Howell Raines, former executive editor of The New York Times, is scared for his pension.
Raines wrote in the April 2008 Condé Nast Portfolio that he fears the “pirate” Rupert Murdoch will bolster the quality of The Wall Street Journal – which he recently purchased – and “will spend whatever it takes to undermine the Times’ standing as America’s leading general-interest paper.”
That superlative may be up for the debate. The Wall Street Journal already outranks The New York Times on circulation by almost 1 million, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. USA Today tops them both.
Raines said he fears that the Murdoch-owned Journal will outperform the Times, making investors – especially members of the Sulzberger family trust which wields majority control over the paper – more willing to sell to Murdoch or “some other unsuitable purchaser.”
He outlined several other possible takeover scenarios, including one involving Google. Raines recommended Google fold the Times into its foundation, which would require the paper’s profits be reinvested in the publication.
Raines asserted a sale, at least one to Murdoch, would be devastating for American society.
“There is no more important question in American journalism than the future of the Times,” Raines argued, “and I don’t think the newspaper or journalistic profession is taking Murdoch in particular or the takeover issue in general seriously enough.”
Murdoch has already started targeting the Times’ strengths – “foreign news, the Washington/politics report, and the Sunday magazine” – Raines wrote. “I hope the Times has battle plans to which I’m no longer privy, but from the outside, their response to Murdoch’s trumpeting seems way too relaxed.”
Raines said his fear of a Murdock-led takeover is based on a conversation he had with Murdoch in 2002 during which Murdoch suggested that if the Times wanted to beat the Journal, it would have to beat the Journal as its own game – business reporting.
“‘You ought to hit them where they live,’” Raines recalls Murdoch saying. “‘Go after hard business news and beat them on their strength.’”
But what’s really behind Raines’ fear of Murdoch is a self-interest in protecting his retirement. “As a Times pensioner,” Raines wrote, “I want the paper to make money under public-spirited owners. As a reader, I believe a Murdoch takeover of our last independent national newspaper would be a disaster for the trustworthy reporting on which our civil life depends.”
Raines closed with a barb for the three remaining presidential candidates – Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.; Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY; and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. – by asserting that none of them would stand up to the “pirate” Murdoch for fear of “the ceaseless pummeling on Fox that would result from thwarting” him.