Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

19 July 2007

The Bancrofts’ Big Decision

One of the most poignant things I have read recently is yesterday’s New York Times report about Rupert Murdoch’s imminent takeover of the Wall Street Journal.

For obvious reasons, the Journal’s reporters can’t comment freely, at least not if they’d like to keep their position, salary and internal credibility if Murdoch wins. So their colleagues at the Times—competitors in the profession but comrades in professionalism—gave them voice. Under the guise of “interviewing” them, the Times reporters allowed their colleagues at the Journal to say what they really think, mostly anonymously.

Murdoch’s buyout is now moving toward completion. The Bancroft family, which controls the Journal’s stock, hold its fate in their hands. The reporters, of course, know what is really going on, but they just can’t say. So the Times article quoted an anonymous reporter’s final plea:
    “We understand that for the Bancrofts this is a choice between getting much richer, and holding onto something because they believe in it[.] What they may not realize is that many of us in the newsroom have made the same choice. There are a lot of people here who could be traders or lawyers, people with M.B.A.’s, who could be making a lot more money. To us, this is not an abstract choice.”

As these words make clear, the Bancrofts’ decision is about far more than the media business, let alone a routine corporate acquisition. American journalism’s core values of objectivity, accuracy and balanced perspective are at stake.

These days they seem like such a puny thing. Letting the millions see straight, hear straight, and maybe even think straight sounds so abstract, so utopian. No one is ever going to man the barricades for that principle. You might as well expect street demonstrations for centrism and moderation.

It’s also not as if we haven’t seen the like of Murdoch before. About a century ago, William Randolph Hearst bought up a media empire and used it to build his own political power. He stamped his imperial vision on our national policy, anointing presidents and influencing international affairs.

Remember the Spanish-American War? That was Hearst’s war, trumped up by his newspaper chain’s imperial vision of America.

The result didn’t seen so bad at the time. Teddy Roosevelt had a nice romp up San Juan Hill that helped make him president. We took possession of Cuba and the Philippines.

But from the perspective of a century, the results don’t seem too good. We didn’t handle Cuba well. Eventually, it fell to Castro. It gave us the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis that came within minutes of destroying our nation and much of the Earth’s biosphere. Its megalomanic dictator has outlived nine of our presidents and is on track to outlast a tenth. As for the Phillippines, they could be worse, and they could be better. But in over a century we’ve done little to cure the Christian-Muslim divide that is their most bitter and intractable problem.

Ultimately, the Spanish-American War was folly because it was not in our national character. We are not an imperial people. None of our core values points that way. Yet Hearst’s yellow journalism tempted us to dip our toes in imperial waters, and we’ve been suffering for doing so ever since.

Doesn’t this sound familiar? Could the neocons have sold us the War in Iraq so easily without the help of Murdoch’s Fox News? Could George W. Bush even have become president without Fox News? If you think so, go back and review how close the 2000 race was, not just in Florida, but in Ohio, New Mexico and so many other states.

I’ve been to see the Hearst Castle at least three times now (I’ve lost track). It’s in California’s high coastal hills just below Monterey. It’s an extraordinary sight for any American to see. Our Constitution explicitly forbids titles and nobility. Yet Hearst’s castle is as grand, as big and opulent as any foreign king’s. In fact, it’s got rooms bought from foreign castles and rebuilt here on our land stone by stone. Once Hearst had made his presidents and his war, he retired there in splendor to preside over his media empire and Hollywood parties.

What’s interesting is what even Hearst didn’t think to do. Hollywood for him was an afterthought and an amusement. He invited actors, actresses, writers and producers up to his castle mostly to play. He hadn’t yet conceived how valuable they might be to his propaganda juggernaut.

Rupert Murdoch took up where Hearst left off. Unlike Hearst, he saw how fuzzy is the line between news and entertainment. Like Kim Jong Il, who wistfully kidnapped actors from South Korea and Japan, Murdoch understood the power of both “guided” fact and molded fiction. So his media empire accumulated both.

When Bush said “we make our own reality,” most of us laughed. We laughed uneasily, but we laughed. Nobody should be laughing at Murdoch. With the largest media empire ever accumulated under one man, he does have the power to make reality, at least for his growing worldwide audience. Orwell’s Big Brother had nothing on him.

Like elections, media ownership has consequences. With are now in the seventh year of the most disastrously failed presidency in our history. We are now in the fifth year of a horrible and endless war that, just like the Spanish-American war, yellow journalism helped start and maintain. No one who has followed the news and the media for the last fifteen years can doubt that Murdoch and his media empire are at least partly responsible for the Bush Administration’s excesses and its persistent illusion of invulnerability.

Of course Murdoch sounds reasonable in business meetings. Of course he promises to respect the Journal’s integrity as a news organization. Of course he’ll put in place procedures to support reporters’ rights to report fairly. The effective iron fist always conceals itself in the velvet glove.

But what will happen after the deal closes? Will we have “journalism in our time”? Or will Murdoch do what he has always done: bend the news to his will and his narrow vision of an imperial America and a West that succeeds by military domination? No piece of paper can stop a man as wily and determined as Murdoch from doing what he wants to do.

A century or two ago, Murdoch would have made a colorful and perhaps even an admirable figure. He would have out-Hearsted Hearst. He might have been a great general or an imperial plotter like Disraeli or Metternich. His nimble, opportunistic and acquisitive mind would have helped enhance the map of whatever imperial nation he had been born into.

But imperial days are gone, and Murdoch is an anachronism. The world is simply to big, too diverse, too crowded and too full of weapons of mass destruction, with more to come. For the first time ever, mankind is straining the physical boundaries of our planet. We need business and political leaders skilled in reason, diplomacy, technology, and compromise, not swashbucklers like Murdoch.

What’s true of civilization generally is true of journalism in a microcosm. We don’t need folks who make their own reality. We need folks who take care to understand and inform us accurately of the reality that exists.

Here in America, we can’t do without the remaining national media businesses that still believe in a reality outside the minds of the famous and powerful. There are only three left: the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post.

It may not seem so bad if only one of them goes, but they are our last three. Television newsrooms are shadows of their former selves. They depend on reporters from these three great newspapers and on indepenendent services just to gather the facts and tell them what stories to cover. From here on in, every battle for objectivity counts.

The Bancrofts may not fully appreciate it, but their decision is not just about media business or the value of their stock. It is about civilization in our nation. With Murdoch’s huge empire dominant abroad and in China, it’s also about civilization in the wider world. The Bancrofts can help keep civilization on the track of reason and reality by tightening their belts and just saying no.

That’s a lot to ask, but a lot’s at stake. Their decision will tell us much about our long-term prospects for survival, as a nation and as a species. No nation or organism that can’t see clearly what is going on around it survives for long.

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