Homer Simpson has what the Bancroft family wants for the Wall Street Journal—editorial independence.

Media criticism.
July 13 2007 4:04 PM

Homer Simpson Has What the Bancrofts Want

Editorial independence.

Homer Simpson. Click image to expand.
The Simpsons

When the Bancroft family said "no" to Rupert Murdoch's $5 billion offer to buy their Dow Jones & Co. property in the spring, they actually meant "yes." After Murdoch opened his wallet, the Bancrofts started negotiating guarantees of "editorial independence" for company flagship the Wall Street Journal as a precondition for a sale. Rightly, the rotten old bastard has chaffed at the Bancrofts dictating the future operation of a property for which he's willing to pay an above-market rate.

Editorial independence may be rare in Murdoch's News Corp. empire, but it's not unheard-of. For example, if News Corp. employees toe the shifting Murdoch line, they're granted all the editorial independence they can carry on their stooped backs. Or, if they're the inventors and proprietors of a phenomenally successful News Corp. property—such as The Simpsons—Murdoch and his minions know well enough to keep hands off.

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In an oral history of the show published in the August Vanity Fair, cartoonist Art Spiegelman remembers that he begged show creator Matt Groening not to work for Murdoch's Fox network. "They're gangsters!" Spiegelman told Groening.

But protected by the "titanium shield" of writer-producer-director James L. Brooks (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Taxi, Terms of Endearment), The Simpsons was exempted from Fox control. "The studio might get upset and they might make notes, but we didn't have to take them unless Brooks said we had to take them," says Brad Bird, an early supervising director of the show and director of The Incredibles and Ratatouille.

The show quickly became a hit, and the staff flexed its power. "Why do we have to change it? We're The Simpsons," an über alles-esque motto attributed by interviewee Colin Lewis to David Mirkin, who ran the show in seasons five and six. "We're in control because they want their hit show, and I will get to Saturday night and I won't deliver them a show, and then they will have to air what I give them," Mirkin is credited with saying.

If only the Wall Street Journal could retool itself as a successful animated sitcom before Murdoch takes over …

One of the joys of writing about Murdoch is that you never go wanting for material. Last night, while searching news databases for a different subject, I stumbled across a 1984 Wall Street Journal article by Jane Mayer, now a staff writer at The New Yorker, about how Murdoch uses his publications for personal gain. Mayer writes:

After [Murdoch] bought the New York Post in 1976, the paper was blatantly supportive of Hugh Carey's bid for reelection as New York's governor. After his election, Mr. Carey's administration granted a multimillion-dollar contract to run the state's keno and lotto lottery operations to Leisure Systems Inc., whose chairman was Mr. Murdoch. State and company officials denied any quid pro quo.

The lotto license was subsequently revoked when Mario Cuomo became governor in 1982. Mr. Cuomo, who also declines to be interviewed for this story, had been consistently opposed by the New York Post. Murray Kempton, a former Post columnist who now writes for Newsday, a Long Island, N.Y., newspaper, says, "They expected Cuomo to be vengeful, and he was. They were in shape by that time to make a lot of money on lotto, but he took away what Carey had given them."

"Baloney!" says Mr. [Roger] Wood, the Post executive editor, about both allegations.

In 1980, an Australian airline owned in part by Murdoch applied for a $290 million loan from the federal Export-Import Bank of the United States. Mayer continues:

The loan request was made the day Mr. Murdoch had lunch at the White House with Jimmy Carter. Three days later, the Post endorsed Mr. Carter in the New York Democratic primary. Four days after that, the loan was approved. A congressional investigation found no impropriety but criticized the Export-Import bank for acting too hastily.

Mayer talks to Jack Newfield, then a columnist at the Village Voice, then owned by Murdoch—but one property that he never tamed. Newfield speaks thorns over Murdoch's habit of using his outlets to push his political views. "He doesn't have to come into the newsroom and personally slant stories. Reporters anticipate his needs—like Russia under Stalin," Newfield says.

Murdoch Street Journal reporters, there are your future options: Write it funny or write it like Pravda.

Addendum, 5:40 p.m.: Reader Alan Vanneman directs my attention to the June 2007 Playboy interview with Matt Groening in which Groening explains that the show's freedom is not absolute.

Groening: Fox News gives me a headache and not even so much for its political content but the spinning logos and American flags and music designed to scare you shitless. Who needs it? We make fun of Fox News on the show. The most fun we had was putting a news crawl like theirs across the bottom of the screen. It said things like "Rupert Murdoch: terrific dancer," "Brad Pitt plus Albert Einstein equals Dick Cheney," "Study: 92 percent of Democrats are gay," "The Bible says Jesus favored capital gains cut."

Playboy: What was the reaction at the network?

Groening: We were forbidden ever to do it again. Fox said it would confuse viewers. I don't see how you would think it's real news on a cartoon show, but we'll see.

******

Isn't comparing Murdoch to Stalin unfair? I mean, unfair to Stalin. Send Murdoch musings to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (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. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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