Bancroft family: seriously, don't sell to Murdoch

The Bancroft family, which controls the Wall Street Journal, has now decided to listen to Rupert Murdoch’s pitch to buy the newspaper. OK, listen. But please, God, don’t sell.

The tragedy of late 20th century American journalism, in a nutshell, is its conversion from a special kind of business to just another business.

A special kind of business means one whose ownership is something other than straightforward, financial-market-driven, quarterly- profit-maximizing, normal corporate structure. This could mean a non-profit status, or public ownership. NPR is the best-known current U.S. example — along with the BBC and counterpart networks all around the work. Does anyone think that the market would have created NPR if it didn’t already exist?

Or, it could be a prestige loss-leader for a “normal” business, like the CBS and NBC news divisions in their heyday.This era in journalism was romanticized, but not beyond recognition, in the movie Good Night and Good Luck. The CBS of William Paley and Edward R. Murrow cared a lot about making money — thus Murrow’s low-brow Person to Person appearances. But at crucial points it could put journalistic or public responsibility above making the most money — for instance, by antagonizing major advertisers with an expose or controversial story. A “normal” profit-maximizing company has a much harder time doing so — and indeed no sense of why it ever should. The New Yorker, within the Conde Nast family, and Slate, when it was at Microsoft, have played similar “prestige” roles.

A “special kind” of business structure can mean ownership by an individual or patron, as with many publications including The Atlantic. It can mean control by a family (Hearst, Chandler, etc) that makes money from the operation but stakes its reputation on more than straightforward profitability. As everyone has pointed out, it’s no coincidence that the three best national newspaper organizations are all controlled by families: the New York Times (Sulzbergers), Washington Post (Grahams), and WSJ (Bancrofts).

“Just another” business, on the other hand, is obliged by fiduciary pressures and market forces to provide what sells and cut back what doesn’t — and the result is evident in, say, cable TV news. Some is good, some is terrible — and it’s all tailored to a certain market niche. From a pure business-analysis perspective, that’s fine; but since news also provides the information the public needs to make decisions — should we go to war? should we re-elect our president? — a “perfect” market solution can leave cultural and democratic needs unfilled. Case in point: the entirety of AM radio.

The problem with Rupert Murdoch is not that he’s a political zealot. (Unlike, say, the creators of the agitprop sheet that comes bundled inside the normal newspaper each morning, under the heading “Review and Comment.”) In the long profile of Murdoch I wrote in the Atlantic four years ago, I concluded just the reverse: even though he is a family owner, he runs his news operations as “just another” business, and takes whatever political position is most profitable. For Fox News, that’s right-wingism - and a very well executed version of it, under the talented Roger Ailes. But I bet Murdoch kicks himself for not thinking up and owning the devastatingly anti-Bush Comedy Central, too. He is very proud of The Simpsons, which is in fact America’s finest pop-culture achievement since, say, Elvis. No one thinks that show is right-wing. In England his papers were pro-Tony Blair long before Blair was identified mainly with the Iraq war - but when Blair’s government was favorable to Murdoch business interests.Now he’s giving parties for Hillary Clinton. His publications help whoever helps Murdoch.

That’s not the best stance for journalism in general. It’s also bad in the specific way that the members of the Beijing bureau of the Wall Street Journal bravely pointed out last month. Murdoch knows that China is a big market for him, especially with satellite TV. In his dealings in China, Murdoch has consistently kowtowed — that is the only word for it, except perhaps “truckled” — to the Chinese regime. There is a lot to respect in what China’s leadership has achieved — tens of millions of people really have risen out of poverty — but there is a lot to criticize too. Murdoch’s organizations aren’t likely to do the criticizing, since that would be bad for business.

Dear Bancrofts: You could make more money by selling to Murdoch. But really, isn’t there such a thing as “enough”? Your family didn’t become known, respected, and influential by going for the greatest possible profit whatever the consequences. The quality of your newspaper has been part of your family’s legacy and assets. More money is always great. Do you need it this much?