Nobody in journalism plays it straighter than the Wall Street Journal.
Whenever the newspaper publishes a story about CNBC, for example, its stylebook dictates that the writers disclose the business relationship its parent company—Dow Jones & Co.—has with the channel (it provides CNBC with news content). Similar language appears in stories about Hearst Corp., which publishes SmartMoney in a co-venture with Dow Jones.
And whenever the Journal reports on itself or on Dow Jones, a gigantic boilerplate sentence descends by story's end to describe the company's profile. For example, in a June 26 Wall Street Journal piece about News Corp.'s efforts to acquire Dow Jones, the story ended with this familiar disclosure:
Dow Jones publishes the Wall Street Journal and its international and online editions, Barron's, the Far Eastern Economic Review, MarketWatch, Dow Jones Indexes and the Ottaway group of community newspapers. Dow Jones owns Factiva and co-owns SmartMoney with Hearst Corp. It also provides news content to CNBC television operations world-wide and to radio stations in the U.S.
Now imagine those same editorial standards applied in the event that Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. acquires Dow Jones. The humongous boilerplate would go a little like this:
News Corp. publishes the Wall Street Journal and its international and online editions, Barron's, the Far Eastern Economic Review, MarketWatch, Dow Jones Indexes, and the Ottaway group of community newspapers. News Corp. owns Factiva and co-owns SmartMoney with Hearst Corp. News Corp. owns 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight, Fox Broadcasting Company, MyNetworkTV, Fox Sports Australia, television stations of the Fox Broadcasting Group, as well as stations in Eastern Europe and other cable channels around the world. News Corp. owns or has large holdings in the satellite broadcasters DirecTV, STAR, BSkyB, Foxtel, and Sky Italia. News Corp. owns or has large holdings in a dozen cable channels, including Fox News Channel, FX, Speed, Fox Reality, Fox Sports Net, Fox Movie Channel, Fuel TV, and the National Geographic Channel. News Corp. owns two dozen newspapers around the world. News Corp. owns or has large holdings in the Weekly Standard, Gemstar-TV Guide International, and many magazines. News Corp. owns MySpace, FoxSports.com, and many other Web sites. News Corp. owns HarperCollins Publishers, Zondervan books, MySpace Records, and News Outdoor Group (billboards). News Corp. has a large holding in the National Rugby League. News Corp. also owns businesses too obscure to describe here, such as Broadsystem ("Closer contact. Great insight."), Milkround, and NDS.
News Corp.'s Dow Jones subsidiary also provides news content to CNBC television operations worldwide and to radio stations in the United States—but News Corp. intends to sever the relationship as soon as possible and transfer Wall Street Journal news content to the soon-to-be-launched Fox Business Channel, wholly owned by News Corp.
Presently, the Wall Street Journal doesn't run a disclosure every time it cites a CNBC show or makes a passing mention of a publication or business that competes with Dow Jones. So there's no obvious reason why a News Corp.-owned Journal would have to disclose its parent company's holdings if it mentioned Facebook, a movie from Paramount Pictures, a book from Random House, a show on NBC, the New York Daily News, LexisNexis, ESPN, Comcast, the Dish Network, or any of the thousands of companies that directly compete with News Corp.
But common sense would dictate the inclusion of some sort of rider in full-fledged news stories about News Corp. competitors. My rough estimate indicates that upwards of a dozen News Corp. competitors make Journal-worthy news each day. According to today's (July 11) "Index of Business," which appears on Page B2 daily, there are three mentions of News Corp. in the paper. Would Murdoch continue to alert readers to the Journal's potential conflicts of interest in his coverage?
If he did, would it make any difference? I've argued repeatedly that a Murdoch-owned Journal would be a journalistic disaster because wherever Murdoch goes on the planet, he uses his enterprises to advance his personal interests and his business interests. So, my guess is that no, he wouldn't disclose News Corp.'s conflicts. Dean Starkman takes a more radical position than mine. Writing in early May for the Columbia Journalism Review Web site, he declared that the News Corp. offer spelled "the end of Dow Jones," and continued:
When this is over, there will be no independent publisher of the nation's foremost—really only—watchdog of the capital markets, corporate behavior, and regulators' conduct. Who's going to cover News Corp.?
Business Week's Jon Fine disputed Starkman (and continues to do so), puncturing the anti-Murdoch hysterics to insist that there are plenty of media properties to take up the slack—Bloomberg News, Forbes, Fortune, the Economist, CNBC, Business Week, the Financial Times, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Condé Nast Portfolio, and others.
That's a good point. But where Fine fails is in believing that Murdoch wouldn't buy the Journal just to destroy it. He fails to recognize that rotten old bastard won't be able to keep himself from defiling the paper. It's in his nature to contaminate his own wells. As experienced Journal reporters and editors leave or are driven out, their replacements will owe their allegiance to Murdoch and Murdoch's people. Will they bring to news coverage the impartiality we've come to expect from the Journal? Or will they pull and duck punches on his behalf? Will they skew stories about Viacom and Condé Nast and China to please the well-known views of their master? You betcha. I can't recall any News Corp. employee who got a raise or a promotion after undermining the Murdoch empire's interests with an honest, accurate story.
Murdoch's Wall Street Journal will fail in the marketplace because readers of financial journalism are a bright, skeptical lot who will refuse to accept his interests, prejudices, and standards as their own. The upside of the Murdoch acquisition—which now looks likely—is that his tenure will serve to revitalize American financial journalism as Journal readers decamp in search of a credible replacement.
How long do you reckon you'll read the Murdoch Street Journal before you cancel your subscription? Send predictions to firstname.lastname@example.org. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co., which also owns Newsweek, a cable system, a few Web properties, six TV stations, and a money-making machine called Kaplan Inc.)