Amidst Rupert Murdoch's full-court charm offensive to woo the trustees who control Dow Jones & Co. and its business journalism jewel, The Wall Street Journal, the media mogul's parent company, News Corp., took time out last week to announce that the Fox Business Network will begin broadcasting into 30 million cable television homes this October.
Days later, word leaked that Murdoch had finally reached an agreement in principle to purchase the Journal for $5 billion. The launching of FBN and the possible purchase of the Journal are inexorably linked; the latter would not have been pursued without the former. Murdoch wants to marry the Journal with the FBN to create a business news juggernaut, perhaps one day even adding "Journal" into the name of the all-business news network.
There's been lots of informed media chatter surrounding Murdoch's possible purchase of the Wall Street daily and whether the Australian-born press baron can be trusted to keep his political views and commercial considerations out of the Journal's print pages. And for good reason: It's hard to find many news properties that Murdoch has acquired and improved, journalistically. It's rather easy though, to find examples of news outlets he dumbed-down. (Most people don't even remember it, but before Murdoch bought the New York Post in the 1970s -- complete with his pledge not to alter it -- the daily was a great American tabloid. Now it's a right-wing gossip rag with an OK sports section.)
What's been missing from the stream of Murdoch-centered analysis, though, is a detailed discussion about the negative fallout the Journal faces from being so closely aligned with Fox News. And specifically, what's going to happen to the newspaper's integrity when it's used as a high-profile marketing tool to help boost the Fox Business Network, and, indirectly, Fox News.
Naturally, a partnership with the esteemed Wall Street Journal would give the fledgling FBN instant cachet. But what, in turn, would that partnership do to the Journal? I assume in time Journal reporters will appear on FBN, to discuss breaking news. And what about a blockbuster business story that crosses over into the mainstream news realm, will Journal reporters be forced to appear on Fox News as well? Will the Journal's Page 1 sleuths be sitting down on-air with trash talkers John Gibson and Bill O'Reilly?
There's no reason to think the new Fox Business Network will shed the telltale dishonesty that's been Fox News' trademark for years. After all, the new cable venture is being developed by Fox News boss and former Republican strategist Roger Ailes, and will be anchored by the proudly biased Neil Cavuto, who currently hosts a daily program on Fox News, Your World with Neil Cavuto. Both men have been instrumental in putting their stamp on the unique brand of faux journalism practiced at Fox News, which famously served as a cheerleading forum for the war with Iraq and where following last year's midterm elections, internal FNC marching orders were issued to anchors and reporters to, "be on the lookout for any statements from the Iraqi insurgents, who must be thrilled at the prospect of a Dem-controlled Congress."
That's about as subtle as a sledgehammer, and it's not even news analysis -- it's GOP propaganda (i.e. terrorists prefer Democrats). Hard to imagine how the Journal's good name could survive an upfront alliance with the team that runs Fox News.
Murdoch insists that if he purchased the Journal he would never interfere with the newspaper and that he would be a fool to damage the Journal's premier brand value; its reputation. He has pledged to "continue to promote journalistic integrity."
Don't believe the hype, says Slate's in-house Murdoch critic, Jack Shafer:
That rotten old bastard won't be able to keep himself from defiling the paper. It's in his nature to contaminate his own wells. As experienced Journal reporters and editors leave or are driven out, their replacements will owe their allegiance to Murdoch and Murdoch's people. Will they bring to news coverage the impartiality we've come to expect from the Journal? Or will they pull and duck punches on his behalf? Will they skew stories about Viacom and Condé Nast and China to please the well-known views of their master? You betcha. I can't recall any News Corp. employee who got a raise or a promotion after undermining the Murdoch empire's interests with an honest, accurate story.
To calm fears, the media mogul offered to set up what he calls an "independent, autonomous editorial board" to oversee the Journal, much the way he did in the 1980s when similar concerns were expressed about Murdoch's purchase of the respected Times of London.
That plan might look good on paper, but there's one glaring difference between the Times and the Journal acquisitions: Murdoch wants the Journal to play a starring, on-air role in his Fox News television empire.
And what an empire it is:
- A 2003 University of Maryland study found that Fox News viewers were far more likely to be misinformed about whether Saddam Hussein was linked to Al Qaeda terrorists and whether weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq immediately following the invasion.
- A 2004 Center for Media and Public Affairs study found that during the height of the presidential campaign, just 13 percent of Fox News panelist comments about Democratic candidate Sen. John Kerry were positive, compared with 50 percent for Bush. (It was during the campaign that Fox News anchor Brit Hume called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's factually challenged book attacking Kerry a "remarkably well-done document.")
- Fox News pundits mocked Al Gore in 2004, following an anti-war speech he gave, joking that the former vice president "had gone off his lithium again," and had "lost his mind."
- At this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Murdoch admitted that his company (which includes Fox News) had "tried" to shape the agenda for the Iraq war.
- Unaware that her microphone was on between interviews, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this year announced, "My Fox News guys -- I love every one of them."
- This year, commenting on the troop withdrawal debate in Congress, Hume, Fox's evening news anchor, stated, "This is why the Democratic Party has had this reputation, going back decades, of really not being very serious about national defense. It's because they aren't."
All of that is the handiwork of Ailes, who has been given the keys to the new Fox Business Network. More of a partisan than a newsman, Ailes thought nothing of delivering back-channel advice to President Bush following the attacks on 9-11. Like Murdoch, Ailes sees little distinction between politics and journalism.
Ailes also likes to paint his enemies as terrorist sympathizers. He went ballistic in 2004 when former Los Angeles Times editor John Carroll, in a speech at the University of Oregon, labeled Fox News "pseudo-journalism." Penning a name-calling response for The Wall Street Journal editorial page, Ailes fired back: "He treated Fox News Channel worse in his newspaper than he treated the terrorists who recently beheaded an American. But of course, he sees Fox News as more dangerous."
It will be Ailes who has final say over the new FBN. And a note to Journal editors: Murdoch has already publicly promised that the Fox Business Network will be "more business friendly" than its competitors, and not "leap on every scandal." Ailes agreed, telling The New York Times, "Many times I've seen things on CNBC where they are not as friendly to corporations and profits as they should be."
As for the day-to-day face of the FBN, that will be Cavuto. When not denouncing Happy Feet, a children's animated movie about penguins, as being "offensive" liberal "propaganda," Cavuto recently waded into the Don Imus controversy by asking an on-air guest, "I mean, a ho is a ho, right?" This, from an anchor who once suggested he cannot simultaneously be both "a good American" and "a good journalist."
Back in April 2003, when Cavuto's beloved war in Iraq was still flying high, he hit back hard on the air against a journalism professor who had been quoted as saying the FNC anchorman had "abandoned objectivity for overt nationalism" during the war coverage. "So am I slanted and biased?" Cavuto responded. "You ... bet I am, professor."
More recently, in January, Cavuto asked if The New York Times was "in mourning again" after news broke about the hanging deaths of Saddam Hussein's half-brother and another Saddam deputy.
This month, in the wake of news that alleged terrorists in the U.K. had targeted Glasgow Airport, Cavuto suggested the British terror suspects had been drawn to the country because of its national health care system (which Cavuto despises). As John Amato wrote at his weblog, Crooks and Liars, "It's one of those bang-your-head-against-the-keyboard moments when you have to type a headline that is so manifestly idiotic": "Universal Healthcare: Terrorist Recruitment Tool"
And just this week Cavuto devoted nearly 20 minutes of his FNC program to bash Democratic presidential contender John Edwards, who had just kicked off an anti-poverty tour called "Road to One America." As Cavuto spoke, one FNC graphic on the screen read, "Road to One America: Code Word for Socialism?"
In other words, Wall Street Journal editors and reporters, meet your television news partner.
Bottom line: There's just no way the newspaper's sterling reputation can survive being a part of that Fox-flavored media circus.