A Trust Murdoch Won't Keep
Dear Shareholders of Dow Jones & Co.:
I am writing you from Anbar province in Iraq, where I am serving as a U.S. Marine. I don't get much time to read the news out here, but Rupert Murdoch's offer to acquire the Wall Street Journal is a story big enough to reach even this outpost. My comments on this subject come from two vantage points: first, as a reporter who worked for the Journal in China for nearly five years and, second, as someone who gave up that great job to become a Marine.
Reporting the news in a foreign country whose government has little respect for the truth taught me many things, among them the doggedness and skepticism that are helpful in my current job. But mostly it taught me that the Journal isn't a commodity -- it's a vital national resource. It is possible that there are only three or four U.S newspapers of its reach still willing to do what it takes to dig that last foot for a story and to strictly observe the "church-state" divisions among news, opinion and an owner's broader commercial interests.
It is no coincidence that Rupert Murdoch does not own such a paper. His mission is to blur the lines between church and state and infuse the blend with his own distinctive, lively brand of populist values. And let's face it, no one does it better. If you can find someone who doesn't love a New York Post headline, hook him up to a heart monitor, fast.
But while Murdoch's media products in the United States and Britain are well known, his operations in China, where I had a glimpse into their workings, are not. His News Corp. owned a substantial stake in Phoenix TV, a widely watched television network in China that routinely kowtows to the ruling Communist Party. As anyone who has seen Phoenix TV's news coverage knows, its self-censorship is routine.
In 2003, when the deadly SARS virus was threatening to trigger a global pandemic, the Chinese government persistently denied that its country contained the seeds of such an outbreak even though the simple reporting of this fact was the needed first step toward prevention of a monumental public health disaster. In the face of this coverup, a courageous Chinese surgeon drafted a detailed letter identifying SARS cases in Beijing itself and had it delivered to Murdoch's TV network for public broadcast. And what did the network do with the letter? The same thing any other obedient Chinese news agency would have done: nothing.
The surgeon's letter eventually found its way into the hands of Time magazine and the Wall Street Journal, which published stories on it. The Chinese government was finally forced to admit it had a health problem and to adopt measures that contained the spread of the virus.
Unfortunately, this example does not stand alone. When a NATO warplane bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, I saw Murdoch's reporters at Phoenix TV use the event to fuel an anti-American propaganda orgy while hesitating to report the Clinton administration's apology and admission that the bombing was a mistake. You expect the Chinese government to behave this way, but didn't Murdoch recently write that he has "always respected the independence and integrity of the news organizations" with which he is associated?
It would be one thing if he confined his self-censorship to his Chinese publishing ventures, but I'm afraid he doesn't. Beijing goes out of its way to punish American corporations that produce news or films it finds offensive. Murdoch understands how the game works. In the mid-1990s, he dropped the BBC from his satellite broadcast system in Asia after Beijing complained about the British channel's news coverage. (He now claims that this was done strictly for commercial reasons.) Not long after that he canceled publication of a memoir by Hong Kong's last British governor, Chris Patten, whom Beijing had branded a "tango dancer" and a "whore" for his pro-democracy policies. (Murdoch claimed in the Financial Times last week that he "told the HarperCollins editors not to publish the Patten book because I did not think it would sell, but they went ahead anyway," thus requiring his kill shot. Again, that was his right, but the result was nevertheless a form of meddling that would greatly harm the quality of news reported by the Wall Street Journal.) Writers for more than one of Murdoch's newspapers say that they have periodically come under pressure to soft-pedal China-related coverage. Can you imagine the Wall Street Journal, which has won two Pulitzer Prizes this decade for its China coverage, considering such a thing?
Murdoch is not an editorial ogre but a smart, charming businessman with a pioneering style of journalism that has its place in a free country. His editorial support of America's troops is generous, and he has created a fresh point of view with Fox News. I'm also told he keeps his hands off the Australian, one of the many newspapers he owns. But the Wall Street Journal is not Fox News or the Australian, and its mission is not their mission. China will be the biggest story of the 21st century. Its policies and progress must be understood and reported fearlessly. Beyond that, the Journal brings us a quality of news that's not only unusual but important to our future.
Several days ago in western Iraq, an unseen guerrilla detonated a bomb moments after my fellow Marines and I had driven over it. Marines call near misses like this a "gut check." I know why I took certain risks working for the Journal, and I know why I take them as a Marine, and while I still haven't figured out how to say it without sounding too earnest, high-minded and patriotic, I'll say it anyway: Some things in America need to be protected, and none more than a free and intrepid press. Because no one exercises that role better than the Journal, the loss of its rigorous, undiluted reporting would be a hole in America's heart deeper than that hole in the road.
The writer is a former Wall Street Journal reporter now serving as a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps.