Class war and drinking the Kool-Aid at Dow Jones

We all remember the worst job we ever had. Mine was as a re-write person on the lead financial wire service of Dow Jones in the mid-1990s. But it did give me a chance to see the workings of finance capital up close, and learn that my ideas on how it functioned really were true.

Those two unfortunate years at Dow Jones also gave me a better perspective when Rupert Murdoch swooped in a few years later to buy the company, not so much for its wire services rather for the cachet of owning The Wall Street Journal. An episode that nicely served as a humorous reminder of just what is meant by “integrity” by the idle rich — receiving the highest price.

It was difficult not to suppress a smile as the idle rich, absentee majority owners of the Journal, the Bancroft family, publicly wrestled with their bullet-proof “integrity” in the face of barbarian Murdoch. The newspapers published by Murdoch are distinguished by their mad-dog, mouth-frothing ultra-right diatribes. Not to be confused by the editorial pages of the Journal, distinguished by their mad-dog, mouth-frothing ultra-right diatribes.

There is one difference, and that is that the Journal’s mouth-frothing is done on behalf of Corporate America and is not shy about telling corporate readers what is good for them, such as its bizarre years-long campaign to return the dollar to the gold standard. The paper’s many readers who make a fortune by trading world currencies might beg to differ, but no matter. Murdoch’s papers, however, never challenge their readers’ biases and if those readers want several pages daily of celebrity gossip mixed in with the right-wing propaganda, then that is what the people will get.

You don't want to work here. (Photo by Stefan Schulze)

You don’t want to work here. (Photo by Stefan Schulze)

The Bancroft family’s celebrated “integrity,” arrayed against this hideous assault by a vulgarian, ended resoundingly when Murdoch arranged to sweeten the pot. Selling your integrity for maximum dollar — what could be more like Corporate America? And so the Journal provides us with another sound lesson in capitalist economics. The hidden Achilles heel in all this is that Murdoch paid much more for the Journal’s parent company, Dow Jones, than anybody else would, and that is for a simple reason — Dow Jones was a company remarkable for its inept management.

I know this from my personal experiences there. Just how many wire services Dow Jones actually published was not known, as nobody actually knew when I casually attempted to find out at one point, symptomatic of the place. Two spectacular failings during my two years nicely provide illustration. One of these two was the acquisition of a financial data company, Telerate, which was seen as very well run and profitable. Part of the Dow Jones egoism is that its managers are super-geniuses, and so Dow Jones replaced Telerate’s successful management with its own managers, who ran it into the ground so quickly that Dow Jones sold it seven years later for more than $1 billion less than what was paid for it. Many workers lost their jobs as well.

More adventures in management

A concurrent episode was the short-lived Dow Jones television station in New York City. The city government owned a public television station that the then mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, decided to give away at fire-sale prices. Dow Jones won it, intending to turn it into an all-business news television station, never mind that cable television already carried more than one of these. (One of which, CNBC, was blared continually in the wire service’s workplace; the horrible theme music gave me nightmares for a long time afterward although a female anchor’s on-camera tendencies to nearly break down in tears when a company’s profits went down and almost reach orgasm when profits went up did provide comic relief.)

Dow Jones management, however, wasn’t prepared for its new toy, and so upon taking over the television station, at first aired nothing but videotapes of “classic” sports games from 10 and 20 years earlier. Dow Jones hired television personnel from around the country; new hires sold their houses and moved thousands of miles to work in the new venture. Once started, it lasted four months before Dow Jones announced it was selling the station, putting all those new hires, who had so disrupted their lives, into the street. The magic of the market at work!

Episodes like this led to one of the Bancroft heirs, a thoroughly spoiled rich kid, to complain in public that her inheritance, worth tens of millions of dollars, might decline in value because the Dow Jones stock price was stuck in mud despite the 1990s stock-market bubble that was then in progress. This development, in turn, prompted that most unusual of actions at Dow Jones — a member of upper management would deign to talk to the lowly workers! Surely this was a sign of crisis.

One afternoon, we were pulled from our usual duty toiling on the electronic sweatshop to hear a pep talk in the cafeteria from none other than Chairman and Chief Executive Peter Kann. Kann would have needed an injection of personality to qualify as an empty suit, but in his own way is a sad story. Kann, at one time, was a reporter for the Journal famous for covering a war between Pakistan and India, during which he defied an order by his editor to leave the area by falsely saying there was too much static on the line for him to understand what the editor had just told him.

For him they feel sorry?

That Peter Kann was long gone. Dow Jones was distinguished by its remarkable rigidity — only those who fit an extremely narrow mold and are willing to drink the Kool-Aid if so ordered take so much as one step on the career ladder, never mind ascend to the executive ranks. And that’s in addition to the political lock-step required to survive the place. The sweatshop floor workers assembled, Kann preceded to deliver a rambling speech full of business cliches about the glorious future, but lacking any discussion of the company’s turmoil, the very reason for this unusual pep talk, as even the right-wing yuppie zombies, Dow Jones true believers who comprised most of the wire service’s workforce, understood.

None had the courage to ask a question on the topic, as I expected. It was up to me to say something — I was the shop steward for the union, disliked by management, and already trying to escape the place by becoming a freelance editor, so I had nothing to lose. Besides, I knew that most of my co-workers would be quietly counting on me to say something — virtually all conformed to the Dow Jones corporate culture of snapping your heels and running, not walking, to carry out your assignment, never allowing the slightest doubt to enter your innermost thoughts.

When Kann’s assistant asked for questions, I asked Kann what the company’s plan for stability was in light of the recent problems it had been having. I didn’t explicitly detail the serious gaffes Dow Jones had committed, but he and everyone in the room knew to what I was referring. To my genuine amazement, Kann, after a long pause, proceed to give a disjointed answer that touched on none of the issues; he was obviously seriously rattled, unable to speak coherently. After perhaps a minute of this, Kann’s assistant gently interrupted, deftly took the microphone and thanked all of us for attending, ending the meeting.

The odd coda to this was that some of the Dow Jones true believers then felt sorry for Kann, because there was pressure by shareholders to push him out of his posts due to the mismanagement. “Aw, he’ll be out soon, anyway,” one told me, genuinely feeling sorry for the dear leader. The joke was on the workforce, however, as Kann lasted another decade as head of Dow Jones, leaving it to Murdoch to satisfy his ego by overpaying for the company. The idle rich had already prospered because tens of millions of dollars per year had been funneled to them via family-only dividends and now they would cash out, by still doing nothing. Many jobs will be lost to pay for those payoffs.

A wonderful lesson in capitalist economics, and, see, there is nothing to fear from Murdoch when it comes to capitalist ethics. See you on the yacht, darling.

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6 comments on “Class war and drinking the Kool-Aid at Dow Jones

  1. […] Systemic Disorder We all remember the worst job we ever had. Mine was as a re-write person on the lead financial […]

  2. Ed says:

    Living in New York, I read both the Murdoch tabloid New York Post, and the Wall Street Journal in the 1990s and early 00s.

    I found the attitude that Murdoch was some sort of barbarian who would ruin the Wall Street Journal, which was taken up often on the left side of blog commentary as well, to be baffling. WSJ editorials were much more hard core right wing in those days than New York Post editorials, and often seemed to have problems with basic logic that you just didn’t get in the tabloid. The situation with the op-ed columnists was almost worst.

    The NY Post had better business coverage too, if only because it published and publishes John Crudele as a columnist. I found the Bancroft WSJ “straight news coverage’, a mixture of wire service stories, fawning profiles of tycoons, and those bizarre human interest stories they put for some reason on the front page, to be disjointed and overrated.

    That said, I don’t read the Murdoch WSJ because, frankly, there is no point, but from the little I’ve seen its an improvement over the Bancroft version. At least his editors cleaned up the front page.

  3. Ed says:

    The difference could have been that Murdoch was (he is still alive but almost dead) an actual newspaperman. Yes one with bad ethics and reprehensible opinions, but he understood something about publishing a newspaper that an out of touch trust fund family probably didn’t.

    • That Murdoch is an “actual newspaperman” (in the sense that he does like newspapers and understands them, however much we find his papers odious) accounts for the fact that did investment in the Journal, including in a New York metropolitan news section, although it is anything but through, generally focusing on local politics in a way that is only somewhat less superficial than his tabloids, such as the New York Post.

      The opinion pages, however, seem to be no different from the little I see of them; with Kann and his cronies out the Journal does seem to have quietly dropped its gold-standard fetish but otherwise the same hard right, punish all workers mentality is at work.

  4. Sounds likes classic in-breeding to me. I read a lot of articles about most of the Wall Street and political elite being distant cousins. You see the same kind of incoherence in the British House of Lords. One of the main purposes of arranged marriages is to prevent this type of genetic suicide.

    • Perhaps a good summation of that is a quote from a Wall Street financier in Doug Henwood’s book Wall Street:

      “My own view is that the invisible hand could work its magic through mere humans is an essential part of Adam Smith’s insight. Not many thousands of years ago, men like this would have clubbed each other over hunting rights. A few hundred years ago, they would have hacked each other with axes and swords. Now they yelled at trainees while they brought together the supply and demand of home mortgages on a world-wide scale.”

      The methodologies may change but the goal doesn’t.

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