A.J. LIEBLING'S somewhat shopworn comment that "freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one" is still true 50 years later — and Rupert Murdoch is well aware of it as he negotiates to purchase the Wall Street Journal and its parent, Dow Jones & Co. But Murdoch would be mistaken to take Liebling's words too much to heart.
Instead, if he ends up owning the Journal, Murdoch should surprise his critics not only by giving it full editorial independence but by encouraging it to cover him and his company aggressively. In doing so, he would serve his own interests.
News Corp. and Dow Jones agreed last month — as a precondition to bargaining over price — to create a stand-alone special committee to assure the Journal's autonomy. Among other things, the special committee would have "approval rights" over the appointment and removal of the Journal's managing editor and its editorial page editor.
News Corp. also has adopted its own set of principles that it says are "aimed at ensuring the preservation of the integrity, editorial independence and freedom from bias" of its publications. The principles assert that "accuracy and fairness extend to coverage of any real or perceived business interests" of News Corp.
But is that enough? As Eric Pooley wrote in a recent cover story in Time, "the only thing to prevent Murdoch from wrecking the Journal will be Murdoch himself. (No editorial-oversight committee can stop him.)" Neither News Corp.'s "principles" nor the special committee's charter would bind him, nor would they convince competitors and critics that he wants to preserve, let alone improve, a great newspaper. There are simply too many instances in the last few decades in which Murdoch has used his media assets to attack his rivals and to advance his own business interests.
To overcome the journalists' skepticism and that of the public, Murdoch must go far beyond stated principles and ad hoc committees — and hold himself and his company up to the scrutiny of quality journalism.
Rigorous self-criticism won't come easily to him, and, in fairness, very few chief executives of media companies are willing to see themselves dissected in their own publications. But at a large multimedia company such as News Corp. or Time Warner Inc., where I served as Time Inc.'s editor in chief for 11 years, such commitments are essential.
Jerry Levin, the chief executive who hired me as editor in chief, was intellectually and emotionally committed to editorial independence. Levin understood that if we didn't cover ourselves aggressively, we would have no credibility with Time Warner's myriad competitors or with our readers. How could Sports Illustrated remain credible if it didn't cover the Atlanta Braves (which were owned by the company), including pitcher John Rocker's views on race? How could Entertainment Weekly remain credible if it didn't cover the company's movie studios, Warner Bros. and New Line?
Moreover, what better response could we give when Sumner Redstone at Viacom Inc. or Murdoch at News Corp. complained about our tough coverage than to show how our own publications had covered our corporate parent and our chief executive?
Most important, Levin and his successor, Richard Parsons, understood that Fortune, whose business audience is similar to the Journal's, wouldn't be credible if the magazine wasn't providing skeptical coverage of Time Warner. When Time Warner's cable subsidiary yanked ABC off its channels in a contract dispute with Disney, Fortune's editor, John Huey, ran a story titled, "Dumb and Dumber," about the cable company's ham-handed moves. (That tough coverage continued consistently, including when Fortune broke the story that Levin had been nudged out as chief executive. Levin never complained to me or to Fortune's editors.)
Aside from Levin, Murdoch will find few role models when he looks at the chief executives running other big media companies. At Dow Jones, the Bancroft family, which controls the company, has been pushing for guarantees of editorial independence, but its moral position is undermined by the failure to demand rigorous coverage of its own company over the last 50 years.
Once, when I was the Journal's managing editor, I received a company news release that had a few holes in it. After questioning the press officer who had given it to me, I received a call from Warren Phillips, the company's chief executive (and a former managing editor of the Journal). It was only then that I learned that Phillips maintained the title of editor in chief — there was no mention of this on the Journal's masthead — and by his reckoning, the release should run as written. It wasn't an important story, and I meekly accepted Phillips' argument. I was wrong to have done so.
It was much worse at Forbes, where I served as executive editor for the West Coast and Pacific from 1978 to 1980. Paul Blustein, a reporter in the Los Angeles bureau I headed, once wrote a very tough piece about the chief executive of Itel Corp., a leasing company based in San Diego. Forbes' editor, James Michaels, cleared the story, only to reverse himself the next day after the magazine's owner, Malcolm Forbes, told him that the Itel chief executive was a personal friend and that the story should be watered down. Blustein quit in protest, moving to the Journal and then to the Washington Post.
A few months later, I proposed a story on corruption in the Philippines to Michaels. The next day I got a call from New York, but it was from the publisher, not Michaels, telling me I shouldn't do the story until after an advertising supplement about the Philippines had run. I quit soon after receiving that call.
Malcolm Forbes also insisted that his name never appear on the list of the 400 wealthiest Americans that the magazine publishes annually, even though there was strong reason to think he belonged on it in its early years. Similarly, at Advance Publications, neither Sy Newhouse nor his brother, Donald Newhouse, ever appear on Vanity Fair's rankings of the most influential members of the media establishment, even though as owners of Conde Nast magazines (including Vanity Fair) and the Newhouse chain of newspapers, they obviously belong.
The New York Times under its current executive editor, Bill Keller, has done a good job of criticizing itself in print, but it has been far less rigorous in covering its parent, the New York Times Co. I don't think there has ever been an in-depth piece about the management of the New York Times Co. published in the New York Times. I think research would show the same at the Washington Post Co.
Covering one's own business aggressively and honestly increases a newspaper's credibility not just with readers but with advertisers. It inspires the reporting staff to do better work and makes it easier to retain and attract top reporting talent. Yet most news organizations still don't do it.
A notable exception to this tendency has been the newspaper you are reading. In the years since it was purchased by Tribune Co., the coverage of the media company has been tough and intense, especially during the months leading up to Tribune's sale. James Rainey and Steve Lopez have provided readers of the Los Angeles Times with criticism and commentary that have enhanced the paper's reputation for editorial independence.
If News Corp. does acquire Dow Jones, the real test will come the first time the managing editor decides to run a tough story about another News Corp. subsidiary — such as Fox News, 20th Century Fox or HarperCollins — or about Murdoch himself.
My advice? Forget Liebling, Mr. Murdoch, and look to the Scriptures for guidance: "The truth shall set you free."