About a decade ago, Bill Gates was telling people that Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal and other media properties, was a mismanaged brand. He was right then, and Rupert Murdoch is making that point now with his bid for the company.
Murdoch is a modern media baron in the style of the worst yellow journalists of the past. He would be a dreadful proprietor of the Journal, which carries a banner of honorable, tough journalism — apart from the editorial pages, of course — that makes it one of the treasures of press integrity today.
Gates is a robber baron, a throwback to the predators of the late 1800s and early 1900s who almost destroyed American capitalism with their hunger for wealth and power in a time when government cared little for a fair or honest marketplace. Yet in the right circumstances, Gates would be the ideal buyer of Dow Jones. Let me explain.
As the newspaper business model continues to unravel, one of the key issues before us as a society is how we’re going to preserve great journalism. Newspapers, more than any other media form to date, have been — for all their obvious flaws — the most important source of great journalism.
Several newspaper companies, such as Nelson Poynter’s St. Petersburg Times in Florida, have been put into public trusts with both media and educational aims. In a perfect world, Dow Jones’ Bancroft family would do the same. But while it’s clear that the various relatives are unhappy about selling to a Murdoch, they’re not interested in giving up the wealth, either.
Bill Gates needs no more wealth. He has been slowly but surely turning his life from predator to humanitarian, the latter via the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that is doing wonders for public health around the globe.
The foundation also has an educational mission, a less known but important operation in its own right. Suppose the foundation, with a new infusion of Gates’ personal wealth, were to buy Dow Jones and turn it into a public trust along the lines of the Poynter Institute, where the profits from the newspaper subsidize the educational mission.
What would be the that aim for a new kind of Dow Jones? Economic education — something that is woefully lacking in America and most other places. The possibilities would be endless.
Would Gates be willing to apply some of his wealth for this goal, and to apply some of his business acumen to helping the Journal leverage its assets for such a worthy purpose? Would he and his foundation name trustees who’d preserve the essential editorial independence that has made the Journal so great? Those, of course, are the multi-billion-dollar questions. But there is no question that journalism and the public at large would be well-served.
I’ll bet the Bancrofts would sell the company for this purpose, and for considerably less than the premium Murdoch is offering. (I own a small amount of Dow Jones stock and would happily forego the additional gains.) They’d get plenty of money, without extracting the last possible pennies, and they’d have the satisfaction of seeing the institution built by their family remain the vital part of American journalism — and protector of truly free markets — that it has been for some time.
In a letter to the Bancrofts, Murdoch tries to assuage the family that he’d ensure the integrity of the Wall Street Journal’s news pages. But he prefaces his promises — mere words — with this:
I don’t apologize for the fact that I have always had strong opinions and strong ideas about newspapers; but I have also always respected the independence and integrity of the news organizations with which I am associated.
Oh, please. Murdoch and his underlings have frequently interfered with the journalism. And at least some of those news organizations are emblematic for their visible lack of integrity.
A better approach for Murdoch would have been to admit that he’s interfered with his various properties, and only then promise not to do it in this case.