Why? Though he was, by 2007, a global media tycoon with interests larger and wider than any before him, Murdoch remained a newspaperman. And, Wolff surmises, what he desired more than anything else at the end of his career was to own a quality, elite, establishment newspaper. So he overpaid for a property no one was willing to bid on, believing himself to be “the real white knight of newspapers.” Would the men and women who work for the Journal, or its readers, or the community at large have been better served had Sam Zell or General Electric bought the paper? From the vantage point of the present moment, it appears highly unlikely.

The questions that get left out here are the larger ones that Wolff has no interest in asking. Must we put our hope for the future survival of newspapers in “white knights” like Rupert Murdoch? Is there no other alternative? Is the “news” business simply another business, deserving of no more regulation or regard or public subsidy than any other? Or is the existence of a free press, no matter how unprofitable it might be, critical to the proper functioning of state and society and worthy of special attention?

As I write this, there is an ongoing debate about a bailout of the Big Three automakers, following a similar debate about the survival of national banks, investment houses, and insurance companies. The argument made on their behalf is that their survival is of critical importance to the well-being of the nation. The same has been said, at different moments in our past, about family farms (no matter how many acres they might comprise) and sports franchises (no matter how many millions they might be worth).

But what about newspapers? There has been no call to rescue any of them, as far as I know. And this, despite the fact that this nation, in its founding state and federal constitutions, singled out the press for protection because it was, in the words of a resolution passed by the Virginia ratifying convention, “one of the greatest bulwarks of liberty.”

Constitutionally sanctioned guarantees of freedom of the press were intended to proscribe government interference, rather than warrant government support. Yet they bear repeating, because they highlight the singular and historic role of the press in American society. This role—and this significance—are neglected, then negated, when we regard the news business as just another business, its survival to be determined by market forces alone.

Wolff pays no attention, as I have already said, to such larger questions. And indeed, there is no requirement that he should. In the end, if we judge him by his intentions and review the book he has written, not the one we might have wanted him to write, we are obliged to give it, well, not three cheers, but a hearty two-and-a-half. It is fair to say, however, that for this reader at least, the questions he does not ask haunt his description of The Wall Street Journal deal and his portrait of Murdoch as newspaperman and businessman. 

 

David Nasaw is the Arthur M. Schlesinger Professor of History at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and the author of Andrew Carnegie and The Chief: The Life and Times of William Randolph Hearst.