jimsleeper.com » Rupert vs. the Republic

Rupert vs. the Republic

(TPM, History News Network, The Guardian, and Dissent)

Between June 18, 2007, when Rupert Murdoch’s bid to buy The Wall Street Journal from its Dow Jones and Bancroft family owners was in doubt, and August 7, when he had won his bid, I cautioned, cajoled, assailed, and ultimately despaired of some journalists who became Murdoch’s apologists and, in one case, even his cheerleaders. The more reflective of my columns here below are “Rupert vs. the Republic” and “Murdoch and His Enablers.” The harshest is “Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Another Good Journalist Lost, Along with The Wall Street Journal.”

 1. Rupert vs. the Republic    

June 18, 2007      

By Jim Sleeper

“Rupert Murdoch has grown so desperate in his attempt to buy Dow Jones and its Wall Street Journal that he’ll tell any lie he thinks will help,” wrote Slate’s Jack Shafer on May 24.

In half a dozen columns, Shafer himself has sounded a bit desperate to expose Murdoch’s lies in order to discredit his bid. He’s right to note that “Murdoch doesn’t exasperate because he’s a conservative; he exasperates because he has no principles.” But the ownership and investment system which Murdoch is gaming doesn’t have any principles, either. It will take more than investigative journalism, satire, or commentary like Shafer’s or mine to pose the challenge that needs to be posed.

I share the desperation about Murdoch for two reasons. Contrary to a perception common on the left, the Journal’s news pages are ethical and sparkling — unlike its speculator-worshipping fact-challenged editorial pages. Second, my cousin James Wechsler was editorial page editor of the crusading, liberal New York Post when Murdoch bought it from publisher Dolly Schiff in 1977 and promised to maintain its political independence, only to make it a daily reminder that Australia was founded as a penal colony.

But it can have astonished no one that, after some fretting about journalistic integrity, the Journal’s Bancroft family owners agreed to meet with Murdoch as the price of Dow Jones stock surged: What, besides profit, could have driven Dow’s mostly anonymous whorl of shareholders, whose composition changes daily at the clicks of brokers’ mouses?

The Bancrofts do retain legal control of Dow Jones and the Journal through Class B super-voting stock, along with some portraits of ancestors whose pieties about journalism as a public trust still ring in their ears. They might be able to withstand Murdoch’s carrots and sticks for the sake of something besides free-market freedom – the freedom of intelligent stewards to run a company by more than just its bottom line.

They  might, that is, if times were better and if some Bancrofts weren’t dividend hogs themselves. “As a rule,” the Journal itself reported, “trustees have a fiduciary duty to serve the interests of the beneficiaries, but the Bancroft trust documents generally don’t stipulate that the trustees must maximize the value of the trust’s holdings of Dow Jones shares.”

But now that Murdoch’s offer has driven up the price of Dow’s more public, Class A shares, those brokers’ mouses will roar if the family turns him down. The stock will plummet as greed whirls elsewhere, and shareholder lawsuits may claim that the family abdicated its fiduciary responsibilities. New offers by others may “save the day,” but for what? That’s the important question.

In the republic we used to have alongside loose-limbed markets, informed citizens (including capitalists) were supposed to choose when to rise above narrow self-interest. Voters could organize to curb or even contravene some market forces to achieve public goals which self-interested consumers and companies can’t achieve alone. The hitch is that for some time now corporations have enjoyed the legal status of “persons,” entitled by law  to free speech and other citizens’ rights; yet at these same corporations are enjoined by their charters only to maximize profits and market share. The consequences for republican freedom are closing in on us all.

If a General Electric subsidiary can profit by pumping porn movies into hotel rooms, why not? It’s legal. Corporations are “persons” entitled to freedom of speech, no matter that the republic’s founders intended this freedom only for persons who could persuade one another, in open debate, to set aside self-interest sometimes for the greater good. When was the last time you debated Murdoch’s News Corporation? If he can make more by scaring or titillating customers than by informing them, no one can balk. If the Bancrofts balk, other Dow Jones shareholders may balk at them.

On the job, every media-corporation employee has to do whatever management thinks will glue the most eyeballs to the newspaper or TV screen. Citizen activists who try to talk with corporate minions in civic terms often have an out-of-body experience. Just reading or watching what’s churned out by the glad-handing, goosing, scare-mongering producers of Fox and even the NBC Nightly News is an out-of-body experience for anyone seeking enlightenment or reinforcement of the values and virtues without which no republic can cohere.

Murdoch is especially bad here because his huge engines so brilliantly stimulate fear, mistrust, and impulse buying, often subliminally. But he’s merely an especially duplicitous excrescence of bottom-line imperatives that have corrupted many great newspaper families and broadcast pioneers before the Murdochs and the Bancrofts. Even the most civic-minded heirs must bow to shareholder pressures like those Murdoch has goosed here.

Journalists’ responses are often wrenching and sad. Newspapers that were dying through no fault of theirs amid conglomerate and technological upheaval get editors and writers whose consumerist pandering only makes their papers deserve the deaths they’re dying. Some editors attempt a phony irreverence, offering us noisy simulacra of freewheeling controversy in which nothing I’ve mentioned above can be discussed. Some even bait liberals at home and enemies abroad. That distracts these courtiers and servants of the quarterly bottom line from facing their own slavery and fills them with illusions of liberation and righteous mission.

But let’s try a less desperate, less damning approach to capitalist masters. I’d like the Bancrofts to meet Matt Pottinger, a former employee of theirs who has put his life on the line, hoping to defend the very freedoms the Bancroft family claims it wants to strengthen.

Some Bancrofts may recall opening their Wall Street Journals one morning shortly before Christmas, 2005 and reading an op-ed piece by Pottinger entitled, “Mightier than the Pen.”

“When people ask why I recently left The Wall Street Journal to join the Marines,” he began, “I usually have a short answer. It felt like the time had come to stop reporting events and get more directly involved. But that’s not the whole answer” – especially because he was already 31 when he changed venues.

Reporting on China had taught him “what a non-democratic country can do to its citizens” – and to reporters. He learned “that governments that behave this way are not the exception, but the rule…. That makes you think about protecting your country…. What impresses you most, when you don’t have them day to day, are the institutions that distinguish the U.S.: the separation of powers, a free press, the right to vote, and a culture that values civic duty and service, to name but a few.

“I’m not an uncritical, rah-rah American. Living abroad has sharpened my view of what’s wrong with my country, too. It’s obvious that we need to reinvent ourselves in various ways, but we should also be allowed to do it from within, not according to someone else’s dictates.”

The Journal received letters of soaring praise for Pottinger from its editorial page readership’s many armchair warriors. But what if he’s risking his life to defend the Bancrofts’ right to choose maximum gains over good journalism? When he signed up to protect his country, he seemed not to have noticed who and what is endangering our freedom to reinvent ourselves from within. What if the most immediate threat comes from Dick Cheney, not Saddam Hussein, or from Murdoch (and the Bancrofts, if they sell to him), not Al Quaeda?

Marines can’t protect republican freedoms against predators like Murdoch. A liberal capitalist society has to rely on virtues and beliefs which neither the liberal state nor free markets themselves can enforce or nourish because, in the name of freedom, they can’t draw distinctions between bold free spirits and parasitical free riders. Citizens alone can draw such distinctions, exercising their sovereign freedom to discover, describe, debate, and legislate a few necessary parameters.

That’s just what good journalism promotes. Two years after joining the Marines, Pottinger wrote another op ed, on May 31, entitled “A Trust Murdoch Won’t Keep” and addressed to “Dear Shareholders of Dow Jones & Co.” Writing from Iraq’s Anbar province, where his unit had just barely escaped a crater-generating explosion, he told of his realization that journalism like that of “the Wall Street Journal isn’t a commodity — it’s a vital national resource. It is possible that there are only three or four U.S newspapers of its reach still willing to do what it takes to dig that last foot for a story and to strictly observe the ‘church-state’ divisions among news, opinion and an owner’s broader commercial interests.

“It is no coincidence that Rupert Murdoch does not own such a paper. His mission is to blur the lines between church and state…. Some things in America need to be protected, and none more than a free and intrepid press…. [T]he loss of [the Journal’s] rigorous, undiluted reporting would be a hole in America’s heart deeper than that hole in the road.”

Pottinger gives damning specifics about Murdoch. How did the Journal letter writers who’d praised him in 2005 respond now that his warnings pointed back home? We’ve not heard from them, because the Journal’s speculator-driven op-ed pages, which are panting for Murdoch, didn’t publish Pottinger this time. Patriotism is fine on those pages as long as it’s window dressing. Pottinger’s true patriotism had to run in the Washington Post.

The republican freedoms Pottinger invoked aren’t only American, of course; they’re “the cause of all mankind,” as Tom Paine put it. They depend not only on the right to dispose of capital as one wishes but on capitalists’ obligation to keep public trust. We aren’t just speculators and self-marketers. We’re fellow citizens, or we are lost. Profit-seeking that bypasses the republican brain and habits of the heart on its way to the lower viscera, degrading our lives together in order to spur sales, is an enemy of our freedom.

Those who sparked and led a fight for that freedom in Paine’s time pledged their “lives, fortunes and sacred honor” within and against what they’d recently believed was their own English realm and monarch. Now Matt Pottinger has pledged his life and fortune and sacred honor against enemies abroad, but also, apparently, at home. Can the Bancrofts pledge at least some of their fortune and honor to rebuff Murdoch? Rejecting his offer would be risky, but it might be an American shot for freedom heard round the liberal capitalist world.


2. Invasion of the Body Snatchers

Another good journalist lost, along with the Wall Street Journal

July 6, 2007

By Jim Sleeper |

Stepping lightly into his grave as an American writer in the grand cemetery he and other well-known journalists have designed for the American republic, TIME’s Eric Pooley seems as ecstatic as a jihadist ascending to another world. It’s frighteningly instructive to read his July 9 apologia-cum-hagiography on Rupert Murdoch for what it tells us about how American journalism is changing, especially now that Murdoch has virtually won his bid for The Wall Street Journal and its parent company Dow Jones, according to sources on the company’s board. The deal is done, they say, though Dow Jones is denying it, perhaps pending a formal announcement expected next week. But even if it fails, something has been lost in the anticipatory applause of people like Pooley.

At least Pooley, TIME’s star composer of breathless encomia to great men (like Rudy Giuliani after 9/11) who’ve broken the rules and borne lesser mortals’ uncomprehending rage to change the world, paused to take note of the rage at Rupert, the latest, weirdest addition to his pantheon.

“The notion of this tabloid terror controlling the world’s leading business journal [The Wall Street Journal] is being met with ferocious opposition,” Pooley allows, assigning the protesters their seats in the past (including me, presumably). “Some of the opposition is principled, some of it is sanctimonious, and some of it seems driven by a tangle of ideological and commercial motives. Each day brings another investigative story about Murdoch using his media properties to boost his business interests, reward his friends and punish his rivals, and each story carries the message that this man will destroy the Journal by using its hugely respected news pages as his personal fief.

“Of course,” Pooley adds, waving off those critics, “the Journal’s editorial pages are already more conservative than Murdoch.” Actually, those pages are less conservative in any Burkean or Buckleyan sense than they are fanatically delusional, and Pooley knows that the presence of a few editorial bats in the Dow Jones attic – the batty James Taranto, John Fund, and the ghost of Robert Whitewater Bartley – didn’t justify anyone’s selling the whole mansion to the Count Dracula of journalism.

The real reason, Pooley argues, is that the mansion itself is old-fashioned and decrepit, at least by the go-go marketing standards his own Time-Warner Corporation shares with Murdoch’s News Corporation. Murdoch is the herald of an economic and civic climate change larger than himself, and Pooley is hot to introduce us to the inevitable. He hints often at the intimacy of his access to the Great Man, though not so loudly that you wonder why he was granted it. Time-Warner and the News Corporation are rivals, but they’re partners in weaning us of old-fashioned civic republican morals. They do that subliminally every day.

So let’s try to notice what’s getting lost here, including Pooley himself, who used to care about America’s republican integrity. He’s surfing the tidal wave of our collective corporate destiny by rendering Rupert as a charming rogue and great explorer of this century’s vasty deeps, a pirate/pilgrim as awesome as Columbus or Cortez, and never mind the sins and sicknesses they brought with them. The profile reflects a shift in American journalism, which is giving up the ghost of civic-republicanism to follow our new conglomerate masters’ obsession with market share uber alles.

Pooley offers a sprightly tutorial on this to all who aren’t yet clued in — a terrific read for Time-Warner’s long-sought demographic, twenty-somethings who are sloughing off the musty liberal arts they wasted four years getting graded on in college. (I include here those balding, 50’ish twenty-somethings who zoom past me on the Merritt Parkway in their BMWs and armored vehicles; there seem to be millions of them).

Pooley waves aside any lingering suspicion that we Americans shouldn’t be just speculators and self-marketers but citizens who require good journalism as much as we do oxygen to achieve a common good. He and Murdoch are administering euthanasia to all that, and in this quick joint venture they do it more entertainingly than Jack Kevorkian:

“‘They’re taking five billion dollars out of me and want to keep control,’” Rupert Murdoch was saying into the phone, “’in an industry in crisis! They can’t sell their company and still control it–that’s not how it works. I’m sorry!’

“It was a little before 5 o’clock on Friday, June 22, and the chairman of News Corp.–the world’s third largest media conglomerate, with a value of $68 billion, and one of the few mega-corporations controlled by a single individual–was at his desk on the eighth floor of his midtown Manhattan headquarters, trying to shore up a deal he had dreamed about for a decade…. He was speaking in soft bursts to an investment banker on the other end of the line. Murdoch had stripped off his jacket and tie, and his thin, dyed-brown hair was scattered across his scalp. His controversial $5 billion deal to acquire Dow Jones & Co. and its crown jewel, the Wall Street Journal, was in danger of crashing. Murdoch was playing poker: to get the deal back on track, he had to threaten to walk–and mean it.”

He’s playing more than poker. In 2005, Murdoch outbid Viacom for MySpace at a price few thought it was worth, but soon he “looked like an Internet visionary,” Pooley tells us, as he told Murdoch himself. “‘I love being called that,’” Murdoch answers, “‘but the truth is, I’m just lucky and nimble.’” He “generates his own good fortune by being perhaps the most gifted opportunist in media,” echoes Pooley, calling him “the last of the true media moguls, the one who’s still building — grabbing Dow Jones, dreaming about trading MySpace for a big chunk of Yahoo!, trying to launch a Polish TV network. News Corp.’s voting stock, of which the Murdoch family owns 31%, has gone up 18% in the past year, making him worth $9 billion.”

“He lives like an old-fashioned tycoon too,” Pooley swoons, “hopscotching the planet on his 737 and recharging on his yacht off St. Tropez. Recent stop: London, where he got thrown from a horse (but didn’t break anything–too busy). His likeness was unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery and he threw a party in Kensington Gardens for 400 friends, including incoming British Prime Minister Gordon Brown….”

But what about those sins and sicknesses? Isn’t Murdoch a right-winger who’s corrupting news and public discourse? Naw, Pooley assures us:

“Murdoch isn’t a party-line guy. He’s a pragmatist. He likes strong politicians and change agents and winners;… he has supported moderates like Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton. But he has a stubborn populist streak, and his populism finds an outlet on Fox News, a channel that gives voice to angry middle-aged white guys.” Then Pooley lets Rupert himself do the spin: “‘[I]f you look at our general news, do we put on things which favor the right rather than the left? I don’t know…. We don’t think we do. We’ve always insisted we don’t. I don’t think we do. Aw, it’s subjective. Neither side admits it.’

“Has Murdoch just said what I think he said?” Pooley asks disingenuously. “Has he flirted with an admission that Fox News skews right?” Since we can’t respond to this phony question, he does: “If so, Murdoch quickly backs away. ‘We don’t think we do.’”

It’s Pooley who keeps backing away from glints of skepticism he musters for theatrical effect while setting up Murdoch’s responses with his soft-ball questions. Compare with New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. Noting that 60 percent of Americans have believed that Iraq and Al Qaeda were linked, that W.M. D. had been found, or that world public opinion favored the war with Iraq, Krugman reported that only 23 percent of PBS and NPR audiences “believed any of these untrue things, but the number was 80 percent among those relying primarily on Fox News…. [T]wo-thirds of Fox devotees believed that the U.S. had ‘found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the Al Qaeda terrorist organization.’”

Pooley doesn’t report that Murdoch became a U.S. citizen in 1985, to get around rules limiting foreign ownership. By my lights that makes him even more un-American than Dick Cheney for rousing 3500 young Americans to die in desert sands. But maybe citizenship is as marginal to the brave new world of conglomerate media as Columbus’ Italian-Jewish nationality was to the Spanish empire-builders Ferdinand and Isabella.

What about Murdoch’s degrading his news outlets? Krugman calls him “an opportunist who exploits a rule-free media environment — one created, in part, by conservative political power — by slanting news coverage to favor whoever he thinks will serve his business interests.” Now, there’s a conservatism the Journal’s editorial-page bat-heads champion, whatever their jitters about Murdoch’s telling them how to do it. And it’s what the paper’s brave news side has kept at bay. Again Pooley bobs and weaves: “Murdoch waves away the past and cuts to the heart of the matter: the Journal. ‘Why would I spend $5 billion for something in order to wreck it?’ he asks” – as does Pooley, who fleetingly acknowledges Rupert’s nasty record but just as quickly portrays the Journal as a basket case that only a market visionary like Murdoch could save.

Pooley glances at Murdoch’s phony populism but then veers back to calling him a bold explorer-inventor, unlike “sanctimonious” journalists – that word again, Pooley’s word – who still consider serious reporting the lifeblood of democracy. Murdoch’s own editors aren’t sanctimonious, of course; one of them throws Pooley their line: Murdoch may meddle, the editor allows, but “if he’s not interested, then where is the money going to come from…. if Dow Jones wants to grow globally?”

“Show me the money.” That shuts up most would-be do-gooders these days. But what if “growing globally,” like growing imperially, involves dying internally? What if only aroused republics can channel or limit that growth? What if that requires honest reporting? Pooley never asks, because Murdoch shows he tolerates only the doom-eager populism he pumped up for Iraq.

“‘Journalists should think of themselves as outside the Establishment, and owners can’t be too worried about what they’re told at their country clubs,’” quoth Rupert (a bit sanctimoniously). But he doesn’t mean it, and Pooley, realizing this, pretends to doubt him, calling him “the man who influences Prime Ministers and Presidents and still poses as a scrappy outsider.” But he adds just as quickly that “associates say he’s finally considering his legacy and wants to run the Journal impeccably to upgrade his reputation….”

Murdoch “scoffs at the notion. ‘I’m not looking for a legacy, and you’ll never shut up the critics. I’ve been around 50 years. When you’re a catalyst for change, you make enemies–and I’m proud of the ones I’ve got.’ Murdoch has invested billions in newspapers when few others were willing, but he has also kept them alive through a lowest-common denominator approach typified by the trashy Sun, with its topless Page 3 girls…. Murdoch wouldn’t be Murdoch if he didn’t love sticking it to sanctimonious J-school toffs. ‘When the Journal gets its Page 3 girls,’ he jokes late one night, ‘we’ll make sure they have M.B.A.s.’”

So, laugh it all off, okay? But notice, too, what you were supposed to have forgotten during Pooley’s pirouetting: By crowning Rupert an empire builder, however scrappy, he’s buried any thought that journalism must remain outside the establishment with anything more than the fake populism of war machines and of topless girls.

Pooley wheels in more apologists: “‘Those who say he’ll wreck the Journal are in for a surprise,’” a British professor of journalism tells him. “‘What they miss is that he really does distinguish between his tabloids and his serious papers…. At his serious papers, there’s much more of a discussion.’” Much more of a discussion? “‘There’s such a thing as a popular newspaper and an unpopular élite newspaper,’” Murdoch concurs. “‘They play different roles. We have both kinds. Just like we have the Fox network with American Idol and 24, and we also have the National Geographic Channel. It’s hard for outsiders to understand that.’”

Is it hard to understand that Fox does a lot more damage to the republic than National Geographic does good?

Pooley has given Murdoch his say as if he had no other way to be heard. But Rupert Murdoch is a liar, and Eric Pooley is his enabler. Everything in this profile, circling the globe in TIME’s foreign editions and online, is disingenuous and self-serving. You read lie after lie and wait for Pooley to challenge Murdoch’s credibility as Krugman did and as the Columbia Journalism Review did in an editorial on his promises not to ruin the Journal:

“A familiar fable tells of a scorpion that asks a frog to carry him across a river. The frog is sensibly fearful of getting stung. But the scorpion is persuasive, pointing out that if he stings the frog, they will both sink into the water and die. Why would he do such a thing? So the frog agrees. Midway across the stream, the scorpion stings. The dying frog asks: Why? It’s my nature, the scorpion explains…..

“We appreciate that the Bancrofts [the Journal’s owners] have come to realize that Dow Jones needs a fresh direction. And it is easy for outsiders to ask people to walk away from a $5 billion offer. But this is their moment in history. We hope they find a way to keep this American treasure away from Rupert Murdoch, who will smile even as he raises the stinger.”

Surely he’s smiling this morning. But let’s assume that for the first year after he takes over, Murdoch will pump more resources into the Journal than it has ever enjoyed, transform its outreach, and sustain its reportorial independence, just enough to get his critics on record saying they were wrong. Then the Journal will begin its inexorable, tawdry decline into a Murdochian half-life, complete with a fantastic position for Pooley.

I get an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” feeling watching the transformation of writers – Nicholas Lemann at The New Yorker, Ronald Brownstein at the Los Angeles Times — who used to care about reporting for a republican polity they apparently no longer believe in. It isn’t just Murdoch who has swept away their old coordinates as free citizens. A tidal wave of conglomerate consolidation and relentlessly strange and intrusive marketing has done that.

Joseph Schumpeter wrote about capitalism’s powers of “creative destruction;” Pooley names Murdoch one of the creators. What he can’t afford to tell us, or himself, is that tidal waves are awesome but meaninglessly destructive and that the empire builders riding them hurtle from the sublime to the ridiculous. Sooner or later, as Jonathan Schell demonstrates brilliantly in his The Unconquerable World, better people show them — as Ghandi did the British, King the American South, Mandela the Afrikaners, and Havel, Michnick and Walesa the Soviets — that empires aren’t really as strong as tidal waves, or as irresistible as democratic hopes.


3. Murdoch’s Apologists on Parade

History News Network, August 2, 2007

By Jim Sleeper |

Having lived through two monumentally wasteful American wars and the souffle-like collapse of several newspapers, I like to think myself tough-minded and knowledgeable in the ways of the world. But it never ceases to amaze me that the progenitors and captains of such calamities always come on as the tough realists and strong leaders – and often bow out that way, too — while convincing most people that it’s the dissenters who are naïve. Call it the anthropology of power: People don’t trust nay-sayers who have no capital or troops, and hence no cachet.

Noticing recently that one of my T-shirts was “Made in Vietnam,” I wondered if free-market powers would have defeated Hanoi’s socialism, for good or ill, without sending 50,000 young Americans and countless more Vietnamese to grisly deaths. At least Robert McNamara, the super-confident Secretary of Defense who computerized all that, admitted later he’d led us into a fog of war. But Henry Kissinger, who deepened that fog and folly, is unrepentant and often celebrated as the bearer of Metternichian wisdom.

Now comes a new parade of apologists and accommodators for Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of the Wall Street Journal. All’s well, they tell us, although, of course, we must watch Murdoch skeptically (and impotently) as he makes the paper’s journalism his own.

Never mind that 3700-plus young Americans have been blown to bits in desert folly in no small part because 80% of Murdoch’s Fox News viewers, who include watchers of all the TV sets at U.S. military facilities, believed war rationales that were lies. Never mind that they get their politics from watching Fox factotum Nick Cavuto yell at and dress down Senator Dick Durbin and other Democrats he is supposedly interviewing.

Never mind that Murdoch’s media, very much unlike the present Journal, kow-towed so shamelessly to China’s ugly Communist Party that he even dropped the BBC’s straightforward reporting from his satellite service there and cancelled publication of some “offensive” books. (Maybe that makes Murdoch a good Maoist!)

Never mind, because, last night, on the News Hour with Jim Lehrer, Norman Pearlstine, former managing editor of the Journal, reassured us — just as Murdoch himself assured TIME’s Eric Pooley — that he wouldn’t spend $5 billion to acquire the Journal if he intended to ruin it.

And George W. Bush wouldn’t have run for President if he’d intended to ruin government as we know it.

It matters how you define “ruin,” and the truth in both cases is that too few players and citizens have a civic-republican understanding of what makes journalism good or government strong. So we don’t begin to realize what’s at stake.

Some on the “worse is better” left don’t care what happens to the Journal because they’ve let its right-wing editorial pages blind them to the bravery and discipline that go into its news coverage of, say China, or, say, American poverty.

Even worse than the “Who cares?” crowd are soothsayers of the center, like Pearlstine and the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, who reminisces fondly this morning about his stint at the Journal but decides that it was dying, anyway: “People will bemoan what Murdoch does to the Journal, no matter what it is. They will say that he is killing a great newspaper. But the sad part of this story is that ‘the empire,’ as we reporters once liked to call it, was already dying — and that so many of its wounds were self-inflicted.”

Well, yes: Some newspapers that have been dying as venues for serious reporting, through no fault of their own amid conglomerate and technological upheaval, have found themselves with editors and writers whose consumerist pandering only makes those papers deserve the deaths they’re dying.

But not the Journal. The real reason for its travails is given by another soothsayer, this one an unreflective apostle of conglomerate capitalist logic. William Zabel, a trusts and estates lawyer, yesterday stepped right up for the captains of calamity (in this case, the Bancroft family members who sold the Journal to Murdoch) to tell New York Times readers that “The requirement for prudent investing by the trustees overrules the right to retain the Dow Jones stock. The lack of any competing offer would appear to make it legally unreasonable for them not to sell.”

Talk like that, untouched by dissenting analyses such as mine here, has a mind-freezing effect on most people, especially college students, who’ve barely heard of thinking that assigns citizens, and hence boardroom directors, a little more sovereignty over meaningless market riptides than Zabel ever would.

And if most citizens’ and opinion-makers’ minds are frozen like this, what can one expect of their political leaders? Well, this time even I found myself amazed to read in the Times on July 18 that “Mr. Murdoch’s potential stewardship of The Journal gained an unlikely endorsement yesterday, given both his and The Journal’s traditionally conservative politics. In an interview, former Vice President Al Gore defended Mr. Murdoch as someone who supports independent voices and keeps his word. Mr. Gore was referring to his own experience negotiating a contract to carry Current TV, a cable channel he helped found.

“Mr. Gore, who has spoken out against media consolidation by conglomerates like the News Corporation in the past, said that he was mainly concerned with ownership of broadcast outlets. ‘That’s an issue — but on the question of his openness to independent points of view, I want you to know that my experience has been that when he gave his word, he kept his word.’”

“That’s an issue” – it sounds like the reporter had to remind Gore what’s in his new book, The Assault on Reason, which I described here. But, hey, Murdoch kept his word to Al on a business deal, and that’s what counts in America today. And he’s gracious to Hillary Clinton, too.

I may as well close by covering my own rear like everyone else in this sorry parade. But I’ll do it only slightly. Contrary to what the “worse is better” crowd thinks, Murdoch’s Journal will probably get better before it gets worse. As I wrote here last month, “…let’s assume that for the first year after he takes over, Murdoch will pump more resources into the Journal than it has ever enjoyed, transform its outreach, and sustain its reportorial independence, just enough to get his critics on record saying they were wrong. Then the Journal will begin its inexorable, tawdry decline into a Murdochian half-life…”

My worry is that by then, few in our amnesiac, gullible former republic will notice what’s been lost. They’ll have forgotten what real journalism and good government are, anyway. Edward Gibbon’s description of how Rome seeded its own decay as a republic even at the peak of its felicity and power jumps right off the page these days. John Adams saw it coming here, too even in 1786, and warned us:

“‘Nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud’ is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of the people. When the people give way, their deceivers, betrayers, and destroyers press upon them so fast, that there is no resisting afterwards. The nature of the encroachment upon the American Constitution is such as to grow every day more and more encroaching…. The people grow less steady, spirited, and virtuous, the seekers more numerous and more corrupt, … until virtue, integrity, public spirit, simplicity, and frugality become the objects of ridicule and scorn, and vanity, luxury, foppery, selfishness, meanness, and downright venality swallow up the whole society.”

Good journalism bucks swift currents that run toward lassitude in republican vigilance and toward demagoguery as its alternative. Because breasting those currents isn’t profitable, it ‘s becoming harder and lonelier than ever, although publications like New York Times (which Murdoch will try to outfox with his new Journal) and the Columbia Journalism Review have been keeping the faith. These days, increasingly, a good reporter’s calling is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the journalists.

4. Murdoch and his enablers

The Guardian, August 7, 2007 |

Peddling half truths, mainstream media writers predict that Murdoch will protect the Wall Street Journal. Does the full truth stand a chance?

Jim Sleeper

Even before Rupert Murdoch won his bid for Dow Jones & Company and The Wall Street Journal last week, what Harper’s magazine former editor Lewis Lapham calls “the orchestra of high-minded opinion” could be heard tuning up for “This Is The Best of All Possible Worlds,” its familiar medley of hosannahs and half-truths. But now I’m hearing hoof beats as the parade of Murdoch’s apologists becomes a stampede, rivaling that of the run-up to the Iraq war.

Isn’t it time some little boy, or a Vaclav Havel, cried that the emperor has no clothes? Murdoch does rule an empire of sorts, but why not make him wield his power nakedly, stripped of the raiment of rationalisations which apologists such as Tony Blair’s spokesman Alastair Campbell, New York Times business columnist Joe Nocera, and Time magazine writer Eric Pooley are bestowing?

Their torrent of truisms runs like this: the Journal was declining anyway, because its Bancroft family owners were negligent and because upheavals in technology and investment have hurt even well-run newspapers. Murdoch surfs these tides brilliantly, a businessman first, a conservative only second. All owners influence their properties; besides, there’s no such thing as objectivity.

So why not let a hundred flowers bloom? While many are wilting, Rupert is planting, so why care about his fertiliser and his scent? ”[C]apitalism is built on the highest and best use of capital and [Murdoch] understands that. Money has no conscience,” an investment banker told The New York Times. We’re back to Adam Smith’s observation that it’s not through the benevolence of the butcher and the baker but through their self interest that we get a good dinner.

And, after all, how different is good reporting from good cooking?

Quite different. In a republic, informed citizens (including capitalists) are supposed to rise above narrow self interest occasionally and curb or even contravene some market forces to achieve public goods together that consumers and competing companies couldn’t achieve alone.

Ever since the US supreme court’s decision of 1886, in Santa Clara County v Southern Pacific Railway, huge, anonymously-owned corporations in America have enjoyed the legal status of “persons,” entitled to rights such as freedom of speech, even though, unlike citizens, they are bound by their charters to maximise profits above all. This is the trap the better Bancrofts tried but failed to escape, with grim consequences for republican freedom.

Enter good journalism, as the little boy, or as Havel, to face those consequences. The press is the only private enterprise recognised in the constitution – in the First Amendment – for its responsibility and privilege to use its powers of persuasion to rouse our better angels and our reason. It’s not supposed to stimulate fear and mistrust or to promote demagogic, decadent responses, as Murdoch’s news media do relentlessly.

Sure, he’s not the only one. But good business and partisanship can be especially poisonous in a bad but brilliant owner. Read reports that 80% of Fox News Channel viewers believed the lies that sent 3,700 young Americans to their deaths. Watch Fox’s Neil Cavuto yell at and dress down Senator Dick Durbin and other Democrats he’s supposedly interviewing.

”All newspapers are run to make profits. Full stop,” Murdoch told his biographer William Shawcross. But, too often, big corporations use “their growing wealth to improperly influence government to distort markets to their advantage, eroding trust in markets themselves,” as Dean Starkman put it in his blog, The Audit at the Columbia Journalism Review. It’s a story Murdoch’s News Corporation “is quite incapable of covering,” Starkman adds, “because… that’s what it does… to gain an advantage over other actors unwilling to do the wrong thing.”

He gives chilling chapter and verse, as have others. Why doesn’t the full truth make a dent in the apologists’ half truths? Why don’t they admit that a lot of information on blogs depends on the hard work of full time journalists whom newspapers pay and protect to report with courage, discipline and high standards? Only a few newspapers do that, and – its speculator-worshipping, fact-challenged editorials aside – the Wall Street Journal has been one of them.

The Journal’s news pages have “led great campaigns against gun proliferation, the cigarette lobby, predatory practices in the fast food industry, pharmaceutical jiggery-pokery, government bond auction-rigging, the abuse of human rights in China, options back-dating practices,” and more, writes the economist David Warsh at economicprincipals.com.

He calls the Journal’s news pages “a church for a certain kind of knowledgeable, fair and balanced reporting, … the tradition for which the reporter Daniel Pearl laid down his life in Pakistan, …. pursuing a difficult matter where it led, in the hope of ultimately helping to govern a nitty-gritty republic of fairness…”

A Journal reporter told me last week that “Murdoch doesn’t have the instincts to sustain something as fragile as the Journal’s late-night pangs of guilt, second guessing and self doubt that keep journalists honest and on the ball.”

But let’s give the new emperor a fig leaf: at first, he’ll pump more resources into the Journal, expand its reach, and sustain serious reporting – until he gets his critics on record saying they were wrong. Then the Journal will begin its inexorable, tawdry decline into a Murdochian half-life, promoting Rudy Giuliani or Fred Thompson for president, all the time.

When that happens, I’ll ask the apologists why they couldn’t wait a year before easing Murdoch’s way with their hosannahs and half-truths.

5. Dissent Magazine:


It’s Not Just a Scandal, It’s a Syndrome

Jim Sleeper, July 20, 2011

The news media’s obsession with an attempted “pie-in-the face” attack on Rupert Murdoch at yesterday’s parliamentary hearing has a lot in common with its focus on the allegations of phone-hacking, police payoffs, and political intimidation by Murdoch’s News Corporation: The scandal is almost as irrelevant as the “pie” assault to the real danger facing the public sphere–not the crimes, but the perfectly legal kind journalism that prompted them.

Recently a former student of mine told me how a much higher standard of journalism had been impressed upon him when he was starting out as a reporter for the pre-Murdoch Wall Street Journal in 2005. A news editor emphasized to him the importance of “making that last call” to a person he was writing about to make sure that the story would be fair as well as right.

“Never forget,” the editor said, “you may be this guy’s last judge and jury in the court of public opinion. Once the story’s launched, he’ll have no clear court of appeal.”

To which my student added a year later, as Murdoch was acquiring the paper, “Murdoch doesn’t have the instincts to sustain something as fragile as the old Journal‘s late-night pangs of guilt, second guessing, and self-doubt that keep journalists honest and on the ball.”

Serious journalism does require “making that last call,” even to an elusive or nearly forgotten person on one’s list. It means climbing a tenement’s stairs a third time to see what may have changed, or catching the look on an administrator’s face the instant you pop your question.

A good journalist brings that depth of commitment to a story, along with the appropriate contextual information, public memory, and reportorial skill. When a reporter from the German magazine Der Spiegel told me in 2003 that Fox News reporters in Baghdad had borrowed sandbags from American soldiers and piled them on the roof of their hotel to stage an on-camera impression that they were reporting from a battle elsewhere, I was reminded that Murdoch’s News Corporation isn’t so interested in serious journalism.

No large news organization in the world, in fact—at least none that’s as large as or larger than those influenced by Vladimir Putin in Russia or Silvio Berlusconi in Italy or the Communist Party in China—tries as brazenly as Murdoch’s globe-straddling News Corporation to generate and even fabricate news or to subvert good reporting of news so cynically and powerfully—and hurtfully, to both its subjects and its audiences.

Sure, all journalism is only a rough draft of history. And its drafting can be compromised by any news organization that’s market-driven enough to reach past its readers’ and viewers’ brains and hearts toward their lower viscera on its way to their wallets. But no other news organization has matched Murdoch’s lust to capitalize on large audiences’ susceptibility to being groped—and, yes, to “enjoy” it.

By playing on this all-too-human temptation to displace our hopes and fears onto celebrities and scapegoats, Murdoch’s journalism accelerates self-fulfilling prophecies of civic decay in every body politic it touches. It reduces citizens to consumers and then blames them for their discontent: “People wouldn’t buy what he’s selling if they didn’t want it. If you don’t like it, switch the channel, buy a different paper!” said a student in the Yale seminar I teach on journalism, liberalism, and democracy.

Murdoch himself couldn’t have said it better. “All newspapers are run to make profits. Full stop,” Murdoch told his biographer William Shawcross. We’re back to Adam Smith’s much-loved aperçu that it’s not the benevolence of the butcher and the baker that gives us a good dinner but their self-interest, and ours. And, really now, how different is reporting from cooking?

Quite different, as Britons have recently been reminded. News organizations owe citizens a lot more than whatever they can induce them to want to “buy.”

The currents Murdoch is riding are even more powerful and dangerous than he is. The scandals involving phone-hacking, police-bribing, and politician-intimidating that are now engulfing his News Corporation are only symptoms of a syndrome, familiar throughout history, in which certain leaders artfully titillate, frighten, and stampede polities that seem ripe for it.

Thucydides chronicled it in ancient Athens. And in Edward Gibbon’s telling, the Roman republic succumbed to its first emperor, Augustus, because he understood that “the Senate and the people would submit to slavery, provided they were respectfully assured that they still enjoyed their ancient freedom.”

The founders of our own republic, reading Gibbon’s account (then hot off the presses), worried that their new republic would end not with a coup but a dictator’s smile and swagger if the people became so tired of the burdens of self-government that they could be either jollied along or intimidated into servitude, or both.

Ben Franklin warned that the Constitution “can only end in Despotism as other Forms have done before it, when the People shall have become so corrupted as to need Despotic Government, being incapable of any other.”

How might that happen? “History does not more clearly point out any fact than this, that nations which have lapsed from liberty to…slavish subjection have been brought to this unhappy condition by gradual paces,” wrote founder Richard Henry Lee.

And Alexander Hamilton founded the New York Post in 1801 because he saw a need for information and commentary to help Americans “decide the important question,” as he’d put it in 1787, “whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.”

In 1977—after Hamilton’s New York Post had had some distinguished editors, including the poet William Cullen Bryant and my cousin, the crusading liberal journalist James Wechsler–Rupert Murdoch, looking to grope a new body politic, bought the paper. He began answering Hamilton’s question loudly by turning the Post into a daily reminder that his native Australia and been founded not as republic but as a penal colony.

The more Murdoch has profited by stroking and stoking people’s inclinations to fear, mistrust, and resent one another instead of lifting their sights and reminding them they can till common ground, the more he’s subverted our founders’ efforts and hopes.

That’s why, even if his minions had never hacked a phone, bribed or intimidated a police officer or politician, or broken any other law, everyone who cherishes a republic, here or in Britain, should by now have used their own freedom of speech to denounce and discredit him and public officials who enable and fawn over him.

The solution isn’t to curb Murdoch’s freedoms of speech, with regulations on “the press” as such. But citizens and news organizations that still have a civic mission can certainly press one another and our political leaders, whom Murdoch has controlled by stampeding too many of their constituents, to withdraw the discretionary waivers and other indirect subsidies that facilitate his growing domination, if not monopolization, of public speech .