I admit it. I am a left wing Wall Street Journal junkie. I think Hillary Clinton is a closet Republican and Dennis Kucinich is a political moderate. I do not own a TV and I bike to work. I get the heebie jeebies whenever I hear a politician confabulate 9.11 and the Iraq War in the same breath. I think that the Global War on Terror is the 21st Century “commie scare.” I disdain deceptocratic Democrats as much as I disdain neocon Republicans.
But I am still a Journal junkie. Every morning I drink my mug of fair-trade coffee, dunk my trans-fat free doughnut and scour the Dow Jones Company’s conservative business newspaper from section to section. I try to keep my embarrassing addiction a secret from my friends. My subscription is in someone else’s name. I wrap my WSJ inside the local newspaper, just in case someone looks through the window and catches me reading the financial pages. When I am finished reading, I hide my tracks by stealthily dumping my Journal… in someone else’s recycling bin.
Now, however, the business tycoon Rupert Murdoch is angling to buy the Dow Jones Company and The Wall Street Journal that it publishes. Murdoch owns News Corp (as Mr. Murdoch’s transnational business is known in Street vernacular) and News Corp is one of those media conglomerates that everyone loves to hate. Mr. Murdoch, through his company, owns so many newspapers, television stations, magazines, internet outlets, cable and satellite news and infotainment networks that he is the poster child for the Corporate Mass Media. Now he wants to buy my secret addiction, The Wall Street Journal.
I do not read The Wall Street Journal to keep an eye on my non-existent stock investments. I read The Wall Street Journal because I crave data, particularly data about what the economy, the financial sector and the business community are doing. I want to know what they are doing, and what they are thinking, because, sooner or later, what they do or think will affect you and me. I also subscribe to and read the usual alternative media, print and electronic. But there is a limit to how much political orthodoxy I can take (especially when I agree with most of it) before my political gut starts to demand more substance. It is like those damn doughnuts I eat in the morning: one is good, two is okay; but a straight diet of nothing but screeds and doughnuts leaves you with a soft, flabby belly, a soft, flabby brain and a hankering for more nutrition with less fat.
The WSJ, along with The New York Times and The Washington Post, are the three principle “opinion-makers” in the United States. They set the tone and the editorial policy which then quickly percolates through the rest of the US news media. In an age when “local” media no longer have their own national or international reporters, they rely on the “biggies” to set up the stories for them. The Times, The Post and The Journal propagate the official government stories and the “approved” propaganda. If “your government” wants to channel public opinion in a particular direction, it begins with these three papers. You can read it here today, and read it in your local newspaper tomorrow. The Post writes primarily for Washington’s political wonks and The Times for bleeding heart Republicans who fancy themselves “liberals”. The Journal, however, unabashedly caters to the ruling elite, the moneyed class that owns, and, therefore, does not need to hold elected office. This class’s watchdogs monitor what we are saying; it is imperative that we also monitor what they are saying.
Clearly, it is not every story printed in The Wall Street Journal that merits our attention. This quintessentially mainstream newspaper is as skewed to the right as the rest of them, sometimes more so. However, the staff reporters of The Wall Street Journal are a rather professional lot. The reporters are also unionized and have staged at least one little publicized walk-out to protest the sale of the WSJ to Rupert Murdoch. Buried within many of the reporters’ stories are nuggets of pure information. Thus, while a headline might blandly state that “Investors Shrug Off Sub-Prime Mortgage Collapse” or “Bankers Postpone Sale of Debt for Chrysler LBO”, there lie within the articles heart-stopping descriptions of mountains and mountains of bad debt: collateralized debt obligations, collateralized mortgage obligations, securitized financial shenanigans and unhinged hedge funds that carry book values in the billions of dollars but which really may be worth practically nothing. And then you read who ultimately owns all this bad debt – not the banks (who bundle it, slice it, “repackage” it and resell the debt as “bonds” as fast as they can), not the debt brokers, not the financial big wigs on Wall Street. No, the hot potato often ends up in the lap of teacher and union pension funds, mutual funds, city and state investment vehicles, and foreign investment banks. In the quest for the maximum return on their investments, these entities have indirectly snarfed up investment instruments comprised of the shaky mortgages and gossamer securities that have held the American economy together with spit and duct tape for the past business cycle. And, as usual, it is the lesser people who will be crushed when the edifice finally collapses.
In the Journal stories you can read between the lines how the Stock Markets have been levitated by manic corporate mergers (also funded by cotton candy bonds and insignificantly collateralized securities); how the Federal Reserve Board Chairman, Ben Bernanke, acknowledges that interest rates will not drop until the unemployment rate increases (thereby creating a larger reserve of wage-depressing excess labor); how production at Mexico’s Cantarell oil fields, one of the largest in the world and one of the major suppliers of US petroleum, has peaked and its oil yield begun a rapid, irreversible decline.
The newspaper’s financial charts and graphs, once you learn how to read them, describe the raw economic data that clearly indicate whether another war is imminent to keep the profits churning, whether the de facto devaluation of the dollar will accelerate as more foreign holders of US currency diversify out of US treasury instruments and into Eurobonds or hard assets, and whether food and energy costs will continue to skyrocket while the “experts” blandly assure us that “core inflation” (which excludes everything essential to life, like food and energy) is under control.
Should we give a rip about all this technical financial stuff? Karl Marx did. He was not just a pamphleteer and agitator. Although Marx wrote the Manifesto whose specter haunted Europe in the mid to late 19th Century, he was an especially ardent student of capitalism. Indeed, Marx’s major claim to fame is that his voluminous study, Das Kapital, is a thorough definition of capitalism, how it works, and how it fails. Marx understood that in any competition of ideas, you must first completely understand your adversary. Marx spent much of his later life burrowing into the books and financial reports archived in the British Library. Then he dissected what he learned about capitalism from the capitalists themselves, setting forth in his most significant life work one of the most cogent analyses, not of communism, but of capitalism.
Fortunately, it is not all hard work studying the world of the moneyed class. The Wall Street Journal also has its funny pages. The funnies are its Editorial and Op Ed pages. WSJ editorials have a curmudgeonly 19th Century feel to them, as though they are penned by Bedford Fall’s black hatted banker, Henry Potter (of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life), or Scrooge of Dicken’s Christmas Tale. The Op Ed articles – most frequently written by “visiting scholars” or “fellows” resident at one of a half dozen or so oxymoronically named “think tanks” – ooze with the prerogatives of wealth and disdain for the uneducated, the poor, and the downtrodden. Here you can read rib-tickling columnists like Mary Anastasia O’Grady who, apparently, never met a Latin American plutocrat that she did not like; guest writers like Berkeley’s reactionary law professor, John Yoo, who preaches the constitutional apostasy of the President as King; former New York Times “reporter” Judith Miller who once proudly touted neocon lies about Iraq’s purported weapons of mass destruction; and Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve and champion of the “cognitive elite” (aka, aristocracy). If ever you find your faith in Enlightenment principles faltering, you need only read these opinion articles and guest editorials to reaffirm your left politics and remind yourself exactly what it is you are struggling against.
As entertaining as this is, you sober up quickly when you realize that the editorials of The Wall Street Journal are, indeed, aimed at a sympathetic and receptive audience… and it is not you or me. As scary as it seems, there are, indeed, many powerful people in the world who share the not-so-funny views of the WSJ editors. This newspaper influences the world’s thin upper crust. Their editorials, moreover, set the “talking points” adopted by the elite as they defend the likes of the occupation of Iraq, beat drums of war against Iran, champion the privatization of health care, social security and education, or justify the commutation of Scooter Libby’s prison sentence for perjury.
It is no wonder, therefore, that Rupert Murdoch wants to add this newspaper to his media menagerie. However, the controlling stock of the Dow Jones Company (the parent corporation that owns the WSJ) lies mostly in the hands of the Bancroft family. The Bancrofts earned their stock holdings the old fashioned way – they inherited it. Ironically for owners of the Dow Jones Company and The Wall Street Journal, the Bancrofts are now faced with a conundrum more familiar to the tightly squeezed American small business owner and family farmer: do they sell their patrimony to be just one more stuffed trophy mounted on the wall of Rupert Murdoch, the Mass Media Mogul; or do they (fancy this!) spurn the big bucks, make a lot less money and keep their pride of independent ownership?
The Bancrofts have floated the idea of selling their family business to News Corp but restricting editorial policy or the power to hire and fire top editors. But it is the reporters, not just the top editors, who need to be insulated from an owner’s influence. Furthermore, no matter what limitations are placed on the deal, does anyone doubt that, sooner or later, the cold finger of Rupert Murdoch will lie heavy on one of America’s few remaining sources of uncensored critical information?
With his money, he can certainly buy up any media he likes. He cannot, however, buy its readers. I am a confessed left wing Wall Street Journal junkie, but Mr. Murdoch has the miraculous power to cure me of my addiction. If the day comes and the deal is done, then so am I. That very day will I cancel my subscription to The Journal. Cold Turkey. Will my daily buck-fifty matter to Mr. Murdoch? Not at all. But it is my money and I – and perhaps many others – would rather deny ourselves our secret journalistic pleasure than be complicit in the continuing agglomeration of all media into fewer and fewer hands.