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Murdoch cheerfully admits to meddling with his tabloids. "They're different animals," he says. "You've got to make people want to read 'em. They've got to have some fun and a bit of edge. Agendas up to a point, and certainly crusades. But I don't call all those shots. I haven't got the time." He doesn't need to dictate or micromanage because he chooses editors who broadly agree with him. That's not unusual in the newspaper business. Some papers are allowed to diverge the Sunday Times skews conservative, the Times of London more moderate.
So let's stipulate that the only thing to prevent Murdoch from wrecking the Journal will be Murdoch himself. (No editorial-oversight committee can stop him.) And let's admit the possibility that he may not be the same scorpion at 76 that he was at 51. He has always said that craving respectability is the beginning of the end for a journalist. "Journalists should think of themselves as outside the Establishment, and owners can't be too worried about what they're told at their country clubs," says the man who influences Prime Ministers and Presidents and still poses as a scrappy outsider. Yet his associates say he's finally considering his legacy and wants to run the Journal impeccably to upgrade his reputation. "He's thinking about his obit," says someone who knows him well.
He scoffs at the notion. "I'm not looking for a legacy, and you'll never shut up the critics. I've been around 50 years. When you're a catalyst for change, you make enemies and I'm proud of the ones I've got." Murdoch has invested billions in newspapers when few others were willing, but he has also kept them alive through a lowest-common denominator approach typified by the trashy Sun, with its topless Page 3 girls on the breakfast tables of a million Britons. Murdoch wouldn't be Murdoch if he didn't love sticking it to sanctimonious J-school toffs. "When the Journal gets its Page 3 girls," he jokes late one night, "we'll make sure they have M.B.A.s."
"We're very proud of what we do at all our papers," he says on another day, in another mood. "And we just feel insulted by the coverage. We've got more than 50,000 people [in News Corp.]." We're sitting in his New York City office on a June afternoon. "We make mistakes here and there. But there's nothing wrong with the Post most people would prefer to read it before they go to the Times. There's such a thing as a popular newspaper and an unpopular élite newspaper. They play different roles. We have both kinds. Just like we have the Fox network with American Idol and 24, and we also have the National Geographic Channel. It's hard for outsiders to understand that."
I toss out a theory: Fox News is one big reason Murdoch's critics are so incensed by the idea of his controlling the Journal. "Oh, yes!" he cries. So is Fox News an expression of his political views? "Yes! No! Yes and no. The commentators are not. Bill O'Reilly certainly not. Geraldo Rivera certainly not. But Brit Hume and his team on the nightly news? Yes. They play it absolutely straight!"
Murdoch isn't a party-line guy. He's a pragmatist. He likes strong politicians and change agents and winners; in recent years he has supported moderates like Tony Blair and Hillary Clinton. But he has a stubborn populist streak, and his populism finds an outlet on Fox News, a channel that gives voice to angry middle-aged white guys. "CNN is pretty consistently on the left, if you look at their choice of stories, what they play up. It's not what they say. It's what they highlight." (CNN, which is also owned by Time Warner, hotly disputes this charge.) Then he mumbles conspiratorially, "And if you look at our general news, do we put on things which favor the right rather than the left? I don't know." Has Murdoch just said what I think he said? Has he flirted with an admission that Fox News skews right? If so, he quickly backs away. "We don't think we do. We've always insisted we don't. I don't think we do. Aw, it's subjective. Neither side admits it."
If he gets the Journal, Murdoch swears, he has no plans to alter its journalism. "There'll be no change in the Journal's business coverage," he says flatly but he does mean to expand its reach. He'd like the newspaper to be a national counterpoint to the New York Times in setting the country's agenda. "My worry about the New York Times is that it's got the only position as a national élitist general-interest paper. So the network news picks up its cues from the Times. And local papers do too. It has a huge influence. And we'd love to challenge it."
Change was coming to the Journal whether Murdoch bought it or not. Like other newspapers, it has to change and adapt. And its relative inability to change and adapt until now certainly can't be blamed on Murdoch. In the past three years, the Journal's trim size has been reduced to save paper costs, and the Journal added a Saturday edition to try to reach more advertisers. A new managing editor, Marcus Brauchli, who was a foreign correspondent at the Journal for 15 years before assuming his current post, has been installing his own top editors. Murdoch has pledged to keep him in place, calling Brauchli "an agent of change."