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What Would New Ownership Mean for 'Journal'?

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

The family that controls the Wall Street Journal has agreed to listen to media baron Rupert Murdoch. He has made a $5 billion offer to buy the paper. The money could hardly be better, but family members are still wrestling with Murdoch's history of infusing his own opinions and interests into his news coverage.

As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, for guidance on what a Murdoch-owned Journal would be like, it helps to look east.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: First stop, the United Kingdom and the Sunday Times London. Andrew Neil was hired to run the paper soon after Murdoch took over.

Mr. ANDREW NEIL (Former Editor-in-chief, Sunday Times): You have a certain latitude. You got to be on the same planet as Rupert Murdoch. Every now and then, you couldn't be on a different continent and even a different country, though you can do that too often under a limits to your freedom.

FOLKENFLIK: Over on planet Murdoch, you probably would've been pretty supportive of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s. More recently, his papers have befriended British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Senator Hillary Clinton.

At Murdoch's tabloids, the London Sun as well as the New York Post, the pressure to slant coverage was more blatant, but there were subtle influence at the more prestigious Sunday Times as well. Neil says he knew the game.

Mr. NEIL: On a number of issues, Rupert and I agreed anyway so it wasn't an issue. Where we didn't, I went carefully, and I usually still got my own way and I survived for 11 years.

FOLKENFLIK: Murdoch plowed new money into the paper, but on planet Murdoch, you don't crusade against corruption in Malaysia just as the boss is seeking to expand his satellite television empire there. After those stories ran, Neil says he got an annoyed call.

Mr. NEIL: And I said, excuse me, Rupert. We don't do prime ministers on the run. When did the newspaper ever do that? He then changed tact and said, well, that's just typical of you Andrew Neil. You want to bring down two prime ministers, not content with one. I now knew from his tone and what he was saying that our days together were numbered.

FOLKENFLIK: For a next stop, let's head farther east - to China. Murdoch admitted to a biographer that business interests led him to ax the BBC from his Star TV satellite service there. Chinese officials were angered by a documentary on Chairman Mao. Murdoch's publishing arm dropped a memoir by the last British governor general of Hongkong, Chris Patten, who was highly critical of human rights abuses in China. A top editor quit.

Murdoch later apologized for that and last month, promised the Bankcroft family he would not damage the Journal's heritage. Instead, he said he'd rely on the papers insights and scoops for his other outlets, such as a new Fox business channel. Murdoch, who declined to be interviewed for this story, recently made his case on his own Fox News Channel.

Mr. RUPERT MURDOCH (Global Media Executive, News Corporation): This is the greatest newspaper in America, one of the greatest in the world. It has great journalist, which deserve, I think, a much wider audience.

FOLKENFLIK: Former Sunday Times editor Andrew Neil says there won't be any frontal assault on the Journal's values, but that Murdoch won't be able to resist violating his promise to keep corporate interests separate from the paper's news coverage.

Mr. NEIL: And it's certain, he finds the Journal as concern. I would suspect that if Mr. Murdoch ends up the owner, that Chinese wall ain't going to last for very long.

FOLKENFLIK: A group of Journal foreign correspondents wrote to the Bankcrofts to encourage them not to sell the paper. Ian Johnson was one of them. He won a Pulitzer back in 2001 for stories on the repression of the Falun Gong that was critical of Chinese authorities.

Mr. IAN JOHNSON (Foreign Correspondent, Wall Street Journal): Our newspaper has written extensively on corruption of senior leaders and their children, for example. This is a huge issue in China the Chinese press can't deal with because it's too sensitive.

FOLKENFLIK: Johnson says any attempt, even to put a thumb on the scale, would damage the Journal's hard-won reputation.

Mr. JOHNSON: If people think that if reflects Rupert Murdoch's business interests, they're not going to read the Journal. They're going to think that this is a slanted take on things.

FOLKENFLIK: Murdoch has yet to meet with the Bankcrofts, but the family's willingness to listen represents a big step forward as he attempts to add a crown jewel to his media empire.

David Folkenflik, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.