WSJ and the Murdoch Saga

It used to be that you could buy a newspaper on the corner for a penny, a nickel or even a dime. Or the paperboy delivered it to your door, came around another time and collected a whole month’s worth for just a few dollars.

In 2007, journalists aren’t happy when you offer to pay $5 billion for a paper.

Journalists don’t want to sell to News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch because they don’t like his politics and his brand of journalism.

It’s easy to find reporters and editors opposed to Murdoch. They’re all over the news – NPR, the Columbia Journalism Review, The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN and in the very paper he is trying to buy.

The Wall Street Journal’s own staffers are lobbying the Bancroft family, which owns a majority voting share in the company, urging them not to sell. The journalists’ union has been recruiting left-wing alternative bidders. And because that news has been reported by their brothers and sisters in the mainstream media, almost no one has taken them to task for such an open display of political bias.

That’s the story behind Murdoch’s bid for the Journal – bias. Journalists have long claimed they are neutral parties without any political ax to grind. They can’t claim that any more – ever.

The hysterical assault on one of the most successful men in the news business unveils some ugly truths about journalism. The industry is less of a business and more of a culture club. You get to join if, and only if, you say the right things and know the right people.

Both Fox News and the New York Post don’t say the right things, according to most in the media. Murdoch owns both, and media types have long criticized them. The Journal’s union showed its disdain for Murdoch by saying his “media empire includes the less than ‘fair and balanced’ Fox news channel …”

Part of the problem in news coverage is that people in the “news business” don’t care about the business end. They even criticize Murdoch for being successful while the Journal’s stock price has languished under the Bancroft family. The union, ordinarily critical of both Journal management and ownership, begged the Bancrofts not to sell to someone who could do a better job. That’s the union at a business news company urging owners not to sell for $2 billion more than the firm was worth a few weeks ago.

The union was far from alone. Edward Wasserman, a Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, joined the long list opposed to the sale. He went so far as to call Murdoch a “predatory capitalist” in his June 11 Miami Herald column. In journalistic terms, a “predatory capitalist” is someone who makes money doing something journalists don’t like.

Wasserman argued the paper’s “signature political coverage could no longer be trusted” once in the hand of a “political player.” He said the Journal shouldn’t be owned by Murdoch, just as The Washington Post “should not be owned by Teresa Heinz Kerry or Karl Rove or Neil Bush.”

But that’s not what the Journal’s own employee union is saying. The union was thrilled by the prospect that a “political player” might take over, as long as that new owner played for the left.

The Journal’s union, affiliated with the AFL-CIO, said it wants “billionaires with integrity” to buy the paper. It contacted Warren Buffet and Ron Burkle and urged them to buy the newspaper. Both are left-wing supporters of prominent Democrats.

So much for journalistic ethics.

But that’s not the only reason reporters and editors don’t like News Corp.’s “media mogul.” Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review accused Murdoch of real and imagined sins, from opposing investigative stories to the unpardonable evil of disliking long stories. Somehow, 35 years after the fact, Starkman even claimed Murdoch would have been unwilling to run Watergate stories in “a News Corp. newspaper.”

“He’s a journalist like I’m the lead dancer in the New York City Ballet,” Starkman wrote. All that on the Web site of a publication by and for journalists.

That’s because journalists are scared. They aren’t afraid of Murdoch. They are afraid their club is closing down.

It is.

It looks like the Bancroft family might make the right business decision and sell to Murdoch – even if the media still oppose having better businessmen run their industry.

If or when that happens, journalists might learn that Murdoch knows more than they do about business. And the person they fear the most might show them not just how to deliver a paper but how to make a paper deliver.

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