Last Tuesday afternoon, soon after his eye-popping, wildly counterintuitive, and yet entirely predictable—indeed, long-predicted—bid for Dow Jones and its crown jewel, The Wall Street Journal, became public, Rupert Murdoch went on Fox News in the apparent hope of reassuring viewers that the world was not, in fact, about to end. Apart from the hair, which has been dyed an alarmingly synthetic shade of mahogany, everything about the appearance was tailored to be soothing, even sedative. Would Murdoch’s liberal enemies go batshit? “I am not expecting we will have any serious clashes.” Would the Democratic Congress try to block the deal? “I have good friends on both sides of the aisle; there are no laws against this.” And what about the Bancroft family, which has controlled Dow Jones, steadfastly resisting all takeover offers, since 1902? “There is plenty of time, and we’ll just take it calmly and hope that they will take it calmly.”
Expecting calm in the wake of a Murdoch megamaneuver is like expecting equanimity from George Steinbrenner after the Red Sox sweep the Yankees. Possible in theory, but in practice, hey, c’mon. Within hours of the news’ being broken, the union representing many Dow Jones employees issued a statement (a shriekment, really) that “the staff, from top to bottom, opposes a Rupert Murdoch takeover” on the grounds that he “has shown a willingness to crush quality and independence.” A few hours later, a Bancroft trustee said that family members accounting for slightly more than 50 percent of Dow Jones voting shares were against the deal. The next day, the Ottaway family, which controls another 6 percent, declared its opposition, too.
Murdoch is 76, but unlike a number of his fellow ultramoguls (Sumner Redstone leaps to mind), he evinces no signs of encroaching dementia. Of course he realized that his bid would encounter fierce and formidable resistance; he has seen this movie too many times before to anticipate anything else. To Murdoch’s way of thinking, at the heart of this resistance is sheer timidity: “Naturally, people are a little bit frightened of change” is how he put it on Fox News. The argument is self-serving, even self-ennobling. But, especially when it comes to the families that control America’s most hallowed newspapers, it also happens to be true—and explains why those families and those papers are now facing an ever-darkening future.
I first met Murdoch in 1991, when I moved to London to cover the media business for The Economist. Murdoch had just barely averted bankruptcy for News Corp. and was operating under constraints imposed by his bankers. Yet the strings that bound him weren’t tight enough to keep him from pouring cash into his fledgling British satellite-TV venture, BSkyB, with which he planned, he told me, to “drag the BBC and the rest of the television Establishment kicking and screaming into the modern age.”
For an American, whose primary understanding of Murdoch was as the man who, with the Fox network, had given us The Simpsons, the depth and intensity of the hatred for him was nearly impossible to fathom. And nowhere was it more searing and visceral than at the BBC. When Andrew Neil, a former Economist editor, was put in charge of BSkyB, my friend Mike Elliott interviewed him for a BBC Radio program. After the interview aired, Elliott was accosted by a senior BBC executive, looking as if she’d just been slapped in the face with a dead fish, gasping, ranting, “How could you? How could you? How could you give fifteen minutes of airtime for Neil to talk about … that man?!?”
The source of the anti-Murdoch sentiment in London was ostensibly political. His support for Thatcher. His long and violent clash with the printers’ unions at Wapping. But in truth the crux of the resentment (in the media Establishment, at least) was primarily cultural. At the BBC, the presiding ethos was an unrepentant paternalism: the commitment to public-service broadcasting, to “quality TV.” Murdoch, by contrast, represented the arrival of market forces: the dedication to giving viewers what they wanted, not what he thought they needed. The pooh-bahs at the BBC may have been politically liberal, but they were institutionally conservative—and they saw Murdoch as a corporate radical. An Australian barbarian at the gate.
Now fast-forward a decade-plus, and what we have here is a stone-cold case of déjà vu all over again. In the American newspaper-family dynasties—the Bancrofts, the Sulzbergers of the Times, the Grahams of the Washington Post, etc.—we’re presented with a close approximation, attitudinally speaking, of the BBC mandarins. At a time of enormous change in the media landscape, these dynasties are often described as the last guardians of serious and responsible journalism, the last bulwark against dumb-dumb tabloidism and the unreliable, ideologically tainted cacophony of the blogosphere.