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April 23, 2014

Rupert's $1 Million Republican Gift: Why It Matters

Why has News Corp’s million dollar gift to the Republican Governors Association gotten so much attention?

I think there are a few top-of-mind reasons and one — a little paper called the Wall Street Journal — that forms the subtext here.

The big reasons:

  • The size of the gift. $1 million. Yes, GE and Disney have given tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars previously, though over the years, the NBC and ABC news operations have seemed insulated from parental political moves. The News Corp gift appears (we need more reporting here) to be four or five times the size of those, though, and of course, there’s less separation in the public mind between News Corp and Fox News.
  • The size of Rupert Murdoch’s presence in the news world. Murdoch and News Corp are synonymous, in ways that other CEOs, even media-owning CEOs, aren’t. News Corp is the largest news company in the world, by revenues, having overtaken Gannett within the last two years. In addition, Murdoch, in the last couple of years, has become a key leader in American journalism circles, advocating pay walls, challenging Eric Schmidt and Google and now organizing his Alesia paid content portal.
  • The size of Fox News in the political news landscape. #1 in ratings, with clear positioning as the opposition-to-Obama leader, it is an attention-grabber in many ways.

Those three reasons provide enough reason for the gift story to get some play.

Add another, though. News Corp bought the Wall Street Journal two and a half years ago. You recall the consternation and public wonderment about whether Murdoch would Fox-ize the WSJ. We WSJ readers, indeed, have seen many changes, most obviously more hard news, more non-business news, a move away from lifestyle consumption and towards more public policy think pieces (often way too long).

What watchers have looked for, though, is political taint — were Murdoch’s politics influencing what the Journal wrote about or how it wrote about it. The jury is still out on that question. It’s easy to cite specific stories, specific headlines and specific story placements that might betray a more conservative, anti-Administration approach to news play, but it’s also quite easy to point out lots of great Journal journalism that’s right down the middle on vital issues of the day.

The million-dollar gift, then, raises that question anew. It’s no secret that Fox News and the Republican Party are joined at the hip, even though it may be as much a marketing alliance as a political one. But the Journal belongs to a different, an American, newspaper order, that has in its DNA the intention to avoid conflict of appearance, and even the appearance of conflict of interest. (Maybe, it’s different in the UK, where News Corp owns bought the “quality” Times of London and the popular Sun and News of the World tabs.) Murdoch’s gift flies quickly over the “appearance” question and squarely raises on conflict as the Journal — now a national general newspaper — writes voluminously about the governors’ races all over the land.

While other companies, freed by the landmark Citizens United Supreme Court decision, are deciding gingerly whether and how to make political donations, Rupert Murdoch, ever the bull in the china shop, has boldly made his decision.

Go political. Go big. Damn the naysayers.

Target, reeling from a boycott over its own political donations in Minnesota, would give you a different answer than Murdoch today, but Target isn’t News Corp.

Finally, journalists are left with an acid test: how did News Corp’s own companies cover the donation story? How fairly a news organization covers itself is Journalism 101.

Fox News apparently missed the story completely, according to web accounts. No on-air mentions at all. In fact, a check of the FoxNews site shows no stories either, Fox News, AP or otherwise.

The Journal?  One story this morning, two days after Bloomberg broke it. It’s a short story, one that appears to be written oh-so-carefully. It doesn’t acknowledge the firestorm that’s erupted, and it helpfully turns over the third and fourth paragraphs to a News Corp spokesperson. As a paying Journal subscriber, I’d have to say it’s not up to Journal standards.

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