Murdoch’s straw snobs

The phony war on "elitist" journalism

It’s often hard to tell when Rupert Murdoch’s biographer, Michael Wolff, is merely transmitting his subject’s views or whether he believes this humbug himself, but a fairly constant theme from Murdoch-via-Wolff is that newspapers’ problems boil down to elitism.

More specifically, the elitism of reporters—smug, prize-mongering, careerist—is really the problem that needs to be solved.


Here’s a bit from Wolff in yesterday’s Guardian. I will refer to points 1, 3, and 4 (and, I have no idea what 5 is even talking about):

Murdoch has several hardcore beliefs about the newspaper business:

1) It’s not the business that has failed, or become obsolete. The problem is with newspapers themselves: they started to speak more to elites, or worse, to only other journalists, rather than to the people who read, or who ought to be reading, them.

2) Newspapers are mass media and need to define their audience in the broadest possible way: in Australia, it’s the middle market; in Britain, in the 1970s, it was the lower market; with the Wall Street Journal, it’s the broad upper market and not just the business market. The larger your universe, the better.

3) Snobbishness is the enemy: only the media itself likes a smarty pants. (The Daily, Murdoch’s tablet-only newspaper, which closed last month, was another exercise in flat affect; Murdoch kept telling everyone he didn’t want the Daily to be for the “digerati” - a new Murdoch bad word.)

4) Squeezing profits out of papers is more about smart manufacturing than it is about smart journalism.

5) And in order to truly force people to pay for newspapers online, you would have to own them all.

This was also a major theme of Wolff’s leaden biography of Murdoch. It was also a big theme in Sarah Ellison’s book on the takeover of The Wall Street Journal’s parent.

So it’s not really a question that this accurately reflects Murdoch’s views. It does. What’s more, it’s clear that Murdoch’s hostility toward alleged journalist elitism really does animate his strategy. It’s a huge reason why he bought Dow Jones. It’s an even bigger reason why he wants to either own or crush, or both, the NYT. In her book, Ellison quotes Murdoch joking to fellow CEOs:

I’d love to buy The New York Times one day. And then next day shut it down as a public service.

Ha ha. Good one!

At first you think, elitism? Sure. I know some reporters who are jerks.

But then you realize how perverse this all is. It’s not just the spectacle of a billionaire mogul who controls half of tarnation being resentful of working journalists barely clinging to the middle class.

It’s not even that the premise is obviously not true. I thought newspapers’ “problem” was this Internet thing, right? It’s the advertising, stupid. What does snobbery—or even editorial content at all —have to do with it? As it happens, more people read newspapers—including all those snobby ones—than ever. And even if you think newspapers are terrible, they certainly weren’t any worse in their heyday, when they were raking in scads of cash.

The idea makes even less sense when you think about Murdoch’s own quality paper, the WSJ. It was only after it went upscale under the legendary editor Barney Kilgore in the 1940s—adding two longform elitist “leders” a day, laying on fact-checking and copy-editing, literally writing the book on newspaper narratives—that its circulation 33-upled (multiplied by 33) to a million by the time he died in 1967, before passing the Daily News in the late 1970s to become, that’s right, America’s most popular newspaper, a spot it’s been at or near ever since.

So it was both high quality and popular. That formula never works, except when it does.

Isn’t newspapers’ real problem is that they’re often boring as spit—like say, The Daily?

Does anyone think that The Daily closed because it was too snobby?

As I wrote at the time, The Daily was the purest expression of Murdoch’s vision for a newspaper.

What does that say?

At The Wall Street Journal, Murdoch’s most dramatic change was shifting the paper away from business news to general news. What this move has in common with The Daily is that it makes the Journal less distinctive, more of a commodity, more conventional, more like everything else. Is that what he means by defining a market broadly?

As Wolff says, quite astutely: “Murdoch and [now former WSJ Managing Editor Robert] Thomson took one of the most distinctive, stylized and “branded” voices in journalism - its look and feel recognizable at 30 paces - and flattened it.”

In the name of what, exactly?

One thing you notice when the anti-elitist trope is floated is that rarely if ever is an actual elitist reporter singled out, nor even stories that should be considered elitist or targeted for “other journalists.”

So what’s behind this ressentiment, this sense of grievance?

After all, under this logic, the fact that the Journal hasn’t won a (news) Pulitzer since Murdoch bought the place is actually a good thing. Is it really?

I think Murdoch’s charge of elitism is actually a code for something else.

“Elite” journalism, such as the Journal once produced twice a day and still does less frequently, is a very expensive and, yes, very difficult proposition. Sometime it can be boring. But sometimes it can be very powerful. And this is the key concept: powerful, particularly against elites, the real kind. Often it can be highly entertaining. Here’re some of all of the above:

And sometime it can be both. If you don’t believe me, read the Wendy Deng story from 2000.

The next time someone complains about media elitism, ask them what they mean.

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman. Tags: ,