BY the time Rupert Murdoch placed his bid for the Wall Street Journal he had earned an indelible reputation of a man who put business ahead of idealism and as a media baron, nay mogul, he had no compunctions about deflecting journalistic ethics for earning more power and money. And so, when his ‘preoccupation’ with buying the WSJ was made official, there was a sense of disbelief. For, WSJ as a family enterprise had stood for certain values, where journalists and editors enjoyed freedom, unhampered by the owners.
The disparate Bancroft family, a motely crowd of around 35 people that owned the WSJ, made a meek attempt to retain some say in the paper, by way of two seats in the board and a say in the appointment of the editor. But the fact is they sold and sold to Murdoch.
The fascinating events that preceded the selling of “the most powerful business paper in the most powerful city in the most powerful country in the world” have been narrated by Sarah Ellison, who worked in the WSJ and reported on the takeover, in her book War at the Wall Street Journal: Inside the Struggle to Control an American Business Empire.’ The inside story is nothing less than a novel plot, with several cross-cultural and business interests and betrayals working towards the five billion dollar deal.
The rival New York Times, commenting on the takeover said “The Times and the Journal have reported extensively about Mr. Murdoch’s meddling in his media properties: How he reneged on his promise of editorial independence for the Times of London and how, to curry favor with China’s leaders, his satellite broadcaster, Star TV, stopped carrying news from the BBC… The best way for Mr. Murdoch to protect his $5 billion investment is to protect the Journal’s editorial quality and integrity.”
The actual takeover story begins with a secret meeting in 2002 between Murdoch and the future CEO of WSJ Richard Zannino, who was an ‘outsider’ new in the media office. He had been a financial analyst in an apparel business previously. He did not know the Bancrofts and much less the journalists. He played a catalytic role in the entire deal, walking away with huge money.
The Bancroft family was divided over the selling of WSJ. A majority supported the sale, what with Murdoch offering $60 a share, when the Dow Jones shares were hovering at mid-30s for several years. A few opposed the sale. The only person who was dead against it before and after was Leslie Hill, who had supported Zannino to become the CEO in the hope that he would strengthen and lead the WSJ. Leslie deeply disliked Murdoch. She tried to stall the sale citing a number of letters she had received from journalists at the Journal.
Writing about the meeting between Murdoch and the senior editors in the Journal, post the takeover, Sarah says “Despite the fact that they were top editors at the premier business publication in the world, many of the assembled had few options to find jobs outside the paper. Journalism was a shrinking field…This crowd was a captive work force. At another time they may have faced their new owner with a righteous protest, but that kind of romantic resistance was a luxury they could no longer afford. That Friday morning in January, they were meek, easily disheartened and scared. They were auditioning for the jobs they already had.” A very poignant description.
As was widely expected, Murdoch started interfering with the content, coverage and the appearance of news in the WSJ. He eased out the managing editor, who had worked for that job for almost a quarter century with a ‘golden handshake.’ If ‘respectability’ is what he was hoping to get in buying the Journal, it escaped him. Ever since he tookover, the WSJ was out of race for the Pulitzer Prize. In the previous ten years, the paper had won at least one Pulitzer in all but two years. A pointed remark is made by Sarah “As Noah Cross said in Chinatown: “Politicians, ugly buildings, and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.” He could have added newspaper baron.” That one comment speaks volumes on how the takeover of Wall Street Journal by Rupert Murdoch was viewed in circles that had an opinion and an ideal.
Sarah Ellison has recounted with deep sensitivity the story of the inside war that went on in the WSJ and the immediate consequences of that on the world of American journalism. The sale and purchase of the Journal was not a mere corporate story. It was the death of a newspaper. The number of subscribers may be going up (including the paid on-line versions). But more is not always better.
Staying objective, the author has managed to avoid taking sides blatantly or bantering either side. She has exposed the players in the plot for what they are. A gripping book that needs to be read by all those who value freedom of the media, in an era when paid news is making scandals and the line dividing the proprietor and editor is fast eroding. An admirable narrative.
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 215, Park Avenue South, New York, New York 10003)