Was there ever a luckier clan than the Bancrofts, whose elders OK'ed the $5 billion sale of the Wall Street Journal to Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. on Tuesday? There's been some solemn talk about the Bancrofts' "stewardship of this national institution" since they acquired the Dow Jones company a century ago. In fact, the Journal was an undistinguished little sheet till a journalistic genius called Barney Kilgore decided in the years after World War II that a businessman in San Francisco should be able to read the same paper as one in Chicago or New York. Kilgore devised the technology to do this, along with the paper's reportorial stance, serious but often humorous, in the style of the Midwest, which is where Kilgore was from.




Kilgore made the Bancrofts really rich, and they continued in that state for almost half a century, though their stewardship was either indifferent or inept, beyond the pleasant chore of raking in the money. Now they can trouser Murdoch's gold and trot off into the sunset, mumbling that they have extracted all the usual pledges from Rupert Murdoch that he will respect the Journal's editorial independence.




Surely the 76-year-old mogul must quake with inner merriment as he goes through this oft-repeated rigamarole, which I listened to almost 30 years ago when he bought a raffish New York weekly, the Village Voice. So far as I can remember, Murdoch issued a pledge to us not to fire the editor as he stepped into the elevator on the fifth floor of the Voice's offices on University Place. By the time he stepped out on the ground floor, the editor had already been dismissed, as if by osmosis, and Murdoch's man was settling into the editorial chair.




The only reason why Murdoch might respect the Journal's independence, at least in the opinion pages, is that the views expressed there are even more rabid than Murdoch's, and perhaps he savors the possibility that one day he might call up Paul Gigot, the editorial page editor, and hint that he might moderate his tone.




The Journal's editorial stance of fanatic neo-connery was established by the late Robert Bartley from the mid-70s onward, and his pages bulged with every mad fantasy of the Cold War lobby. (I did an enjoyable 10-year stint on these same pages as the token left guest columnist, barking every three weeks at the political and corporate elites from my kennel on the op-ed page.) Bartley led the charge against effete liberalism, and since by the late '70s, American liberalism had thoroughly lost its nerve and really was effete, Bartley carried the day, by far the most influential editorial page editor in American journalism.




More than its sometimes excellent reporting, Bartley gave the Journal its high profile in Washington as well as on Wall Street.




From the moment Murdoch made his famous $60 a share offer, the actual sale has not been an edifying sight. But then, a Gadarene-like stampede for money seldom is. The final sale was consummated when Murdoch agreed to throw in a sweetener &

as much as $40 million &

for the bankers and lawyers standing at the Bancroft family elbow and, with supposed dispassion, advising them what to do. Merrill Lynch, urging the Bancrofts to sell, is promised $18.5 million for this wise counsel, which, derisive commentators have suggested, may not have been entirely objective.




Analysts of the media industry have turned out thousands of words about the synergies and kindred virtues consequent upon Murdoch's successful bid. Maybe so. In such takeovers, things seldom go according to plan. But for now, Murdoch has carried the day, acquiring for a monstrous sum an over-praised newspaper in poor straits.




Call it his revenge for the story the Journal ran about Murdoch's Chinese wife, Wendi Deng, in November 2000, methodically detailing the romantic liaisons that helped her to the United States, and ultimately to a very powerful position in the Murdoch empire at her husband's side, particularly in assisting in Murdoch's business relationships with the People's Republic. The piece was not unflattering to Ms. Deng's achievements, but also not one that Murdoch would be unlikely to forget or forgive. During the recent sale, six Journal staffers in the paper's Chinese bureau signed a public letter expressing fears that Murdoch's commercial interests would compromise the paper's reporting on China. Murdoch is unlikely to forget or forgive that either. This is a saga for Dumas or Balzac.




Alexander Cockburn is coeditor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through . To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at .