Yahoo-Murdoch: A marriage made in hell

Yahoo News’ possible partnership with the News Corp. could jeopardize its credibility

This column appeared March 12, 2000, in the Online Journalism Review.  Here’s the version on the OJR site.

By J.D. Lasica

Word comes that Yahoo and the News Corp., Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, are thinking of hopping into bed.

The announcement, revealed in the March 6 New Yorker, was treated by the tech and business press as just another in a series of possible strategic alliances between corporate titans.

Under the proposed broad partnership, News Corp. — now practically invisible in the online space — would get access to the Web’s biggest platform of all. Yahoo, trying to counter America Online’s pending merger with Time-Warner, would get access to News Corp.’s assets, including 20th Century Fox studios (remember a little flick called “Titanic”?), Fox broadcasting, HarperCollins, the Los Angeles Dodgers, newspapers, 15 TV stations and other holdings. Fox’s satellite networks, which deliver Internet services to consumers, would also be part of the mix.

From a business standpoint, the proposal makes a certain amount of sense.

From a journalistic viewpoint, it bodes something else: a marriage made in hell.

Yahoo News, the largest headline news service on the Web, is a class act — and a rare act in cyberspace. The ultimate news portal, Yahoo News puts news judgment and reader interests ahead of financial considerations. Second-tier news organizations can’t buy their way into the Yahoo News network of two dozen news providers. And tabloid news reports won’t find a mention in its news, politics or crime sections.

That independent judgment would likely be jeopardized by a wide-ranging deal between Yahoo and the News Corp. Does anyone seriously believe that Murdoch wouldn’t demand a prominent spot for Fox News and his newspapers — most notably the Times of London and New York Post — on Yahoo News?

Such an arrangement would fly in the face of Yahoo News’ own standards. Representatives of Yahoo and producer Brad Rubin, head of Yahoo News, said they couldn’t comment on any possible alliance between the two companies, and they wouldn’t discuss the details of financial arrangements between Yahoo and its current news providers.

But Rubin, 28, said this about the yardstick now used by Yahoo News with its 25 news sources: “We look for best-of-breed providers that provide really high value in their space. ZDNet and CNet provide the best tech coverage around. AP and Reuters serve as anchors in each category. We get a lot of content proposals, and we only consider news organizations that have become trustworthy, recognized leaders by the quality of their content or brand name. “

Fox News, the New York Post. Best of breed? Hardly. Trustworthy? Occasionally.

And therein lies the problem. “We give our news providers a lot of autonomy,” Rubin says. “We view ourselves mainly as a distribution mechanism.” In other words, news aggregators like Yahoo leave it to their partners to get it right. They have no way to sort out the legitimacy of Murdoch journalism on a day-to-day or story-by-story basis. The Yahoo staff relies on the credibility of a news publication without having to second-guess the validity of its news reports.

When the New York Post’s front page headline blared CAUGHT IN THE ACT, only to retract the report about Clinton and Monica Lewinsky the next day, New Yorkers shrugged it off. It was, after all, the Post being the Post. But give the Post’s reportage a platform alongside respected news organizations such as ABC News or The Industry Standard, and Yahoo’s million of visitors would be hard-pressed to draw such distinctions.

If Murdoch’s journalists merely had less rigorous news standards, that would be one thing. But the evidence suggests that news coverage by the billionaire’s media holdings is often driven by a political or ideological agenda. See, for example, the Columbia Journalism Review’s expose Murdoch’s Mean Machine: How Rupert uses his vast media power to help himself and hammer his foes for a look at how Murdoch and News Corp. executives have taken the art form of conflict of interest to new heights.

Or consider CJR’s article Is Fox News Fair?, which quotes former employees complaining of “management sticking their fingers in the writing and editing of stories and of attempting to cook the facts to make a story more palatable to right-of-center tastes.”

Or review OJR’s A Cybersleaze Timeline: Anatomy of a Smear to see how the false report that accused Clinton of fathering a child with a black prostitute bubbled up from the supermarket tabloids into the mainstream media, courtesy of Fox News and its former cybergossip Matt Drudge, the New York Post (CLINTON PATERNITY BOMBSHELL) and even the Times of London.

Contrast all of that with Yahoo News’ track record. Yahoo News has offered full and comprehensive coverage of the presidential primaries, offering breaking news, up-to-the-minute vote results, backgrounders, photos and a deep archive. Its Yahoo Full Coverage has the courage to transport users off the site by linking to the best news stories, documents, editorials and opinion pieces, ranging from the New York Times and the Jerusalem Post to Salon or a small local publication that has the deepest coverage of an important news story.

“One of the great things we’ve built up as a corporation here at Yahoo is a high level of consumer trust,” Rubin says, “and so we want to make sure we bring on board only news organizations with a high degree of integrity and trustworthiness. If you’re asking, ‘Will Yahoo News be going more for the flash and trash?’ the answer is no. There’s so much incredibly cool stuff out there on the Web that we’ll never be hurting for new content.”

Rubin is right about that, and about the depth and variety of the Web’s offerings. The media universe is plenty big enough to accommodate the New York Times, Matt Drudge and everything in between, including Murdoch’s brand of news. Fox discussion programs, with their right-of-center sensibility, deserve an audience. The Post’s tabloid journalism provides an often refreshing break from the blandishments of the establishment press. And heaven knows, the Web doesn’t need help from the News Corp. when it comes to entertainment, buzz, sex and sizzle.

But Yahoo has never been just another Web site. For a lot of people, Yahoo is the Internet. It’s where they begin and end their online forays. Young people in particular look to Yahoo News for a take on the day’s most important news, rather than relying on their local newspaper or newscast.

“Young users have been through their formative years on the Web,” Rubin says. “They were the first generation to be bred on the Internet. They trust reliable online news services more than they rely upon traditional media.”

That’s a heavy responsibility. I hope it’s one that Yahoo’s higher-ups keep in mind when sitting across the table from Murdoch’s henchmen.

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JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT