It's official. Rupert Murdoch, The Wall Street Journal's owner-in-waiting, is going to war against the New York Times and its controlling family, the Sulzbergers. He's repeatedly stated his intention to push the Journal even further into politics, culture and national affairs—editorial territory long dominated by the Old Gray Lady. But Murdoch wasn't always gunning to topple the Times. In fact, he actually envisioned himself as the paper's owner.
It's hard to imagine Murdoch, long considered a political conservative, ever owning the Times. Over the years the paper has been Murdoch's foil and foe, criticized regularly by his New York Post and Fox News Channel for its coverage and liberal editorial page. Still, Murdoch disclosed his surprising, albeit fleeting, interest this week while traveling in his native Australia where his U.S.-based media conglomerate News Corp. owns newspapers nationwide. In an interview, with one his favorite employees, syndicated financial columnist Terry McCrann, Murdoch confessed that he'd "thought about" acquiring the Times.
That thought process was apparently all about getting a bargain. The stock of the New York Times Co. (the newspaper's parent corporation) is currently in the $19 range; since November 2006, it has traded as high as $26.90 and as low as $17.93—placing the company's market cap at around $2.6 billion. Even though the Sulzbergers control the company through a class of super-voting stock, McCrann posits in his column that his boss considered the company within financial reach and worth far more than its deflated stock price.
Murdoch denies any lingering interest in the Times, presumably because of his imminent Journal ownership. "We wouldn't be allowed to buy that," Murdoch told McCrann, referring to Federal Communications Committee rules that limit media ownership. "We can forget that." But the columnist was skeptical, describing Murdoch's disavowal of interest as "not entirely convincing."
Catherine Mathis, chief spokeswoman for the New York Times Co., declined to comment. Although Murdoch couldn't be reached, a News Corp. official privately sought to downplay Murdoch's discussion of the Times, dismissing it as "not serious"—at this point, anyway.
Why Murdoch would disclose his recent infatuation with the Times is unclear, especially if he's now ruled out a takeover attempt. One motivation might have been simply psy-ops—military argot for psychological warfare. In short, the wily mogul may be trying to rattle New York Times Co. chairman and newspaper publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. According to a pivotally situated Times employee , the mogul wrote a personal note to Sulzberger on or around the day that he won the battle for Dow Jones. "Let the war begin," the note read, according to this source, who requested anonymity in discussing a sensitive topic.
When asked to confirm the missive, Mathis of the Times declined comment. For now, it seems the Times prefers to let its journalism do all the talking.