The Murdoch Factor
In October 2003, the nonpartisan Program on International Policy Attitudes published a study titled "Misperceptions, the media and the Iraq war." It found that 60 percent of Americans believed at least one of the following: clear evidence had been found of links between Iraq and Al Qaeda; W.M.D. had been found in Iraq; world public opinion favored the U.S. going to war with Iraq.
The prevalence of these misperceptions, however, depended crucially on where people got their news. Only 23 percent of those who got their information mainly from PBS or NPR believed any of these untrue things, but the number was 80 percent among those relying primarily on Fox News. In particular, two-thirds of Fox devotees believed that the U.S. had "found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the Al Qaeda terrorist organization."
So, does anyone think it's O.K. if Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation, which owns Fox News, buys The Wall Street Journal?
The problem with Mr. Murdoch isn't that he's a right-wing ideologue. If that were all he was, he'd be much less dangerous. What he is, rather, is an opportunist who exploits a rule-free media environment - one created, in part, by conservative political power - by slanting news coverage to favor whoever he thinks will serve his business interests.
In the United States, that strategy has mainly meant blatant bias in favor of the Bush administration and the Republican Party - but last year Mr. Murdoch covered his bases by hosting a fund-raiser for Hillary Clinton's Senate re-election campaign.
In Britain, Mr. Murdoch endorsed Tony Blair in 1997 and gave his government favorable coverage, "ensuring," reports The New York Times, "that the new government would allow him to keep intact his British holdings."
And in China, Mr. Murdoch's organizations have taken care not to offend the dictatorship.
Now, Mr. Murdoch's people rarely make flatly false claims. Instead, they usually convey misinformation through innuendo. During the early months of the Iraq occupation, for example, Fox gave breathless coverage to each report of possible W.M.D.'s, with little or no coverage of the subsequent discovery that it was a false alarm. No wonder, then, that many Fox viewers got the impression that W.M.D.'s had been found.
When all else fails, Mr. Murdoch's news organizations simply stop covering inconvenient subjects.
Last year, Fox relentlessly pushed claims that the "liberal media" were failing to report the "good news" from Iraq. Once that line became untenable - well, the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that in the first quarter of 2007 daytime programs on Fox News devoted only 6 percent of their time to the Iraq war, compared with 18 percent at MSNBC and 20 percent at CNN.
What took Iraq's place? Anna Nicole Smith, who received 17 percent of Fox's daytime coverage.
Defenders of Mr. Murdoch's bid for The Journal say that we should judge him not by Fox News but by his stewardship of the venerable Times of London, which he acquired in 1981. Indeed, the political bias of The Times is much less blatant than that of Fox News. But a number of former Times employees have said that there was pressure to slant coverage - and everyone I've seen quoted defending Mr. Murdoch's management is still on his payroll.
In any case, do we want to see one of America's two serious national newspapers in the hands of a man who has done so much to mislead so many? (The Washington Post, for all its influence, is basically a Beltway paper, not a national one. The McClatchy papers, though their Washington bureau's reporting in the run-up to Iraq put more prestigious news organizations to shame, still don't have The Journal's ability to drive national discussion.)
There doesn't seem to be any legal obstacle to the News Corporation's bid for The Journal: F.C.C. rules on media ownership are mainly designed to prevent monopoly in local markets, not to safeguard precious national informational assets. Still, public pressure could help avert a Murdoch takeover. Maybe Congress should hold hearings.
If Mr. Murdoch does acquire The Journal, it will be a dark day for America's news media - and American democracy. If there were any justice in the world, Mr. Murdoch, who did more than anyone in the news business to mislead this country into an unjustified, disastrous war, would be a discredited outcast. Instead, he's expanding his empire.
Paul Krugman is Professor of Economics at Princeton University and a regular New York Times columnist. His most recent book is The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century.
© 2007 The New York Times