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2007-08-02

"Robber Baron Over the Last Century": Dow Jones Union Head on Likely New Boss Rupert Murdoch

Guests

Sydney Schanberg, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for many publications, including The New York Times and Village Voice.

Steven Yount, president of the Independent Association of Publishers’ Employees, Local 1096, the union that represents more than 2,000 employees of Dow Jones. He is also a newscaster for The Wall Street Journal Radio Network.

Craig Aaron, communications director at Free Press, a media reform organization.

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News Corp.'s Rupert Murdoch awaits FCC approval for his purchase of Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal. The sale would bring one of the nation's oldest and most respected newspapers under a vast media empire that includes the Fox television network, 21st Century Fox film studio, and more than 175 other newspapers. We’re joined by Dow Jones union leader and radio host Steven Yount, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sydney Schanberg, and Craig Aaron of the media reform organization Free Press. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: While Rupert Murdoch’s purchase of Dow Jones and The Wall Street Journal appears to be a done deal, the takeover still needs to be okayed by the Federal Communications Commission. On Wednesday, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said approval by the FCC is no slam dunk. Copps is a Democrat. He said, "This deal means more media consolidation and fewer independent voices. ... What’s good for shareholders of huge media conglomerates isn’t always what’s good for the public interest or our civic dialogue."

In a moment, we’ll discuss Rupert Murdoch’s growing media empire, but first we’re going to turn to a short video that’s produced by the media advocacy group, Free Press.

NARRATOR: The deal is done.

RUPERT MURDOCH [on The Simpsons: What the bloody hell? I’m Rupert Murdoch, the billionaire tyrant. And this is my newspaper!

CHIEF WIGGUM: If you’re Rupert Murdoch, prove it.

CROWD: Hi Rupert!

SIMPSONS CHARACTERS: Uh oh.

NARRATOR: It’s official. Media baron Rupert Murdoch has bought The Wall Street Journal, adding it to the News Corp. media monopoly that now spans over 175 newspapers worldwide, has film studios, Internet holdings like MySpace, satellite TV and cable, magazines and publishing, begging the question, "What’s next?" as companies like News Corp. are now pushing the FCC to allow them to get even bigger.

BILL MOYERS: He is to propriety what the Marquis de Sade was to chastity. When it comes to money and power, he’s carnivorous, all appetite and no taste. He’ll eat anything in his path.

NARRATOR: And while he’s promised not to interfere in the _Journal_’s editorial policy, he’s made that promise before, like when he took over the New York Post and then radically transformed it into a conservative junk news tabloid. He also promised not to make changes to The Times of London.

RUPERT MURDOCH: There will be no fundamental change in the characteristics.

NARRATOR: But former editors there say Murdoch complained that too many of their stories had a, quote, "left-wing bent" and even called one of their correspondents a quote/unquote "Commie." He broke his promises then; why should we believe him now, especially given his Fox News network’s idea of fair and balanced?

BILL O’REILLY: Vicious far-left website called the DailyKos, one of the worst examples of hatred America has to offer.

NARRATOR: Free Press founder Bob McChesney says the growth of big media monopolies like News Corp. have directly paralleled the decline of journalism in America, with less local and international coverage, fewer points of view and slashed budgets for real investigative reporting.

BOB McCHESNEY: Our whole Constitution rests on having a free press. It’s the premise. It’s the unstated premise of the whole project. If we don’t have an informed citizenry, every word in our Constitution is meaningless, if you don’t know your privileges, your rights, if you aren’t aware of what’s going on. We have to have a press system. It’s our duty, not our right, to build a free press. And the foundation of a free press, of doing that, is healthy journalism.

NARRATOR: Instead, media barons like Murdoch have shifted over to a recipe for cheap but highly profitable junk news. And it’s not just News Corp.

BILL MOYERS: The problem isn’t just Rupert Murdoch. His pursuit of The Wall Street Journal is the latest in a cascading series of mergers, buyouts and other financial legerdemain that are making a shipwreck of journalism. Public-minded newspapers are being dumped by their owners for wads of cash or crippled by cost cutting, while their broadcasting cousins race to the bottom. Murdoch is just the predator of the hour.

NARRATOR: And now, Rupert Murdoch and other media predators are pushing the FCC to change the rules, allowing them to own even more newspapers, radio and television stations in the same market.

AMY GOODMAN: That video by Free Press. We’ll be joined by one of its representatives in a minute. With the purchase of Dow Jones & Company, Murdoch adds not just The Wall Street Journal to his holdings, but also Barron’s, The Far Eastern Economic Review, the Asian Wall Street Journal, Market Watch, Dow Jones Indexes, the Ottaway group of community newspaper, and the online database Factiva.

Prior to this week, Murdoch’s News Corporation already owned over 175 newspapers around the world, including the New York Post. His other prized holdings include the Fox TV Network, Fox News, MySpace, The Weekly Standard, HarperCollins, The Times of London, the Australian newspaper The Daily Telegraph, The Sun newspaper, The News of the World, Caribbean Life, part of the National Geographic Channel, FX, the film company 20th Century Fox, and part of TV Guide.

Besides amassing a media empire, Murdoch has repeatedly been accused of using his media holdings to advance his political agenda. In 2003, all of Murdoch’s 175 newspapers supported the Iraq invasion. Just last month, it was revealed former British Prime Minister Tony Blair personally called Murdoch three times in the week leading up to the U.S. and British invasion of Iraq. In his diaries, Blair’s then-Communications Director Alistair Campbell said Blair was afraid the media would find out about Murdoch’s influence. Campbell wrote, "It was faintly obscene that we even had to worry what [Murdoch] thought." A deputy to Campbell called Murdoch "the 24th member of the [Blair] Cabinet."

Three guests join us now to talk about Rupert Murdoch and The Wall Street Journal. Sydney Schanberg, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has worked for many publications, including The New York Times and The Village Voice. Steven Yount is president of the Independent Association of Publishers’ Employees, Local 1096, the union that represents more than 2,000 employees of Dow Jones. He’s also a newscaster for The Wall Street Journal Radio Network. And Craig Aaron is with us, the communications director at the media reform group Free Press. He joins us from Chicago.

We’re going to start with Steven Yount. President of the Wall Street Journal workers’ union. That’s the Local 1096, Independent Association of Publishers’ Employees. Your response, Steven Yount, to your new boss?

STEVEN YOUNT: Well, this is the reality that we’re dealing with now. And, you know, my job is as it has always been, which is to represent the people that have elected me as their union president. You know, my responsibility is to do everything that we can to preserve the independence and the integrity of the reporting in The Wall Street Journal and in Dow Jones and to defend the economic bottom line for the employees, which is, continue with a contract that we can live with and make sure that the people that add the quality that we have been so happy to have with Dow Jones, that those people are recognized and rewarded.

I just wanted to say as an aside, listening to the outrage about the growing media empire of Rupert Murdoch and the piece from the Free Press, you know, it’s kind of frustrating that we fought this battle for almost four months, trying to rally some kind of public support and rally some kind of business support for alternatives to this $5 billion offer. And the deafening, it was — the silence was deafening. We didn’t get that kind of response. You know, now to say, "Isn’t this a terrible thing?" I think that we all have to ask ourselves: Where were we? What were we doing when this deal was unfolding? You know, what kind of money did we put on the table? What kind of financial resources did we pursue that could have stopped this? Because this was a very close vote among the Bancroft family, and another shift in voting bloc among those 32 people and this deal would not have happened.

AMY GOODMAN: We are going to go to break and then come back to this discussion. Steven Yount, president of the Independent Association of Publishers’ Employees, Local 1096, also a newscaster for The Wall Street Journal Radio Network. And when we come back, Craig Aaron will also be joining us, communications director at Free Press, the media reform organization. We’ll be talking with him about media reform and about a major decision that the FCC recently made. We’ll also speak with Sydney Schanberg, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has worked for many publications, including The New York Times and The Village Voice. And then in our last segment, we’ll be talking about Picture New York, new regulations that could well come down limiting photographers’ and videographers’ ability to film New York for even 10 minutes. We’ll be back in a minute.

[break]

AMY GOODMAN: Our guests, Steve Yount, president of the Independent Association of Publishers’ Employees, Local 1096, a newscaster also at The Wall Street Journal Radio Network; Craig Aaron with Free Press; and Sydney Schanberg, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who’s written for The New York Times, The Village Voice and other publications.

You wrote about Rupert Murdoch in 1982, and you’re writing about him in 2007, Syd Schanberg. Your response to this takeover of The Wall Street Journal?

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: Well, it’s a serious — it’s a very serious step, you know, in the slide downward of the American press, because there are very few family-owned newspapers still left in this country, and those papers, it turns out, are the ones that have been holding standards up. Actually, the only two major ones that still exist are the Times and The Washington Post. And the rest of newspapering belongs to Wall Street, because all of these other companies have conglomerated, they now sell shares. And when I say they’ve gone to Wall Street, that just simply means that Wall Street analysts tell you — tell the corporate leaders that they must get better profits or people won’t buy the stock, and so forth, so the paper is subject to financial pressures that it hadn’t been before.

Newspapers in America have always made very, very good profits, in fact, larger profits than any industries of comparable size. But it’s not enough for Wall Street. And so, you know, if you step back and you look at this, we have become a nation of corporatocracy, and quality in journalism doesn’t fit into it. And journalists themselves aren’t fighting hard enough. I mean, the union chief, Mr. Yount, he just said, "Well, we didn’t hear from anybody." He’s right in a sense. The voices are few. I mean, journalists are like everybody else. They’ve got mortgages and children to go to college, and so forth, and they don’t quit their jobs when proprietors do terrible things to journalism and cut corners and — how should I put — amalgamate the financial interests with the mission of the newsroom, which should never happen.

AMY GOODMAN: You called Rupert Murdoch "the Tasmanian devil" in 1982.

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: A little tongue in cheek.

AMY GOODMAN: And you talk now about your experiences with him. Talk about what happened to the New York Post when Rupert Murdoch took over. What was it before?

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: Well, it was a model of how he has taken over papers. He promised Dolly Schiff, the owner — the Post was a liberal — its editorial page was liberal, and it was known as a liberal paper. It had been for, you know, as long as it has been around. And he promised Dolly Schiff that he would not change the policies or the tone of the paper, another one of the promises. He makes promises all the time. And within, you know, weeks, the paper had been taken downscale and right-wing.

And nobody said much. Proprietors, other newspaper owners, publishers, were afraid of Rupert. He’s a loose cannon. He doesn’t play by people’s rules. He gets into the gutter, and he swings. And that doesn’t make him a demon. He’s not the devil. He’s just a robber baron. He doesn’t care what people really think about him, even though part of his life he spent seeking respectability. But he does cause fear. He intimidates.

And in my experiences, I was at The New York Times, when he picked up the phone to call the Times about a visit I had paid to his strike paper in 1978 and made up a story that I had urged any New York Times employees that were on strike who were working for his temporary strike paper, that he said I had told them that the executive editor, Abe Rosenthal, was furious and didn’t want them working for Rupert. And no such conversation took place. I went to see my staff. And it was like a reunion in the sense that, you know, it’s a family, and I missed them. They missed the paper. And that’s all that took place. It was a schmooze. And he called up, and they got all excited, and there was a lot of yelling over the phone. And I asked them why they believed a word he said, since he had a history of — he’s a very easy teller of lies — and then later says, "Well, you know, this is not a virgin industry. You have to do x, y and z, dirty things, once in a while. Yes, maybe I did this, maybe." He’s sounding more benevolent making these halfway apologies now, but he’s fairly ruthless.

AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean for Fox, for example, and for his other properties that he has The Wall Street Journal, this newspaper of respectability, maybe as he sees it, brand of respectability?

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: Well, I think, you know, Rupert has a right-wing philosophy, but actually it’s less right than The Wall Street Journal's own editorial page. Whereas the news pages are serious, credible and not propagandized, the editorial page is 18th century, medieval almost. So, in Rupert's life, he has always, when there was a choice between money, profit and ideology, he would choose money most of the time. And that’s why he has taken papers — he’s cheapened papers, taking them downscale. He knows he can sell sex and titillation and gossip. He knows that’s what makes money. He did it with the Post. He’s done it with other papers. He says he distinguishes between his tabloid papers and his so-called "serious" papers. But I would challenge anyone to name any paper he’s taken over in his, whatever, 30-40 years doing this, that he has improved in quality. The answer is none. And so, I just see it as a loss to journalism.

AMY GOODMAN: On this issue of media consolidation, I wanted to bring in Craig Aaron, spokesperson for Free Press in Chicago. Craig, can you talk about what this means in the media landscape right now, the number of holdings that Rupert Murdoch has?

CRAIG AARON: Well, you know, it’s an immense amount of holdings at this point. You know, several decades ago, there might have been 50 corporations that controlled what we see, hear, watch every day. Now we’re down to probably about five that really dominate the vast majority of information and news. And so, this gives one company and one man an immense amount of power.

You know, if this deal goes all the way, which all indications are that it will, Murdoch will control, you know, a national broadcast network, a cable news channel and one of the few remaining daily newspapers that really set the national news agenda. So among this small handful of outlets that really set the agenda every day across the country in all the papers and all the local television stations, suddenly Rupert Murdoch, who is very clear he’s always going to put his personal ideology and his personal business interests before the quality of news, he’s going to have an incredible amount of influence over that news agenda.

AMY GOODMAN: And then we’ll see what happens with the FCC, the dissident commissioner saying it may not be so easy to be approved. But, Steve Yount, when you talked about what you could have done, what do you see now could have prevented this?

STEVE YOUNT: You know, all of the comments that I’ve heard over the past half-hour, my initial reaction is: Didn’t you guys listen to all of the debate that we had over the past four months? You know, I hate to be one of these guys that just sits down and says, "Well, where were you?" We were saying exactly these things. This is exactly why we opposed this deal from the very beginning. You know, it’s one more pressure point on the Bancroft family, one more billionaire with a social conscience, one more outpouring of the concerned critics that could have made a difference, didn’t happen.

And now to sit around and say, "Oh, my god! Isn’t Rupert Murdoch a terrible man?" I don’t know if he’s a terrible man or not. He’s a robber baron over the last century. He’s no worse than the publisher Eugene Pulliam, who used to run The Indianapolis Star and ran Indiana politics. You know, I mean, all of these guys are of the same mold. They’re all out for money. They’re all out to further their own agendas. You know, we had an opportunity here to save one of the last three great newspapers in the United States. And it fell short. You know, so this is the reality we have now.

Is it terrible that media is being concentrated? Yes, it is. It’s been terrible for the past 20 years that this has been going on. And we don’t have the power to stop it. What you need to do is develop the real power in this world to be able to stop that kind of media control, that media concentration. We’re never going to have a friend who’s going to own a hundred newspapers. Those are not our friends. Those are people who are making money. Billionaires do not see the world the same way we do. So, you know, it’s frustrating that we have this debate after the fact, when this debate was going on for the last four months, and, you know, the effort was being made, and we were that close to getting this stopped.

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: I would take —

AMY GOODMAN: Sidney Schanberg.

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: I would take issue a little bit with Steve Yount. I appreciate his frustration. But I don’t think the people who are criticizing this have necessarily been sitting around doing nothing for years.

STEVEN YOUNT: You know what closed this deal at the end?

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: I know what closed it: $30 million in —

STEVEN YOUNT: It was $30 million.

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: That’s right. And —

STEVEN YOUNT: It was $30 million.

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: — I think what I’m saying is the specifics that you’re talking about are very real. I’m not challenging that. Money turned this. But there are a lot of us who have been talking, writing and fighting this battle for a long time. I would ask you, for example, Steve, how many times did The Wall Street Journal, in its news pages, take up these issues, or on its editorial pages?

STEVEN YOUNT: Oh, on the editorial page, it said — you know, they were fine.

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: Yes, no, I understand that, but —

STEVEN YOUNT: We didn’t have any —

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: I understand that.

STEVEN YOUNT: Wait a second. We didn’t have any friends who put this in the newspaper, in the Journal. The Journal, as a newspaper, did not, you know, support this effort at all.

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: Well, let’s go before the effort started. I mean, were there stories on page one of The Wall Street Journal about what was happening to journalism?

STEVEN YOUNT: No.

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: And what I’m saying is that reporters themselves, editors, they failed part of the mission. I mean, they stood back while all this has been happening for decades.

STEVEN YOUNT: Well, every newspaper in the country has done that. Now, is that any excuse? Of course not.

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: No, it’s not.

STEVEN YOUNT: Should they be campaigning for it? Of course, they should. They didn’t, because this newspaper, as it stood then, belonged to a bunch of rich people. It didn’t belong to the employees. The Bancroft family had their own approach to this, which was completely hands-off. And the people that ran this company certainly were not going to campaign against a concentration of media. They were trying to get a concentration of media of their own.

All I’m saying is that all of these people who own these newspapers, none of them are our friends. They all have their own agenda. What I’m saying is that there were people in this country who could have stepped forward at a critical juncture, and for their own economic reasons, they decided not to. And that just is the reality.

You know, then the question becomes, is it going — is News Corp. and Rupert Murdoch going to turn The Wall Street Journal into the New York Post? I don’t think that he will. I think it’s going to be a different newspaper than it is now. I don’t think it’s going to be as good. But it’s going to be the News Corp. version of The Wall Street Journal, you know. And, sadly, life will go on. We’ve lost a lot of great newspapers in this country. And, sadly, life goes on. But my job now is to do battle day after day with a management that is probably not the best friend of labor and the best friend of reporters and journalistic independence.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Steve Yount, I know you have to go, and I want to thank you very much for being with us, president of the Independent Association of Publishers’ Employees, Local 1096, also a newscaster at The Wall Street Journal Radio Network.

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