Murdoch, Destroyer of News? Probably Not

FOX APPEARS destined to reap a nifty payday from “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer,” whose central peril involves a devourer of worlds named Galactus. There’s a bit of poetry in the timing, since Rupert Murdoch — chairman of Fox’s globe-engulfing parent News Corp. — is depicted much the same way in speculation about his intent to swallow and spit out the Wall Street Journal’s desiccated husk.

As is so often the case, the indignation and hyperbole surrounding Murdoch’s proposed acquisition has assumed a life of its own — one that comes into clearer focus with the emergence of a potential competing bid for Journal owner Dow Jones by General Electric and Pearson, publisher of the Financial Times.

Lest anyone consider this progress, whatever Fox News Channel and the New York Post’s excesses under Murdoch’s stewardship, GE and other conglomerates have hardly distinguished themselves as champions of blue-blooded journalism, while the Journal and indeed the entire newspaper sector must take some responsibility for its economic vulnerability.

GE already controls news network MSNBC, which, through the introduction of its tawdry primetime “doc block,” seems determined to gradually morph into TCPC, or the “To Catch a Predator” Channel.

A similar mentality informs the latest addition to business-news sibling CNBC, which introduces a series this week titled “American Greed: Scams, Scoundrels and Scandals.” While positioned as a furtive attempt to expand the CNBC “brand” with more compelling reasons to stay tuned than a stock ticker, the program also betrays an abiding faith in true crime as the most reliable (and invariably lowest) of cable common denominators.

In part, the collective hand-wringing devoted to Murdoch’s overture to absorb Dow Jones reflects a larger sense of uncertainty plaguing the print community, inspiring defenders of the old guard to cling tighter to our most-revered institutions.

AS A NEWSPAPER GUY, I get that, and it feels good to support the industry. Yet strictly as a reader, the Journal clearly isn’t immune to the institutional arrogance and mismanagement newspapers have exhibited in exacerbating their operational woes.

When the Journal sent out a recent renewal notice, for example, I balked at the $50 annual increase. Most newspapers are struggling to maintain circulation, and all the Journal’s done to augment its product is add a Saturday edition that has yet to produce much I’ve felt obligated to read other than critic Joe Morgenstern’s always-enjoyable musings about movies.

Beyond that, the Journal’s famously right-wing editorial page has grown increasingly shrill and predictable, going beyond articulating conservative principles and frequently adopting the inflammatory rhetoric of talkradio to alibi for the Bush administration. Frankly, watching or listening to Murdoch’s Fox News employee Sean Hannity conveys the same talking points, with the bonus entertainment value of hearing him label everyone left of Newt Gingrich a commie.

As an experiment, I called the Journal and said I’ll renew, but at the old price. The operator disappeared and came back with a polite answer: No. (For a minute, I thought about mentioning how I’ve met Murdoch and once wrote a column asking him to adopt me, but why bring out the big guns over 50 bucks?)

So the Journal kissed off a subscriber over a relative pittance — then squandered roughly $50 mailing out “Hurry, or your subscription might lapse!” reminders after the call.

NOR DOES IT make much strategic sense for the Journal to implement an announced overhaul of its editorial staff at this unsettled moment — the kind of questionable move observers have come to expect from Tribune Co., a venerable newspaper owner that has emptied revolvers shooting itself in the feet.

All of which is a long way of saying that whatever Murdoch’s sins in using his media holdings to buttress each other and advance his broader political interests, the mogul is foremost a pragmatist, and there’s limited upside for him in draining every vestige of equity from the Journal name, a la Galactus, after investing billions folding Dow Jones into his empire.

If that isn’t reassurance enough, look at this way: Murdoch wouldn’t inflict more damage on the Journal’s prestige than GE, Pearson or any number of proprietors in today’s media environment — including, possibly, Dow Jones itself.

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