Who is being more humiliated? Rupert Murdoch, who is so reviled that the property he covets has to be protected from him, or the Bancroft family, whose obvious distaste for Murdoch is being overcome by their apparent appetite for his money? If this were a political cartoon, it would show a grinning Murdoch carrying Bancrofts kicking and screaming as they hold their noses all the way to the bank.
Any lingering family doubts about the scruples of the man they are dealing with should have been expunged by the New York Times June 25 story about Murdoch. It recounts, among other unflattering details, how a Murdoch property, HarperCollins, in 2003 paid influential Senator Trent Lott $250,000 for a book at a time when Congress was faced with whether an owner of television stations should be allowed to reach more than 35 percent of the nation’s audience. Murdoch’s stations then reached 39 percent, and he would have had to divest some of his properties. After earlier favoring the lower cap, Lott voted for a 39 percent ceiling.
Coincidence? Perhaps, but it would have been helpful for the public to have known about Lott’s book arrangement at the time he was in a position to help Murdoch, and actually did help him. My searches turned up no big mainstream press ruckus over the Lott-HarperCollins-Murdoch deal when it might have mattered.
Four years later, the Times has connected the dots. It thought the Lott-Murdoch connection so newsworthy that it led its long takeout on Murdoch with the incident and devoted 21 paragraphs to it and to related TV-ownership issues. Too bad some of that coverage didn’t materialize earlier. If nothing else, it might have given the public an inkling of the going rate for a powerful Republican.
By all accounts, Dow Jones and the Bancrofts are attempting to hammer out an understanding to prevent Murdoch from doing too much damage to their prize possession, the Wall Street Journal. Major unanswered questions in the Murdoch-Bancroft saga are how willing Murdoch would be to keep his hands off a property after spending $5 billion for it, and how to enforce the letter and spirit of any understanding he signs.
Meanwhile, all but missing from consideration in the impending sale is how acquisition of the Wall Street Journal by Murdoch would be another, and major, nail in the coffin of media diversity. The press in this country has been consolidating at a steady, and alarming, clip.
When Ben Bagdikian counted in 1983 for his groundbreaking “The Media Monopoly,” he found that most major media outlets were concentrated in 50 corporations. Just nine years later, the 50 wielding that degree of control had been reduced to 20. By 2004, the number had been cut to five. With the Wall Street Journal in Murdoch’s hands, no matter how much he is hemmed in on paper, one of the country’s three national newspapers would have been taken over by still another media giant.
It’s probably too much to expect the Bancroft family to turn its back on a very big payday to strike a blow against further media consolidation. It would be nice, though, if there were at least recognition of the problem Bagdikian warned about. Instead, even the press has given that issue short shrift as it follows the admittedly juicy story of how Murdoch’s billions are buying him a black eye.