “staff reporter” or “staff correspondent” but “staff writer,” and which we writers called, in its heyday, “the greatest care-and-feeding system for journalism ever invented.”

In this elevated climate, The Wall Street Journal was held in unique regard. Its disdain for street sales was defining. In appearance, it was defiantly dull and predictable. Its uniform gray vertical columns suggested the pinstripes on a banker’s worsted suit. In its use of small line drawings instead of photographs, in its refusal to chase the same stories as everyone else, in its quirkiness and uncompromising complexity, The Journal broadcast its refusal to pander to readers. Every day the front page featured two “leders” and the incomparable “a-hed.” These were long, ambitious, exceedingly well-written stories. A leder took a business or trend story and dug deeply into personalities and issues, whether it was a probe of backdated stock options for business executives by James Bandler and three other Journal writers, or Geeta Anand’s moving narrative about the crisis at a biotech company that had been asked to provide an experimental drug for a dying child. The a-hed was a quirky profile or narrative, usually brilliantly reported, a master class in feature writing: Carrie Dolan on fainting goats, Barry Newman on a man who has a doctorate in bug gunk, or Tony Horwitz on going to work in a slaughterhouse. Breaking news, no matter how shocking, was relegated to a brisk summary in two regular columns. This was a serious newspaper for serious readers, and it became the favored daily of the financial and business classes, men and women too busy making money to worry about the more sensational stories of the day.

When journalists worry about the decline of newspapers, this sort of seriousness is what they fear is being lost. The Internet is in many ways a superior medium for journalism. It costs virtually nothing, in contrast to multimillion-dollar printing presses, giant rolls of paper and tankers of ink, and fleets of delivery trucks, to say nothing of the thousands of laborers needed to operate the equipment and distribute the product. But while the Web is rapidly destroying the business model that sustained all of the above, it has yet to develop institutions capable of replacing print newspapers as vehicles for great in-depth journalism, or conscious of themselves as upholding a public trust. Instead, the Web gives voice to opinionated, unedited millions. In the digital world, ignorance and crudity share the platform with rigor and taste; the independent journalist shares the platform with spinmeisters and con artists. Cable television and satellite radio have taken broadcast journalism in the same direction, crowding out the once-dominant networks, which strove for the ideal of objectivity, with new channels that all but advertise their politics. When all news is spun, we live in a world of propaganda.

The worst part of this is, the public doesn’t seem to care.

Neither does Rupert Murdoch. The Australian mogul has never embraced the religion of modern American journalism. He scorns the pursuit of Pulitzers and sees the high-end work it rewards as journalists writing stories to impress other journalists. And he doesn’t buy the ideal of objectivity. He sees it as pretense—or hypocrisy—because he perceives a distinct liberal skew to the established journalistic powers. In Murdoch’s view, the public is best served not by objectivity, which he regards as impossible, but by “balance.”

“It’s very hard to be neutral,” he told an audience at Georgetown University last April. “The fact is that CNN has always been extremely liberal, and never had a Republican or conservative voice on it. We would say that the difference is that we [at Fox] have equal voices from both sides. The more voices the better, and let’s have them from all sides.”

He rejects the idea that the media should be dominated by a few respected, independent voices; he embraces instead a din of competing voices and interests. He is a Jeffersonian, a believer in a lively free market of ideas (except, of course, where it doesn’t suit his interests—notably in China, where he’s willing to make nice with the oppressive regime), and he scoffs at those who see danger in his acquisitiveness, at those who worry about the ever-widening reach of his media empire. A young woman at the Georgetown event complained to him directly.

“As a citizen, I’m scared,” she said. “Please convince me that this is not a threat to democracy.”

“Is all media in one hand bad for democracy? Absolutely,” Murdoch said. “We are a tiny fraction of the media landscape. There are millions of voices out there. We certainly don’t have any monopolistic effect. Everything I have done in my life has been to create competition … We want to give people choices. The more choices, the better it is. To think that the media is concentrating is ignoring the facts. It is being fragmented in a thousand ways. I would agree with you that that’s good. It doesn’t suit my business, but …”

The audience laughed. He had disarmed them.

“Fair and Balanced”—the slogan of his right-leaning, flag-waving Fox News Channel—is an international joke, but Murdoch can embrace that slogan with a straight face because he means something particular by it. He means that its distinctively conservative tilt balances out the big liberal powers that dominate the media landscape.

The same worldview promises to shape his war on TheNew York Times. It would be hard to imagine Murdoch coloring TheJournal’s crisply intelligent editorial pages any more conservative than they already are. But he can expand the number of pages devoted to opinion, as he has already done, and he can build TheJournal into a more general newspaper, broadening its coverage into the arts, religion, education, sports, and politics—areas where TheTimes is the dominant tastemaker and trendsetter. Murdoch sees TheTimes not just as a paper with primarily liberal politics but as a bastion of cultural elitism that wields a disproportionate influence over all aspects of American life. He wants his Journal to reflect another point of view, and to give people another choice.

What is the Murdochian point of view? It is not so easy to predict. His interests are dizzyingly diverse and famously open to change. He is a social liberal and a strong advocate of unfettered international trade. Other than that, he tends to be conservative, but he is also influenced by personalities, and has reportedly cozied up to the Clintons and warmed to Barack Obama. His various newspapers have staked a variety of public positions that are at least occasionally at odds with Murdoch’s own—TheTimes of London, for instance, has been consistently critical of the repressive Communist regime in China, despite its owner’s blatant and well-documented kowtowing.

He may well choose to take such a hands-off approach to The Journal’s editorial product, if only to avoid trampling its eminent reputation, but no matter how scrupulously Murdoch avoids turning it into his global mouthpiece, it will be nearly impossible for him to avoid the appearance of doing so. His tentacles are so many and so long, it is not unusual for TheJournal to carry, in a single issue, three or four headlines touching upon its owner’s dealings and interests—everything from new film and television releases to News Corporation’s various global acquisition efforts. The Journal won a Pulitzer Prize in 2007 for its reporting on how the rapid economic growth in China has caused great troubles for the Chinese government and its people. These were stories that would not have pleased the Communist rulers Murdoch has been assiduously courting for decades. (Most of the staff of this prize-winning China bureau signed a petition urging the Bancroft family not to sell to Murdoch, arguing that his ownership would directly undercut their credibility, if not their professional freedom.)

At least some industry observers are willing to give Murdoch the benefit of the doubt on this.

“I think he has enough sense not to trash what makes the newspaper so valuable,” said Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute. “He has owned TheTimes of London for more than 20 years, and it is still a serious newspaper.”

Serious, perhaps, but few Londoners would argue that the newspaper is anything like what it once was. Robert Block, a veteran Journal reporter who now covers the space beat for the Orlando Sentinel, worked for TheTimes in the late 1990s—more than a decade after Murdoch effectively dragged it from its pinnacle as the leading British newspaper and turned it into a hustling tabloid engaged in an incessant battle for sensational scoops. As a correspondent in South Africa, Block ran headlong into the consequences of that transformation. His editor insisted one day that he get an unsupervised interview with a 10-year-old boy at the center of an international custody dispute. Every newspaper in London was gunning for the story. Block knew where the boy was, outside Johannesburg, and knew that his parents were not at home.

“Do you have kids?” he asked his editor.

“Yes,” the man said.

“How would you feel if a reporter came after your child without approaching you first?”

“Look,” he recalls his editor saying. “It’s not your fucking kid and it’s not my fucking kid. Now go do your fucking job.”

Block refused, and quit. He joined The Wall Street Journal precisely because it was a newspaper whose values and priorities ran the opposite way. It wasn’t just the paper’s commitment to in-depth journalism, it was the commitment to finding unusual, unexpected stories, to giving readers not what they wanted every morning but stories they had never heard about before, and would hear about nowhere else—“You know, stories where you peel back the skin on something and really look underneath,” he said. Block fell in love with the paper and stayed for nearly 11 years. Last October, when it became apparent that Murdoch’s effort to buy Dow Jones would prevail, he grabbed a parachute and leapt, taking a job with the Sentinel. It was the equivalent of a power hitter for the New York Yankees opting to play for his scrappy hometown minor-league team.

“I knew that with his coming, there would inevitably be a clash of cultures,” Block said. “Murdoch is nothing if not consistent. I knew that his coming and the changes he would bring would cause a certain amount of pain. At my age and stage of my career, I just knew it was something that I did not want to go through.”

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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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