Curbing Murdoch

August 6, 2007

The Wall Street Journal owes its remarkable success in part to its ambidextrous editorial identity — opinion pages devoted to sternly right-wing commentary, at times undeterred by fact, married to a vast newsroom with a reputation for independent, accurate and unblinkered business journalism. It’s that balance that the takeover of the Journal’s parent, Dow Jones Co., by media baron Rupert Murdoch endangers.

That’s not because Murdoch’s a political ideologue who would turn the Journal’s news pages into a print companion to Fox News, the lurid U.S. broadcast operation of his global conglomerate, News Corp. The record of the 76-year-old Australian-born magnate suggests a pragmatist who nuzzles with politics only when it creates opportunity: He fashioned Fox News as a right-leaning alternative only after he saw poll numbers that revealed a substantial audience among those who believe the media tilt left.

It’s not Murdoch’s politics that has the potential to corrupt the Journal, it’s his business. News Corp. is a uniquely aggressive company with an astonishing range of operations embedded in dozens of industries in the U.S. and abroad, which in turn depend on an even wider range of interlocks. Look through its annual report and try to imagine any aspect of business whose prospects don’t in some way affect News Corp.’s, from copyright law to celebrity culture, home electronics to spectrum allocation, Internet networking sites (like MySpace, which it owns) to trade policy.

And that’s just current operations. Over the years News Corp. dabbled in pro sports (it owned the Los Angeles Dodgers), the magazine industry, tabloid newspapers (only the New York Post remains from the fledgling network), direct satellite broadcast and still other fields.

And now? As Murdoch told his shareholders last year: “For the first time in media history, complete access to a truly global audience is within our grasp.”

In short, News Corp. is a major player — real and potential — in any number of arenas where the Wall Street Journal is supposed to be independent and authoritative.

Now, in this it differs little from many big media companies, which are joined through corporate parentage to dissimilar businesses that their news operations cover — from Time Warner (doesn’t its Fortune magazine cover TW’s Warner Pictures and AOL?) to NBC and its sister networks (which cover the Pentagon, from which parent GE gets billions.)

What’s unprecedented is that with the Journal the imminent potential for a vast, institutional conflict of interest has been explicitly acknowledged. During the months of negotiation over the Dow Jones sale, corporate contamination was put on the table. That created an opening to deal innovatively with one of the most vexing problems of contemporary journalism.

Unfortunately, the response so far has been limp and worthless. Murdoch and Dow Jones’ current owners, the Bancroft family, agreed to create an editorial review committee, consisting of hand-picked outsiders who are supposed to ensure non-interference by News Corp. at the seniormost levels of the Journal’s newsroom.

But that’s not where improper influence is felt. It’s felt in the trenches, by the rank-and-file, in the stories they’re encouraged to drop, the lines of inquiry they’re urged to pursue, the avenues that are quietly squelched. Surveys have shown an alarming percentage of U.S. reporters believe their news organizations tilt coverage in ways that benefit their ownerships, and yet they have no way to express those concerns, determine whether they’re valid and, if so, neutralize their effect.

The Journal doesn’t need a blue-ribbon panel of grandees, each paid $100,000 a year to attend quarterly meetings. It needs a wholly independent newsroom Conflicts Committee consisting of Journal staffers chosen by their peers, who would investigate staff complaints about coverage that they believe was improperly inclined on News Corp.’s behalf — and who would publish their findings on a public web site outside of managerial control.

And it needs an independent ombudsman to hear similar complaints from the Journal’s incomparably sophisticated readers, who have a huge stake in just the kind of editorial independence Murdoch has pledged to preserve.

Maybe, as some commentators suggest, self-interest will keep Murdoch from meddling with a newsroom whose trustworthiness is its most sparkling asset. But that deterrent works only if such meddling is readily exposed, and that requires mechanisms of transparency that don’t yet exist. Creating them would go some distance toward extending the Wall Street Journal’s leadership into the arena of institutional honesty and accountability, whatever the wishes of its new owner.

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