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Murdoch Morning After: Can Fox Business Network Keep the WSJ Honest?

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The morning after News Corp.’s all-but-finalized acquisition of Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal, Fox News Channel demonstrated the fairness and balance it’s world famous for. “Oh, come on, let’s just say it! I’m excited!” said Fox business correspondent Dagen McDowell, flashing a smile the width of an ear of corn. “Who isn’t excited!”

Who-isn’t-excited includes many of the WSJ’s own employees, and other journalists who worry that Rupert Murdoch plans to make the Journal into Fox News: The Print Edition–or, at least, make its news coverage flashier, shallower and more shall-we-say in tune with the conservative mogul’s political and business interests. (Which of those two interests would win out–Murdoch is known for his alliances of convenience with the likes of Hillary Clinton–is another story.)

But there’s the possibility–and this may be wishful thinking–that Rupe’s new newspaper may be shielded from drastic change for now, precisely because of the interests of his new TV channel.

The immediate TV-biz impact of News Corp.’s takeover of Dow Jones is, on the one hand, major (because it provides a natural partner for Rupert Murdoch’s soon-to-launch Fox Business Network) and on the other hand negligible (because Dow Jones has a multiyear exclusivity agreement in place with CNBC, which Rupe will now be helping to underwrite). But clearly the multimedia potential of Dow Jones’ brands was a big factor here.

Newspapers are a big deal to news folks, after all, but in a company like News Corp., electronic media, especially TV, is where the big money is. (Murdoch’s New York Post, on the other hand, has famously been the place where News Corp’s money goes, never to be heard from again.) Murdoch may be glad to have the WSJ for prestige, bully-pulpit and brand-enhancing reasons, but long-term, he will need FBN to make money.

And as I’ve said before, it’s going to need to make that money in a journalism field different from the one where Fox News operates. FNC can promise “balance” with a wink and cash in on a niche of viewers who want news that flatters their worldview. But business-news consumers want something literally more objective– that is, information they can use to make objectively measurable money. Whatever you think of CNBC’s cozy biz coverage, this is its brand strength. If FBN is perceived as slanted, it risks disaster. (People may love subjectivity when it’s free, but they want objectivity when their money’s on the line.) And because FBN will be so closely associated with Dow Jones from the get-go (even if it can’t actually use DJ’s staff), if the WSJ is perceived as becoming slanted–politically, toward News Corp. or otherwise–that will undermine the new network from the start.

As I said, this is just conjecture, and it may well be Pollyannish. But the WSJ’s best guarantor of independence for now may be the increased attention to it–and the way that attention reflects on Rupert’s expensive TV gamble. (At least short-term. Then again, Murdoch is 76: how long is his term anyway? After him, the WSJ becomes just another news institution with a huge, perhaps less generous corporate parent–like NBC News or, um, Time Inc.–and that’s a situation with its own problems.)

Sunlight, after all, is the best disinfectant. The catch, of course, is that once the Dow Jones deal is official, Rupert Murdoch will own a significantly bigger piece of the sun.

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