Rupert Murdoch is about to buy the Wall Street Journal. This is a big deal. But I think that almost everybody is thinking about what this means in the wrong way.
To understand what Rupert Murdoch's forthcoming purchase of the Wall Street Journal means, you need to start with the fact that there is a good Wall Street Journal and a bad Wall Street Journal. The good Wall Street Journal is the news pages as built up by Norman Pearlstine, with past and present stars like Al Hunt, Davie Wessel, Alan Murray, Ron Suskind, Walt Mossberg, Greg Ip, and a galaxy of others: the finest, smartest, hardest-working, and most professional group of star news reporters in the world. The bad Wall Street Journal is the editorial page of ethics-free right-wing--no, not right-wing, Republican wingnut--partisan hacks. As Ken Auletta put it in an excellent New Yorker article a couple of years ago, describing the bad Wall Street Journal:
Annals of Communications: Family Business: The New Yorker: the opinion page... Robert Bartley.... From 1972 to 2002... ran the editorial page... as if Bartley owned and operated his own private newspaper... a non-stop campaign on behalf of supply-side economics, a return to the gold standard... and prosecuting the Cold War.... The predominantly Democratic Bancroft family... would have preferred “a less acerbic editorial voice.... There is a lot that I think is beyond the pale.”... [T]he editorial page... omitted facts that contradicted its assertions.... crossed a line in advancing its ideology...
Henry Kissinger once famously said of a statement that "it had the added advantage of being true." For the bad Wall Street Journal of the editorial page--at least when I have dealt with them--truth is simply irrelevant: to show them person-to-person that they are factually wrong makes no impact at all. Few like the bad Wall Street Journal, not even those who usually find it useful. Here's one view:
On the Wall Street Journal Editorial Page: ...smug rich-guy arrogance... blithe indifference to actual human nature... "arrogant elites"... out in the open, brazen and unashamed... dubious factual assertions... mischaracterize... our views... hostile and insulting... [we need] to correct the record because [of] you and... [your] friends...
That's the perspective from National Review.
The contempt for the bad Wall Street Journal is returned. Here's Auletta from the New Yorker again, quoting Bartley on Norman Pearlstine, the head of the good Wall Street Journal:
When I asked Robert Bartley, the Journal’s former editorial-page editor, to describe Pearlstine’s legacy, Bartley... carved up his former colleague.... “[C]irculation was down. Advertising was down.... [R]eporters won prizes for writing books beating up on our subscribers and advertisers.... Norm’s a very creative guy--the three-section newspaper was his.... I don’t think he’s good at sustained effort”...
Bartley's criticism of Pearlstine's Wall Street Journal, in a nutshell, is that Pearlstine had forgotten what he was paid to do: Pearlstine thought he was paid to report the news and inform the subscribers, but in Bartley's view that was wrong--what Pearlstine was paid to do was to deliver eyeballs to advertisers by printing stuff that made subscribers and advertisers feel good and righteous.
Dr. Jekyll, meet Mr. Hyde.
Some Journal insiders--even some on the news side--say that this Jekyll-and-Hyde relationship is all to the advantage of the good Dr. Jekyll. Nobody serious believes the editorial page, they say; it serves as a comics page for the older and more-wingnutty subscribers, a source of daily comfort food for those who still denounce, "that Communist, Franklin Roosevelt," and who have always thought that the depth and duration of the Great Depression were the fault of the New Deal--that if the free-marekt tidal wave of falling wages and massive bankruptcies had been allowed to purge the economy for 1933 and 1934, by 1935 and 1936 all would have been well. But, this faction says, the editorial page delivers up perhaps half a million extra subscribers a year, and that money flow pays for the finest news-reporting operation in the world.
Other Journal insiders say that it is the bad Mr. Hyde that is sucking the blood of Dr. Jekyll. Nobody would pay attention to the wingnuts of the editorial page, they say, were it not for the fact that they come at the back of a very, very good newspaper. 50,000 people a month read the American Spectator, where Bartley's crew belongs. 1,000,000 people a day at least glance at the Wall Street Journal editorial page. The reporters in the news division are thus in a morally ambiguous position as journalists: the stories they write inform the public, and the public they attract then turns to page A16--and is there misinformed.
We outsiders speculate and argue about which of these perspectives is closer to the truth. We do not know. But we do know that this is the shape of the organization that Murdoch wants to capture.
Now Rupert Murdoch of the News Corporation has pulled a chair up to this poker table, and wants to buy the Wall Street Journal. Figure that he can sell off other parts of Dow Jones, Inc. for enough money that the long-term net investment by News Corp. will be on the order of $2 billion. Why might Murdoch want to spend so much money to do such a thing?
One possibility is that Rupert Murdoch likes to keep what he has and that he has sons: the thirty-something Lachlan and James (and a daughter, Elizabeth). His sons will already be rich beyond the wildest dreams of avarice. Giving his sons roles at News Corp. has proven difficult: he still wants to run the show, and people whom Murdoch has hired and had long-term relationships with want to go around them if they don't like what his sons are doing. But there is nobody at the Journal with strong personal ties to Murchoch. If Murdoch buys the Wall Street Journal and spins it off, then at least one of his sons can become an independent global power broker in his own right without Murdoch having to loosen the reins at News Corp. It's like a medieval German emperor creating his son Duke of Swabia: it's a real job, an important job, a very powerful job, and a job that keeps the son occupied without forcing the father to begin the surrender of his own power before he is ready. That might be what is going on. But if it is Murdoch is playing his cards very close to his vest.
A second possibility is that Rupert Murdoch thinks that in the age of new-media convergence the Wall Street Journal has the brand and the authority and the staff to make it an excellent launching pad, worth a $2 billion bet. Can Murdoch synergize the Journal's brand on TV and via new media in a way to further boost his fortune? Perhaps. Many fortunes will be made in financial news when the technological shift that has replaced the Mergenthaler and wood pulp with the microchip and the fiber-optic cable finally shakes itself out. Why, Murdoch may be asking himself, should the biggest fortune be made by Michael Bloomberg and not by him? That might be what is going on. But if it were, and if Murdoch had a real chance at the synergies, there would be other bidders by now.
A third possibility--by far the most likely, IMHO--is that Rupert Murdoch is one of the boys who just wanna have fun. It would be more fun shaping the opinions of the world through both News Corp.'s current properties and the world's preeminent global financial newspaper than through just News Corp.'s current properties alone--plus it would be more fun receiving the bowing and scraping that the world's powerful would engage in to placate the owner of News Corp. plus the Wall Street Journal than just the bowing and scraping that accrues to the owner of News Corp. alone. That is probably what is going on.
Which of these three possibilities is truest has implications for what is likely to happen to a Journal under Murdoch ownership, and whether the Murdoch purchase is a good thing.
If the first possibility is true--if the best analogy to what is going on is that this is the equivalent of a medieval German emperor creating a son Duke of Swabia--then it is surely good news for the world. A relatively young, energetic proprietor with deep knowledge of the news business--and Murdoch's children fit that bill--would in all likelihood be as good a steward of the excellent social asset that is the Wall Street Journal's news section. And it can't be bad for the editorial pages. Whatever happens to them has to be an improvement.
If the second possibility is true--that Murdoch wants to keep the Journal's strengths as he uses the brand as a new-media synergy launching pad--then the Murdoch purchase is probably good news for the world. Murdoch will then leave the news pages--the Journal's major strength--intact. And although Murdoch is as right-wing as Bartley and company, there is a key difference: Murdoch can be bought, or at least rented. A Journal editorial page run by Murdoch might well wind up supporting a Tony Blair or a Hillary Rodham Clinton: it would be wignutty when that was in Murdoch's interest; sane right-wing when that was in Murdoch's interest; centrist when that was in Murdoch's interest. A Journal editorial page run by the current regime would be wingnutty 24/7, as it is today. Neither would be a source of news or information--both would bear a completely random relationship to the truth--but the Murdoch version would be less destructive.
But by far the most likely is the third possibility. And if the third possibility is true, then Murdoch's purchase is probably bad news. It is true that the Wall Street Journal's editorial page will improve, as its positions are aligned less with winguttery and more with the interests of whoever has rented Murdoch for that particular afternoon. But the news pages will deteriorate. Murdoch will tell China's State Council and other political interests with whom he seeks to deal that the situation is delicate, that he cannot interfere openly with the news process, that it will take time, and so forth, but that if they make it worth his while he will do what he can do--and in the long run if they give him rope they will not be disappointed. Murdoch will tell his employees on the Journal news desks that he is under enormous pressure, that he understands the importance and delicacy of the situation, that it will take time, and so forth, but that they need to be patient and give him rope and they will not be disappointed. In reality, Murdoch will use the rope they give him to hang one or both of these groups--but which we will not discover for a while: Murdoch is a professional at this, after all.
So: as the Murdoch acquisition of the Journal moves forward, watch carefully. If Murdoch's children wind up being the effective proprietors of an organization run separately from News Corp., be happy. If Murdoch spends his time and energy leveraging the brand in new media space, reshaping things into the editorial pages to please his political contacts, and leaving the news pages alone to run themselves, then be happy.
But if Murdoch starts running the Journal the way he runs his other properties, be alarmed. Be very alarmed.