Clear It With Sidney

Notes on journalism for the common good, by Lindsay Beyerstein

The Wall Street Journal, Re-invented

    It’s Rupert’s Journal now.

    The big question twenty-two months ago, when Rupert Murdoch bought The Wall Street Journal for $5 billion from the Bancroft family, was how long he would wait before he started to transform the business newspaper of record in his own image.

    For many decades before Murdoch acquired the Journal, news aficionados revered the paper as the only national news outlet in America where special interests of any kind never seemed to interfere with the news pages.  (The hard-right editorial page was always another matter altogether.)  Of the three publications where FCP worked as a staffer--The New York Times, Newsweek, and the Journal–the Journal was the only one where there was never any evidence of anyone tampering with my copy to satisfy someone else’s prejudices.

    Since Murdoch had never owned any news organization with that kind of reputation, the consternation over the paper’s future was understandable.

    The first font dropped just five months after his purchase was completed when Marcus Brauchli was pushed out of the managing editor’s slot, and replaced by Robert Thomson, a News Corp veteran who started his career as a copy boy at Murdoch’s Herald in Melbourne in 1979.  Before coming to the Journal, Thomson was the editor of Murodch’s Times of London, where he drove the paper’s content relentlessly down market (and obliterated much of its reputation for factual accuracy.)

    When Brauchli left the paper (he later became executive editor of The Washington Post), one Journal staffer told Politico, “This is a clear sign that it’s over—the Dow Jones culture is dead.”

    Now that trend seems to be accelerating.

    When Teddy Kennedy died last August, the Journal posted a lengthy and balanced obituary on its website by Naftali Bendavid.  But when the same article appeared on the front page of the newspaper   the next day, the piece had a new seventh paragraph which hadn’t been there before:

    Blasting what he called “slobbering media coverage” of Mr. Kennedy’s death that ignored his past “bad behavior,” conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh on Wednesday said Mr. Kennedy was a politician who “uses the government to take money from people who work and gives it to people who don’t work.”

    Journal reporters immediately started complaining to their friends at other newspapers that the Limbaugh paragraph had been inserted at the insistence of editors in New York.  Naftali Bendavid and Journal Washington Bureau Chief John Bussey both  refused to comment when asked by FCP about the change.

    A former top Journal editor told FCP that he saw evidence of ideological meddling “seeping into the paper all the time.   I heard that story about Kennedy, and I hear they’re under pressure to be tougher on Obama all the time.  I also heard the labor reporter in Washington was told her stories were too pro-labor.”

    Contacted by FCP, Journal labor reporter Melanie Trottman declined to comment.

    Although it may be becoming more common, ideological tampering within the news columns is still relatively rare.   The trouble is, because of the identity of the new owner, news professionals are constantly questioning the way the paper plays stories in ways that they never would have before.

    “I find myself now almost dismissing a story,” said another former top Journal editor.  “When they were way ahead on the Denver terrorist story, my presumption was, this was the Fox News filter–when in fact they were just doing a really great job on the story.”

    But the biggest difference between the old Journal and Rupert’s Journal is a sharp shift toward more general interest stories, and away from the in-depth business coverage which was always at the heart of the paper’s franchise.

    “I read the paper all the time thinking how incredibly different it is,” said a former Journal reporter who wrote for the paper at home and abroad for more than a decade.  “The  editing is a different thing now.  First of all, there’s less of it.  It used to be so buttoned up.  Now there are weird attributions, and graphs toward the end where you can tell they cut out two graphs and just left the last one.”

    “There’s also a sense of campaigns,” the former reporter continued.  “Remember the private aircraft fleet for Congress?  That was a big story, a legitimate story, but they rode it like a campaign trying to stir up the readers.  That’s something the old Journal never did.  It would pat itself on the back, but it wasn’t that sort of campaigning style.  That’s  a Murdoch formula–although not unique to Murdoch.”

    “The news judgment is bizarre,” said a veteran Washington Post editor.  “They’re throwing away the franchise on sophisticated business stories.   They don’t make as much of them or devote as much space to them.  It’s become a very chatty and much more informal enterprise.”

    Another Journal veteran said, “They now have the news judgment of  The Sydney Daily Telegraph.  It’s not the judgment of The [more serious] Australian.” 

    Finally, there’s the problem of tips from Rupert.  A former Journal staffer said he had frequently heard from current Journal reporters that those tips work like this:    

    “It’s always the same thing.  Rupert has an idea, and because it comes from him, he doesn’t want people called to see if it’s true.  So you can’t confirm it, but you have to treat it as a fact because it came from him.  There are good things and bad things about that.  He’s plugged in, and  he has excellent news judgment.  But then there is this presumed god-like quality to what he says. So you’re not supposed to follow up on what amount to rumors, in a way that you would if it came from anyone else.”

    The most famous instance of a Murdoch tip being “too good to check” was John Kerry’s “choice” of Richard Gephardt as his running mate in 2004.  An unequivocal report of that nonexistent event ended up as the wood on the front page of Murdoch’s New York Post, after the owner insisted upon it.  Afterwards, “senior editors warned that those who discussed the Gephardt gaffe with other news organizations would lose their jobs,” according to The New York Times.

    So far, none of Murdoch’s tips to the Journal have led to a disaster of those proportions.

    John Bussey, the Washington bureau chief, told FCP he had forwarded all of my inquires about each of these issues to Alix Freedman in New York, who last year was given “expanded authority as a defender of the paper’s ethical and journalistic standards” by Robert Thomson.

    There was no response from Freedman.