If Dow Jones & Co.’s board agrees to a sale to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., as seems likely, the transaction would have to be approved by DJ shareholders, principally by holders of so-called Class B shares who control 62% of the votes. Under DJ corporate rules designed to protect against unwanted takeovers, the Bancrofts, descendants of the family that bought the company in 1902, and a few others hold special shares with 10 votes each and, in effect, control the company’s fate.
One of the non-Bancroft Class B shareholders is James Ottaway Jr., whose father sold the Ottaway family’s chain of local papers to Dow Jones in 1970. Jim Ottaway Jr. ran the largely profitable Ottaway unit within Dow Jones, and held various other posts until 2003, and served on the board of directors until last year. He and his son, Jay, have issued public statements urging the Bancrofts to reject the News Corp. offer, with Jay Ottaway saying: “It is clear that any promise of editorial independence will not be honored.”
(The Audit discloses: Ottaway co-chairs a committee that seeks funding
for CJR and for the American Journalism Review.)
The Audit: What’s the problem with Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. acquiring Dow Jones?
Jim Ottaway: To me, the first biggest issue is more media concentration in the hands the people who use their media power for personal, political, and business interests, as Murdoch does so blatantly with the New York Post, FOX News network, Star TV in China, Phoenix TV in China. He has the largest total broadcast audience in China, where they’re getting no criticism because of his deal with the devil there. On Monday (June 25), the New York Times had a long piece on how Murdoch manipulates American politicians and FCC official to get the TV regulatory approval to keep all his television stations and not have to sell them. Then on Tuesday, it had a really good investigative piece on how he does the same in China. And I must say that these two articles made my statement on May 6th seem polite. I was horrified about the stuff I didn’t know about. There’s no moral compass.
TA: Aren’t business owners/proprietors allowed to use their assets as they see fit? Isn’t that all he does?
JO: Apparently, that is a British/Australian journalistic tradition. The American tradition, which I think is a higher standard, produces a higher-quality of journalism. This wasn’t (always the case) from the founding of the country when we had a highly partisan press run by political parties and individuals. But since the Second World War, the principle has been that, in your news columns, you report accurately, fairly, as objectively as you can. And on your editorial pages, you can state your personal, political and business interests if you want. Generally, American journalism has expected owners to act with a sense of public service in the way they run their newspapers and to consider a newspaper…a public trust, and not just a personal piggy bank.
TA: Is that something that even has a place in 21st century American capitalism, not using assets for their highest commercial value?
JO: This is capitalism gone crazy. A more fundamental (element of) capitalism in a free-market economy is that you base reporting on accurate information on which investors can make investment decisions and voters can make political decisions. What we’re in danger of losing is fact-based journalism that serves as a basis for public debate. I fear for the country if we do not have unbiased news sources available to every citizen so that they can hear all sides of major public issues and make intelligent decisions. Information must be based on some agreed-upon factual starting point. Otherwise, everything is propaganda and biased information, and nobody knows what the truth is.
TA: The idea of an unbiased news source is laughed off these days. We have to ask if unbiased or objective reporting is not itself an anachronism.
JO: Philosophically, you can argue that it’s an impossibility. But in practice and in a modern democracy and in an information society, where success in business, investments, and politics eventually depends on some common understanding of reality—what is real, what actually happened or didn’t happen, or was said or not said —you can’t run a business, you can’t run an economy, you can’t run a nation if it doesn’t have some discourse and public debate based on some commonly accepted facts. I think that this is what’s the danger. It’s what defeated the Roman Empire. You can find all kind of historical parallels of what happens when a society has reduced all news to propaganda. You can’t a run republican democracy that way.