Newspapers today still count for something — and in some societies they can count for a great deal.
That Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp. are to become the new proprietors of The Wall Street Journal is a matter of concern not only for us in America. It is a matter of interest for everyone in the world — especially, with the rise of China, for Asians. The quality of American society overall, from the White House to the newsroom, has impact elsewhere. World stability depends on well-informed political decision-making, including and especially in Washington.
For better or for worse, the U.S. news media remain the most influential national media on the planet. At or near the top of the U.S. journalistic heap sits The Wall Street Journal. The acquisition by the mammoth News Corp. makes perfect economic sense: Bigger is better in today’s competitive economy. But as a journalistic evolution, the deal could take us back into the dark ages.
For most Americans, the Murdoch regime’s true journalistic colors show up on Fox News, the 24/7 cable TV news challenger to CNN and MSNBC whose promotion mantra is “fair and balanced.” Well, it’s not — and it is precisely because Murdoch and his Foxes may actually believe that their self-serving “fair and balanced” assessment of their journalism is — well — “fair and balanced” that makes people so alarmed by the impending takeover.
On the contrary, it is in the daily journalism of a truly special newspaper like The Wall Street Journal that you find news coverage and financial analysis that is characteristically not only fair and balanced but also thorough. Clearly, our current age of globalization has brought this paper to the height of its powers. With people all across the globe dependent on economic, political and financial reports in a timely and credible manner, the journalistic integrity of America’s leading financial newspaper has never been more valued and relevant.
That integrity can only be guaranteed by the character of the proprietor or the publisher. This is the key individual in any American newspaper. The flamboyant Ben Bradlee, for decades the celebrated top editor of the aggressive Washington Post, often declared that the secret to success for any editor was to be lucky enough to be able to report to a great publisher.
In my own journalistic career, I have been darn fortunate to work for some great publishers. The most recent was in my job as the editor of the editorial pages of the Los Angeles Times. The publisher back then was David Laventhol, the legendary father of Long Island Newsday, and clearly a great man. For decades the Los Angeles Times — under publisher Otis Chandler, then Tom Johnson and then David Laventhol — escaped its sorry past as a Southern California rag and transformed itself into one of the world’s great papers.
It happened because of a conscious continuum of commitment to quality and determination to compete with the best. Alas, such ambitions cost money: journalists have families to feed, foreign bureaus that help provide Americans with sophisticated windows to the world are frighteningly expensive to maintain, and — gosh — you can save so much dough just by closing down those bureaus, laying off journalists and cutting back on newsprint!
But in its ideal constitutional role, a newspaper isn’t just about making money. It’s about recording history as it happens — “history on the run,” as Bradlee would put it. (Laventhol would put it that good journalism had to be “quick and deep.”) Newspapers had to be profitable, to be sure, or they would go out of business; but if they made too much money at the expense of good journalism, why should they be allowed to remain in the business?
This is the fear that Murdoch strikes into the heart of many American editors and reporters. You cannot stop caring about these issues. The ability of the United States to learn from its mistakes and improve its policies both abroad and at home depends in no little part on the vital role of the news media as the reporter of the present and the watchdog of the future. Not every society, to say the least, allows its press so wide and deep a role. But this is the way America works.
And when America works the way it was designed to work, it is a good thing for everybody, not just for Americans.
One reason it has not been working so well lately is that its news media have been losing their way. The negative effect can be felt all over the world. It may be about to get worse.
(Tom Plate, a member of the University of California at Los Angeles’s public-policy faculty, is a veteran journalist.)