Rupert Murdoch, the international media mogul, is trying to buy The Wall Street Journal, and Bill Moyers of PBS is scared to death, not to mention angry.
Murdoch, he said in a diatribe on his TV show, is “to propriety what the Marquis de Sade was to chastity. When it comes to money and power, he is carnivorous, all appetite, no taste. He’ll eat anything in his path …”
Moyers went on to tell us that the Journal is one of the best newspapers in the country, that Murdoch is someone who uses journalism “as a personal spittoon,” and that we ought to think twice about letting “massive conglomerates” buy “local outlets” because, after all, they don’t use their First Amendment rights to check “excesses of private and public power.”
Moyers, in other words, wants to protect liberty by denying it — if there are those who do not bow before your expectations, enclose their rights with new laws. He might want to think twice about that, because people of a different sensibility just could urge a similar mechanism to pick on people he likely approves of, such as Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times.
Sulzberger, as a young man, once engaged in an argument with his father about the Vietnam War, according to a widely repeated story in the New Yorker. Asked whether he would rather an American or Vietnamese soldier be killed if the two came across each other, the son is said to have responded, “I would want to see the American get shot. It’s the other guy’s country; we shouldn’t be there.”
You might dismiss that extremity as the thoughtlessness of youth were it not for the adamantly ideological way in which Sulzberger has guided his paper. As another New Yorker article has recently pointed out, he exercises his control less visibly than Murdoch through what editors he puts in place, but still gets what he wants. A Times ombudsman once conceded that the paper’s stories on such matters as environmental protection and gun control were one-sided and liberal. Look at some of its coverage of politics — especially the last presidential election — and you can’t help but notice a decided bias.
Murdoch could be equally damaging to The Wall Street Journal, and maybe worse. He has said he would avoid playing politics with the paper’s content as he rescues it from financial travails, but his history is contrary to the promise, if not so dreadfully awful as Moyers would have you believe. The paper’s union is against the possible purchase, and those on the editorial page aren’t happy about the prospect, either. The writers and editors in that section may fear that even if it is conservative and Murdoch is as well on many issues, they would be subject more to whim than principle.
What some may not know is that the paper is not through-and-through conservative; its news content ventures into opinion sometimes, and is more liberal than not. Here we come to an answer far better than that of Moyers.
American journalism needs to get back to the idea of objectivity, which came into being partly for commercial reasons, but also for high-minded reasons, following the halcyon days of the partisan press. Cynics say objectivity in hard news reporting is an impossibility, but so is any ideal considered as an absolute. In getting at the facts and how they are to be strung together in coherent fashion, the job of the professional journalist in a mainstream newspaper is to be more like an impartial referee than a fan, and it’s simply false to suppose this can’t be done. It’s done all the time — in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and every other mainstream American paper, if not consistently and far from perfectly. Opinion in the press is important, too, but should be kept apart from news.
Our democracy will not disappear if we return to a partisan press, as we seem to be doing, but it will suffer grievously if people feel they have no place to find reliable information. Surveys indicate a majority of Americans have already come to feel that way. A return to stern objectivity standards would go far toward taming such people as Murdoch and Sulzberger without betraying freedom.
(Jay Ambrose, formerly Washington director of editorial policy for Scripps Howard newspapers and the editor of dailies in El Paso, Texas, and Denver, is a columnist living in Colorado. He can be reached at SpeaktoJay(at)aol.com.)