Rupert, White Knight

Photo: Rick Maiman/Polaris

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.

Certainly this is how the families see themselves. And they may not be completely deluded. Yet, in every instance, these papers, which tried for years to wish away the Internet and are only now laboring to adapt to the new technological and generational realities, are undeniably losing: losing readers, losing advertisers, losing traction in the conversation.

Now comes Murdoch, offering Dow Jones, with its stagnant stock price and its woeful mismanagement, a different and arguably more promising way forward. (Not to mention a stratospheric premium.) And the reaction on the part of most of the Bancrofts is chilly to the point of permafrost—while the tut-tutters of the media-watchdog game bemoan last Tuesday as, in the words of one at CJR Daily, “a black day for journalism.”

Once again, much of the antagonism toward Murdoch is, on its face, about his right-wing politics and the politics of his outlets. About Fox News, in other words. But although many of the Bancrofts are said to be Democrats, it’s hard to imagine that an aversion to nuthouse conservatism is fueling their resistance to Murdoch—unless, that is, they haven’t noticed the Journal’s editorial page for, oh, the past three or four decades.

No, judging by the emanations that have long wafted out of the Bancroft camp, the concern has to do with the notion that The Wall Street Journal is a “public trust”—and that Murdoch, once he gets his hands on the paper, will defile the sacred temple. No one sensible, and surely not I, would ever claim that Murdoch hasn’t exhibited a pronounced tendency toward the down-market. Yet that tendency is far from uniform. In London, his massively successful tabloid, The Sun, with its bare boobs forever festooned on page 3, sits happily on the newsstand next to the Times, a “quality” paper by any definition, and hardly a lunatic right-wing rag. More to the point, Murdoch surely understands that the whole value of the Journal rests on its savvy, upscale readers (and the advertisers they entice). To piss them away would be commercial suicide—and hara-kari has never been one of Rupert’s proclivities.

Murdoch, in fact, has been dying to get hold of the Journal for years—either that or the Financial Times. In both these prizes, he saw a way to build a financial-news empire, one built on top of broadsheet and newsprint (the scent of which is like jasmine to him) but extending into the electronic realm, where most of his power now resides. By carrying the Journal’s brand into television—his plans to build a competitor to CNBC are well known and advanced—Murdoch could put Dow Jones on firmer financial footing than it has been in a long time. And then there’s the Internet, which I suspect looms even larger in his plans for the company.

Murdoch’s emergence as a Web kingpin is, of course, one of the oddest and least expected developments in recent business history. “Everyone’s getting a bit overexcited by this digital deluge,” he told me once, at the start of the Internet bubble. “Most people just want to sit back and watch—interacting is hard work.” I remember thinking that I’d finally spotted a blind spot in Murdoch. The old guy will never get it, I said to myself, and for a long time, he didn’t. But then he turns around and buys MySpace for what now looks like a song—a genius move that catapulted him ahead of almost every other big-media player in grappling with the Web.

Did anybody at Dow Jones ever contemplate purchasing MySpace? Did Arthur Sulzberger or Don Graham? I don’t know, but I’d wager they didn’t even know what MySpace was. The obvious retort is, Why should they have? What does social networking have to do with journalism? And, no doubt, a precise answer is hard to conjure. But if you don’t believe that the intermingling of these spheres will be central to how future generations consume their news, you’ve apparently been sleeping—and clearly don’t have kids.

Not that Murdoch or his people have the future figured out. But they’re groping toward it with purpose and energy—which is more than you can say for Dow Jones. God knows Murdoch’s politics aren’t my brand of vodka. But you have to admire the way he’s been an unrelenting force for change and modernization in the media racket, the way he’s shaped and adapted to epic transformations of platforms and technologies. The problem with America’s newspaper-family dynasties is that, to a greater or lesser degree, they still believe they’re in the same business they were in 30 years ago. Murdoch doesn’t—and he knows, too, that newspapers can’t be any kind of public trust if the public sees them as yesterday’s news.


Rupert, White Knight