How powerful is Rupert Murdoch now?
New York — With Rupert Murdoch's $5 billion acquisition of Dow Jones & Co., he is set to be established as one of America's most powerful media barons – a man whose sway stretches from the teens who watch "The Simpsons" to the financiers of Wall Street, from New York's City Hall to the White House.
But unlike past media moguls – such as William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, whose newspapers' sensationalist reporting may have pushed the nation into the Spanish-American War – media owners today may find it more difficult to sway national opinion, some experts say. With the advent of the Internet, information percolates to the public from thousands of sources. Cable or satellite TV allows Americans to choose everything from the BBC to Bloomberg Television.
"He has a huge empire as we look at it internationally, but it's not really the case that he is that dominant in the newspaper world in America," says Rick Edmonds, a media analyst at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla. "But there is a host of reasons to be apprehensive: He's a willful guy and has thrown his weight around in the past and may do so again." Mr. Murdoch is likely to leave his biggest mark on financial news. The US print edition of The Wall Street Journal – part of the Dow Jones stable – reaches 1.7 million readers each day. Global paid circulation is more than 2.7 million.
"The Wall Street Journal is a dominant force, the single most import source of financial journalism," says Mr. Edmonds.
The Journal purchase may eventually fit into Murdoch's plans for an on-air financial news network, set to start this fall. However, at the moment, Dow Jones has an agreement that Journal reporters will appear on CNBC, a potential competitor to Murdoch's new network. "In the short run, he will have to buy out the CNBC contract to draw on the resources of the brand," says Edmonds.
Financial news on television has been a tough sell. CNN shut down its financial network because of low ratings and an aggressive move by Murdoch to raise the rates that CNNfn paid for using his satellites. Fortune magazine has tried, unsuccessfully, several shows including a version of "Wall Street Week."
"There have been a lot of attempts to translate print to the television format, but it's not a guaranteed success," says Edmonds.
Murdoch may also have his hands full managing the Journal, winner of 31 Pulitzer Prizes. During the three-month takeover battle, many Journal reporters sent letters to the Bancroft family, the longtime owner of Dow Jones, asking it not to sell the paper. "As this drama has unfolded, there has been anxiety among the staff, and you can be sure some will leave," says Steve Davis, chair of the newspaper department at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication at Syracuse University in New York.
"Let's say 10 percent of the workforce leaves," says Mr. Davis. "Just look at history. This kind of thing has spawned departures, and it will again."
Murdoch, for his part, has said he intends to invest in Dow Jones-style journalism. However, Davis suspects the media mogul will also want to make changes. "No one spends $5 billion and change doesn't follow," he says.
While some modifications may take place in the focus of the Journal, or perhaps even in its sections, few expect major changes. Murdoch won't want to antagonize the business readership. "My sense is that he's smart enough not to tip over the apple cart at The Wall Street Journal," says Edmonds. "To win the hearts and minds of the readers, I think there will be improvements versus a New York Post style of journalism."
However, many are concerned about the new power Murdoch, who already runs News Corp., will acquire with this purchase. "Clearly his business life continues to be [about acquiring] as much media power as possible, and then use it to promote both his deep-seated right-wing politics and his business interests," says Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, a national organization in Washington trying to reform the media. "The fact is that some laws need to be applied to Rupert Murdoch since he owns television stations, cable news operations, and one of only [a few] national newspapers."
Others say Murdoch can't control the national agenda. "Is he a powerful media baron?" asks Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. "Absolutely. But having influence is different than controlling the media. The New York Times and The Washington Post ... have influence, too."
Through his Fox News, Murdoch has staked out the conservative side, many analysts say. But Edmonds believes the decision was more economic than ideological. "If you start with the premise that all four major networks are liberal, it makes sense to position yourself as a conservative," he says.
In fact, Murdoch has shown some pragmatism at times. In 2000, the New York Post supported Republican Rick Lazio in his race against Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton for the US Senate. After she won, however, the Post has been largely supportive of her presidential campaign, some say.
"He has certainly cozied up to her because of the New York Post," says Mr. Sabato. "She might be his Democratic choice, but he also might have a Republican choice."
Even if Senator Clinton is the Democratic nominee, Sabato says The Wall Street Journal is not likely to be endorsing her, no matter who owns the paper. "There would be a rebellion if he forced the editors to endorse Hillary," he says. "The readers of The Wall Street Journal are not voting for Hillary no matter what Murdoch says."