Muzzling Murdoch

IN ITS EAGERNESS to take over Dow Jones & Co., News Corp. has agreed to let a special committee guard the independence of at least two key executives: the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal and the head of the newspaper’s editorial pages. It’s an unusual and ironic concession, given the free-market blandishments in the Journal’s editorials. In essence, the two sides are saying that market forces can’t be trusted to stop News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch from meddling either with the news pages’ objectivity or the opinion pages’ attitude.

News Corp.'s goal is to persuade members of the Bancroft family, who own a controlling interest in the Journal, to sell their shares. The family’s reluctance reflects Murdoch’s reputation for putting profits and corporate business interests ahead of journalistic ideals; witness, for example, the lowest-common-denominator appeal of News Corp.'s British and Australian tabloids, its deference to government censors in China and the right-of-center slant of its Fox News Channel.

Murdoch was forced to accept this sort of handcuffing once before, when he bought the venerable Times of London more than 25 years ago. The fear was that he would transform one of Britain’s great newspapers into a rag sheet for the hoi polloi, indistinguishable from his raucous tabs. The Times already had a committee similar to the one contemplated for Dow Jones, and it remained in place after Murdoch took over.

It’s worth noting that the Times of London continues to aim for a market very different from the Murdoch-owned News of the World or the Sun. Yes, some critics complain that the oversight committee didn’t stop Murdoch from leaving his stamp on the Times, but it’s unrealistic to expect otherwise. Like it or not, newspapers are businesses, and they can’t be expected to cling to the status quo in the face of a rapidly fragmenting audience, a shift in advertising dollars to the Internet and a proliferation of competitors online.


The only sure thing in the Dow Jones-News Corp. plan is that the current top editors at the Journal, its editorial page and the Dow Jones news service would keep their jobs. Those executives would report, however, to News Corp.'s hand-picked publisher. Yes, the special committee would have to approve any move to replace them or curtail their authority over which news stories, features and opinion pieces to run. But it couldn’t dictate the size of their budgets, which -- as our experience here at The Times has made painfully clear -- has become one of the sharpest points of dispute between newsrooms and their owners.

Given the premium that News Corp. has offered to pay for Dow Jones, it’s reasonable to assume that Murdoch covets the value of the brand and its products. In fact, the Dow Jones brand may be crucial to helping establish another Murdoch venture, a new cable TV channel for business news. The Journal’s combination of smart, objective news coverage and provocatively conservative opinion pieces has drawn one of the newspaper industry’s largest audiences, which speaks volumes for how the market wants the paper to be run. That voice may be more important to the quality and independence of a Dow Jones-News Corp. than any oversight committee.