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When Moguls Attack!

How to save U.S. newspapers from the long grasp of Rupert Murdoch.

EARLIER THIS MONTH, Rupert Murdoch—the benefactor of “When Animals Attack!,” “American Idol,” Page Three Girls, “The O’Reilly Factor,” and other vital cultural institutions—announced his intention to purchase a crown jewel of U.S. journalism, The Wall Street Journal. The prospect of the Aussie vulgarian lording over the paper has whipped up an end-of-days gloom across the nation’s newsrooms.

But, of course, most of these newsrooms were already in an apocalyptic mood—and with good reason. Circulation has beendropping for decades. Shareholders feel cheated by the returns on their investment, and their discontent has escalated into open rebellion, with portfolio managers loudly complaining that the great newspaper-owning families (the Sulzbergers, the Grahams, and the Bancrofts) have undemocratically hoarded control of their companies (see Roger Lowenstein’s "Paper Tigers" on page 20). And that’s to say nothing of the two-front political war that the so-called "mainstream media" (a.k.a. the MSM) must fight, with both the left and right lambasting its claims to objectivity, the very source of editorial authority.

By swallowing the Journal, Murdoch may or may not deepen this crisis. There’s some evidence to suggest that he will refrain frominserting barely clad women next to the paper’s stock tables—and some reason to believe that he doesn’t intend to fully sync the Journal with Fox News and The Weekly Standard, his ideologicalorgans. Nevertheless, this should be a pivotal moment for liberals—a time to dial back their relentless hostility tonewspapers and start crusading for them.

We don’t mean to sound naive about the shortcomings of these institutions—which do deserve to be spanked quite frequently fortheir timidity, laziness, and reluctance to challenge power. But you need only consider the contributions of the Journal to understand the stakes of the present moment. Over the past decades,the Journal hasn’t just been the great chronicler of capitalism; it has been one of the most important checks against its excesses. The paper has regularly exposed important failings of the market—from the leveraged buyouts and insider trading of the 1980s to the stock manipulation of recent years. In the era of deregulation, it’s hard to imagine that the government would have uncovered these epic cases of malfeasance.

Sadly, these great feats haven’t won the newspaper business liberal love. There are many, especially in the blogosphere, who can’t wait to dance on the graves of the crusty old MSM “gatekeepers.” They champion the rise of “citizen journalism,” as techno-enthusiasts like to describe the bloggers and their Wikipedia model of media: Unlike the MSM brontosaurs, bloggers will actually report the truth without fear of losing access to Washington cocktail parties or pressure from corporate bosses. And the champions of the blogosphere have a point. There have been times in the Bush era when blogs have crushed the largest papers in pursuit of scoops.

But there’s a problem with the new order they imagine—which resembles the partisan newspapers of the nineteenth century, with bloggers chasing Truth without the shackles of objectivity. You can always dismiss a blogger, or a partisan paper like the New York Post, as biased. But The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal have long batted down this complaint. That’s because it rings so empty. The MSM makes an earnest (albeit occasionally flawed) effort to achieve a neutral understanding of events, and that’s the source of an authority and prestige that even its harshest critics in the political and corporate elite still must respect.

Indeed, that’s what makes this moment so dangerous. While the MSM’s authority and prestige persist, they are in peril. And it’s not just outside forces that have conspired against them. Newspapers themselves have squandered the sense of self-confidence that they once oozed. Talk to editors and publishers and they will confess that they have no compelling plan for reinvigorating themselves. The buccaneering spirit of Ben Bradlee and A.M. Rosenthal has given way to the timidity that characterized prewar WMD reporting and led the Times to sit on its domestic wiretapping stories for a year. John Carroll, the former editor of the Los Angeles Times, has lamented "shrinking the social purpose of newspapers."

How can newspapers recover their mojo? For starters, they should stop sounding apocalyptic. Their business is in much less of a crisis than you might imagine. The long-term decline in newspaper readership can be largely attributed to the death of the evening paper. The circulation of morning papers has actually risen by about 60 percent since 1980. And, for papers like The Washington Post that have shed print readers, Web traffic has grown at an astonishing pace. And profit margins at most papers remain high. As The New Yorker’s James Surowiecki pointed out last year, the McClatchy newspaper conglomerate, which purchased Knight Ridder last year, has healthier profit margins than, say, ExxonMobil.

The crisis in newspapers relates more to perceptions than the actual bottom line. While the Times, the Post, and the Journal are still run by their founding families, they are traded on the New York Stock Exchange. They may generate good profit—although Dow Jones & Company less so—but Wall Street has branded their industry stagnant, a kiss of death with investors. So, even though they are profitable, they must answer to investors who continue to demand cost-cutting that boosts share prices but undermines their mission.

As stewards of their papers, the Sulzbergers, the Grahams, and the Bancrofts have exuded the best spirit of Progressive-era elites, a commitment to reform and independence. But, with Wall Street imperiling their legacy, it’s time for the families to begin considering a different path. If the stock market won’t properly value their companies, then they should find investors who will help them take their companies private—and keep them out of Rupert Murdoch’s long grasp.

 Stale Baguette

WE AT THE NEW REPUBLIC love Paris in the springtime, and never moreso than when that springtime happens to fall during the French presidential elections. Over the last few months, we’ve joined the rest of the United States in casting an interested eye to the Gallic nation and its democratic exertions. And, along with the usual supply of liberté, egalité, and fraternité, France’s most exciting political season in years has marked the return of something uniquely American: the French cliché. Yes, the U.S. media’s affection for the stalest of French stereotypes is rather like France’s love of Jerry Lewis—legendary and without limit. “Listen to the conversation with the waiter at the table next to you in a Parisian restaurant at lunchtime and more often than not it will involve a nuanced discussion of what is best to eat and just which wine to drink,” The New York Times rhapsodized. (In summing up the country’s political mood, the paper also couldn’t resist noting the quaint charm of the “neighborhood bistros and bakers and cheese shops and charcuteries.”) On MSNBC, we learned that some French voters “even bicycled to the polls, carrying baguettes.” And the Toledo Blade had this to say of the tense match betweenconservative Nicolas Sarkozy and his socialist rival, Ségolène Royal: “Sacré bleu!

But the beret-wearing, Gauloise-smoking, wine-sipping, cheese eating, bicycle-pedaling Frenchman of yore has vanished—except, perhaps, from America’s news sources. France is now famously—and, at times, fractiously—multiethnic and religiously diverse. Nearly 80 percent of its population is urban-dwelling. (Cycling may be all well and good for bucolic country lanes, but most Parisians ride le metro.) Meanwhile, the country's sacred café culture suffers as Starbucks forces the corner tabac out of business. And—hélas!—you can forget about that cigarette with your coffee: France recently banned smoking in public places.

But, while the vrai France has less and less in common with its time-frozen American depiction, it has come to increasingly resemble America itself: a world-class economy troubled by joblessness and immigration, a secular national culture challenged by rising religiosity, an uncertain standing in the international community. The French themselves seem to be indirectly acknowledging these similarities with the election of Sarkozy, a politician who has been nicknamed “l’Americain” and whom the French media has often decried as that most odious of American stereotypes: “un cowboy.”

So perhaps it’s time to retire those hackneyed images of rude waiters, brooding intellectuals, and a Bordeaux-swilling citizenry. “The French people,” Sarkozy noted in his victory speech, “have chosen to break with the ideas, the habits, and the actions of the past.” Let us, too, break with our old clichés of the French. Vive la difference!

This article appeared in the May 21, 2007 issue of the magazine.