Pimping for the People's Republic

The Murdoch family's latest kowtowing to Beijing spurs a political rift among conservative media titans.

Published March 30, 2001 8:46AM (EST)

Having spent the past eight years united over a common loathing of all things Bill and Hillary Clinton, a rare internal dispute broke out this week between two hard-line conservative press titans. It happened when a Wall Street Journal columnist took issue with Rupert Murdoch, whose $30 billion News Corp. empire, which includes the Fox News channel, the Weekly Standard magazine and the New York Post, serves as a bastion for some of the most politically conservative voices in this country.

The reason for the dust-up was China. Last week, Murdoch's 28-year-old son, James, who just a few years ago was best known for starting an indie record label in New York after leaving Harvard, gave a policy speech at the Milken Institute in Beverly Hills, Calif. With his father in attendance, James, now in charge of News Corp.'s China initiative, leveled a blistering attack against Falun Gong, the spiritual movement banned by the Chinese government after 10,000 of its followers protested in Tiananmen Square two years ago.

Murdoch labeled Falun Gong a "dangerous" and "apocalyptic cult" that "clearly does not have the success of China at heart." He also chastised the Western media for painting a relentlessly negative picture of the Chinese government by focusing too often on the topic of human rights violations.

According to the Los Angeles Times account of the speech, Murdoch "startled even China's supporters with his zealous defense of that government's harsh crackdown on Falun Gong and criticism of Hong Kong democracy supporters."

Tunku Varadarajan, the Wall Street Journal's deputy editorial features editor, took offense. And as is usual when a Journal columnist lands someone in his sights, the takedown was a bare-knuckle affair. Varadarajan lit into Rupert, "a master practitioner of the corporate kowtow," for instructing James, "a college dropout," in the "craft of craven submission to the communist regime in China." And that was just the first paragraph. It's the type of invective Journal columnists used to reserve for the Clinton Justice Department.

Varadarajan went on to catalog past Murdoch episodes in which he has used his media properties to curry favor with the Beijing government in hopes of getting a toehold inside the populous nation. For instance, Murdoch agreed to drop the BBC's World Service television from the China beam of Star TV's satellite. Murdoch reportedly ordered his publishing house HarperCollins to dump "East and West," a book critical of Beijing written by Christopher Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong. And in an interview last year with Vanity Fair, he described the Dalai Lama, an anti-Chinese activist, as "a very political old monk shuffling around in Gucci shoes."

According to Varadarajan, who openly questioned Murdoch's conservative credentials, it all added up to "a form of corporate prostitution. Mr. Murdoch is an apologist for the Chinese regime."

Those are fighting words. "It's a mess," notes Jonah Goldberg, editor of the conservative National Review Online. Having two GOP press heavyweights like the Journal and News Corp. feuding so personally "is incredibly inconvenient; it's not good for anybody."

Especially not for the Murdoch-owned Weekly Standard. Under editor Bill Kristol the money-losing conservative magazine has been staunchly anti-China, working hard to drive the media debate about Beijing's totalitarian rule. For instance, last year the magazine's David Tell wrote, "China is the largest and most powerful despot in the world." Tell complained that ever since U.S.-Chinese relations began to thaw in 1994, "corporations have been busy on the ground there, presumably evangelizing capitalist liberty all the while. And yet Beijing has not 'democratized.' No, instead Beijing has cracked down on its democracy activists and other alleged 'subversives' more savagely than at any time since the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989."

According to Tell, among the Chinese "subversives" unjustly persecuted were members of the Falun Gong.

Weekly Standard editor Kristol did not return calls seeking comment. (News Corp. itself offered no corporate response to the Journal column.) But a source friendly with the magazine says "everybody who works there was appalled" by James Murdoch's speech. "They thought the Wall Street Journal got it right. It puts Bill Kristol in a tough position."

Writing about the flare-up and the awkward spot the Weekly Standard finds itself in, conservative columnist Andrew Sullivan pointed out, "A good test of any magazine's editorial integrity is its ability to criticize its proprietor. Let's see, shall we?"

Whether the magazine will respond to Murdoch's denunciation of Falun Gong, or the Journal's counterattack, remains to be seen. But Goldberg says the fact that it was a conservative outlet like the Journal's editorial page doing the dressing-down "makes it particularly difficult to ignore."

Meanwhile, watching the unlikely press quarrel from the left, some can't help chuckling. "Conservative ideologues might well feel betrayed by Murdoch family kowtowing to the Chinese regime, but aren't the Murdochs simply taking to heart the Journal's message: the deification of profit?" asks Steve Rendall, senior analyst for Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.

Beyond Rupert Murdoch's controversial embrace of Communist China, the larger question raised by the Journal condemnation is whether the flamboyant media magnate is really a conservative warrior, or just one who plays the part when it's convenient.

"I don't think he's an ally in the sense of a pillar of the conservative community," notes Varadarajan in an interview. "That's not to say he hasn't got a conservative bone in his body. That would be foolish. But if you're enthusiastic about the Chinese government, then you open yourself up to the question as to whether or not you are a conservative."

"That [James Murdoch] speech was incredibly ill-advised and morally wrong," agrees Goldberg at National Review Online. "But I don't think China is the litmus test for conservatives -- not like abortion or tax cuts or gun control. Rupert Murdoch is a net gain for conservatives. He's a true believer."

Adds National Review contributing editor John Derbyshire: "There is a widespread, general feeling that he is 'one of us,' combined with little spasms of distaste, irritation, indignation about some of the directions he goes off in."

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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