There really is nothing very new about the gnashing of teeth and the dire predictions in the world of “respectable” journalism over the prospect of Rupert Murdoch assuming control of the Wall Street Journal. Actually, Murdoch’s purchase of several other “main line” publications over the years, including the Times of London, have raised similar alarms from elitists who populate the editorial side of the declining U.S. newspaper industry.
In fact, this kind of panic over the possible changing ownership of a major daily journal has decades of precedence. For instance, in 1930 when the dynamic press lord, Roy W. Howard, paid the sons of Joseph Pulitzer, an unheard of price of $3 million for the New York World, there were similar sounds of anguish from an editorial staff that fashioned itself still at the pinnacle of American journalism despite years of deterioration that had forced the sale. When an employee counter offer led by Bayard Swope failed to materialize, the staff treated the sale to Howard of the Scripps Howard group as a death.
Howard closed The Morning World and merged it into the Evening Telegram to form The World Telegram. The paper almost immediately became a crusading presence that exposed city corruption, brought about the historic Seabury Commission, and ultimately ended Tammany Hall’s control of New York. The newspaper then won (of all things) a Pulitzer Prize. It helped elect the reform mayor Fiorella LaGuardia and went on to many other notable editorial successes including revealing a strong communist presence in post-war labor unions, which won another Pulitzer.
It is true that Murdoch, at least to some degree, has a reputation for a tabloid brand of journalism brought about by his ownership of several of the more racy papers including the Sun of London with its nude “page three girls,” and the salacious News of the World. But he also owns the Times and the New York Post and the Fox network and studios and any number of other enterprises that makes his News Corporation worth a cool $70 billion and the envy of the mass communications world. Dow Jones, which owns the Wall Street Journal, is worth a fraction of that. Murdoch probably could write a check for the $5 billion he has offered, a considerable increase in the current stock price.
Another group that includes General Electric and Pearsons, which owns the Financial Times of London, had expressed interest in the Dow and the Journal. But there were no assurance that they would not eviscerate the Journal to bring down costs and improve revenues. Murdoch at least made his initial fortune in newspapers and the related media unlike the equity buyers and real estate moguls who have taken over some news empires of late.
The Australian-born entrepreneur is no fool and he clearly wants the Journal and the Dow news wires to remain icons of the financial world. It would not be in his interest to begin even a subtle change in the way the paper operates. In fact his own political philosophy seems very much in tune with the Journal’s conservative editorial and op ed positions. Even without an independent board of overseers it is doubtful that he would interfere with the independence of the newspaper’s reporters who often turn out respected pieces that are not in line with the editorial pages. That has not been his style.
We in journalism like to paint the good old days as free of intimidation by publishers and of interference by the owners. The New York World is a good object lesson for the real truth. Joseph Pulitzer was a publisher who helped invent yellow journalism, used it to build circulation in his flagship, The World, in a barrage of sensationalism that included fomenting the Spanish American War. He was given credit for bringing the Statue of Liberty to the United States when in reality it was the nickels and dimes solicited from school children that financed the venture. In a clear effort to redeem his reputation, reform his image and perpetuate his name, he left funds to Columbia University for the establishment of major prizes in his name. It worked and he now has become something that he wasn’t much in his lifetime — highly respected by his peers, many of whom had an outright fear of him.
The journalistic giants of the past revered by so many were not much different than the entrepreneurs of today except that their commitment to newspapers of whatever kind was much stronger than the equity groups and Wall Street vultures now in the business. Murdoch at least cares about journalism. The Journal could do a lot worse.
(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)