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If you like to watch what spiders do to flies, you’re probably paying close attention to Rupert Murdoch’s courtship of the Bancroft family, which owns the Wall Street Journal. In the last month Murdoch’s campaign to seduce them has made slow but steady headway. On Thursday the Bancrofts announced they’d at least think about the $5 billion offer they’d already turned down and would meet with Murdoch’s News Corporation.

Murdoch’s defenders say he’s a man who appreciates quality and won’t tamper with it. A former editor of London’s Sunday Times told the New York Times on May 3, “I think he’s learned quite a lot of lessons from the Times and the Sunday Times.”  Murdoch bought those papers in 1981. Andrew Neil went on, “He gives his quality newspaper editors a freer hand. He’s much more hands-on with his tabloids. If you want to know what Rupert is thinking, read the [New York] Post.” 

One of the dumb, indestructible truisms of the newspaper game is that quality papers are one thing and tabloids another. In fact, the tabloid-size Chicago Sun-Times, which Murdoch bought for $90 million in 1983, was a quality paper. Ralph Otwell, the editor then, remembers, “I sat across the table from him after he bought the paper and before he took it over. He was critiquing the paper page by page and he didn’t find a single thing he liked.” The headlines were too small, said Murdoch; good stories — what he considered good stories — were underplayed; there was far too much foreign news. Murdoch knew he’d be losing a ton of reporters and senior editors when he took over in January 1984, and he hoped that Otwell, at least, would stay on through the transition. Otwell didn’t.

It’s not the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal that’s at risk under Murdoch. The editorial page is right-wing and often silly, its pronouncements frequently contradicted by the Journal’s own news columns. But those solidly reported news columns range widely and unpredictably: Alex Kotlowitz‘s There Are No Children Here began, I want to remind you, as a series of articles in the Journal in 1987. Before Andrew Neil or anyone else can persuade me that Murdoch would protect the paper’s restless curiosity, I need proof he even understands it.

“I mourn for the Journal and its possible fate,” says Otwell.