(2 of 4)
All of which raises a question: What does a restless septuagenarian moving headlong into the digital age want with a somewhat beaten-down media property like Dow Jones, which over the years has misplayed some juicy opportunities to sell financial information in the digital world? Others may look at Dow Jones and see an excellent, world-renowned (though economically stagnant) print newspaper with a successful subscription-only website; Murdoch sees the engine of a global, interactive, multiplatform business-and-finance network that will drive his soon-to-be-launched Fox Business Channel, power up his 24-hour Sky News channel in Europe and fuel a still inchoate collection of online financial services. "We've got to lift our game tremendously," he says. "We'll sell our business news and information in print, we'll sell it to anyone who's got a cable system, and we'll sell it on the Web." Says News Corp. president Peter Chernin: "There are millions of people throughout the world joining the financial class, and the Journal is the premier financial brand. We have the size and international strength to monetize it globally." The Fox Business Channel, which will compete with CNBC, makes spending $5 billion for Journal "an easy justification," Murdoch says. "It almost ensures the price is worth paying." The electronic rationale helped him persuade some skeptical colleagues, who thought Wall Street might punish News Corp.'s stock for bidding so much for a newspaper company. (It didn't.)
In financial terms, Dow Jones is a simple deal. The $5 billion price tag is easily absorbed by a company that earned $2.3 billion on sales of $25.3 billion last year and has little debt. But if the financials are simple, everything else about the deal is complicated. "The price of the Journal," says Murdoch, "is $60 plus vitriol."
Ironically, his quest for the Journal has helped set back Murdoch's reputation 30 years, to a time when he first took aim at the U.S. after having conquered pieces of Britain's Fleet Street newspaper establishment. In 1976 he bought the failing, family-owned liberal New York Post and solemnly pledged to "maintain its present policies and traditions." Then he yanked it hard right and down-market.
Today the notion of this tabloid terror controlling the world's leading business journal is being met with ferocious opposition in many quarters of the American media. 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, its editorial pages are already more conservative than Murdoch.
Some remarkable stuff has been exhumed--like the time in 1984 (recently dug up in Slate) when Murdoch was trying to take over Warner Communications (now part of Time Warner, as is TIME) and ordered three New York Post reporters to investigate Warner boss Steve Ross--not for the newspaper but to help Murdoch's lawyer depose Ross. ("I don't recall it," Murdoch says, "But if we did it, we were wrong.") Or the time in 1994 when his Asian satellite system, StarTV, dropped the BBC--a constant irritant to Beijing--from its station roster. (Murdoch insists it was done for business reasons, not to curry favor with the regime.) Or the time in 1998 when he ordered his book-publishing unit, HarperCollins, to spike a memoir by Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong and an unpopular figure with the Chinese government. "I was probably in the wrong there too," says Murdoch. "It's been a long career, and I've made some mistakes along the way. We're not all virgins."
With so many overlapping political, business and journalistic enterprises, he suggests, some conflicts are inevitable. "All these things come out of the woodwork! There are so many things going on. Half of this stuff I don't hear about until I read it in the paper." But 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.
Some of those who know him well suggest that the mainstream media caricatures him. "Murdoch has been overdemonized in much of this news coverage--some of it is every bit as lacking in objectivity as his papers are accused of being," says British media critic Roy Greenslade, a professor of journalism at London's City University who writes for the left-leaning Guardian in Britain. "Those who say he'll wreck the Journal are in for a surprise. What they miss is that he really does distinguish between his tabloids and his serious papers," says Greenslade, who has worked at both the Murdoch tabloid Sun and the Murdoch broadsheet Sunday Times. "At his tabloids, Rupert's word is treated as the word of God. At his serious papers, there's much more of a discussion."
His best editors know how to keep him interested but at arm's length. "He knows where the limits are," says the editor of the Times of London, Robert Thomson. "And if he's not interested, then where is the money going to come from? Where else is the money going to come from if Dow Jones wants to grow globally?"
Murdoch cheerfully admits to meddling with his tabloids. "They're different animals," he says. "You've got to make people want to read 'em. They've got to have some fun and a bit of edge. Agendas up to a point, and certainly crusades. But I don't call all those shots. I haven't got the time." He doesn't need to dictate or micromanage because he chooses editors who broadly agree with him. That's not unusual in the newspaper business. Some papers are allowed to diverge--the Sunday Times skews conservative, the Times of London more moderate.
So let's stipulate that the only thing to prevent Murdoch from wrecking the Journal will be Murdoch himself. (No editorial-oversight committee can stop him.) And let's admit the possibility that he may not be the same scorpion at 76 that he was at 51. He has always said that craving respectability is the beginning of the end for a journalist. "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," says the man who influences Prime Ministers and Presidents and still poses as a scrappy outsider. Yet his associates say he's finally considering his legacy and wants to run the Journal impeccably to upgrade his reputation. "He's thinking about his obit," says someone who knows him well.