Say what you want about Rupert Murdoch, but the man certainly knows how to make news. His bid for Dow Jones two days ago – despite being initially rejected by Dow Jones’ controlling family — is still reverberating through media, financial, and political circles.
From the start, the proposed deal came under a hail of criticism. That is in itself unsurprising. Murdoch is so unpopular that any acquisition would be roundly condemned. If he tried to buy a ham sandwich for lunch that would be condemned.
But isn’t this a debate over media concentration, not just Murdoch? Anti-media consolidation activists, of course, have trotted out all the usual concentration-of-power arguments. The media market has been called a monopoly, an oligopoly, and every other type of poly that can be found in Greek dictionaries. But these arguments have sounded even more hollow than usual. There’s little overlap between Dow Jones and Murdoch’s News Corporation. Dow Jones owns newspapers – mostly small ones and one really big one – but has no broadcast holdings. News Corporation owns TV stations but only one newspaper in the U.S.
And it’s hard to find any market where either firm dominates. Dow Jones is (according to the Center for Public Integrity) only the sixth largest newspaper firm. News Corporation is number one in TV broadcasting, but in TV programming it is only ninth. Perhaps more importantly, broadcasting and newspapers are both declining markets (Broadcast ratings dropped precipitously last year, while newspaper circulation continued a more orderly decline). News Corporation and Dow Jones – whether separate or together – have no stranglehold on media markets.
The real controversy here stems more from politics than economics. The left still feels the sting of Murdoch’s Fox News, which broke up the comfortable center-left consensus of mainstream media. And it isn’t about to let Murdoch expand even further. (Even to outlets such as the Journal which are – editorially at least – already conservative.) For this reason, there’s already talk of pulling out all possible legislative and regulatory stops to block any Murdoch deal. The prospect of any such action – based on the political views of a particular news outlet — should send a chill through the spine of anyone who believes in a free press.
This is not all about politics, though. Quite a bit of the angst over Murdoch’s bid comes from Murdoch’s undeniably sensationalistic journalistic style, which couldn’t be more different that relentlessly substantive tradition of the Journal. Even conservatives (maybe especially conservatives) might shudder at the prospect of the Journal becoming a financial New York Post, with glaring three-inch headlines and feature stories on celebrities in the news.
Of course Murdoch is no fool. Presumably, he’s interested in Dow Jones because of its success, and Murdoch would no doubt think twice about muck with the reputation upon which that success is built.
Ultimately, however, these issues are for the owners (whoever they are), not the government. Politicians have no more right to require a certain kind of journalism than they do to require a particular political orientation. And if they decide wrongly, Americans have the right and ability to get their news elsewhere.