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From AJR,   June/July 2011  issue

The Wall Street Journal Careens off the Rails   

Its misguided editorial on its parent company’s massive problems in the United Kingdom. Mon. July 18, 2011


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

It's a truly shameful editorial.

The Wall Street Journal, stung by the ouster of its publisher last Friday in the fallout from the massive scandal that has engulfed its fellow Murdoch properties in Britain, has come out swinging wildly at the company's critics. In time-honored tradition, it has resorted to the ever-popular blame-the-messenger defense.

"We also trust that readers can see through the commercial and ideological motives of our competitor-critics," the editorial says. "The Schadenfreude is so thick you can't cut it with a chainsaw. Especially redolent are lectures about journalistic standards from publications that give Julian Assange and WikiLeaks their moral imprimatur. They want their readers to believe, based on no evidence, that the tabloid excesses of one publication somehow tarnish thousands of other News Corp. journalists across the world."

The WikiLeaks reference is an effort to cast aspersions on the Guardian, the British newspaper that has led the way in coverage of the phone-hacking and bribery scandal, and the New York Times, which ran a major piece on the then-dormant affair last year, before it exploded into the headlines this month with revelations of the hacking of the phone of a missing 13-year-old girl.

Yes, the Guardian competes with Rupert Murdoch's British papers, and the Times competes with the Journal as well as News Corp.'s New York Post. But both would be derelict in their duties if they didn't cover the hell out of this story.

Because this isn't just about massive journalistic malfeasance (in and of itself a major deal). It's also a story about the insidious collusion of the Murdoch press empire, the British political power structure and law enforcement authorities.

Already it has led to the resignation of Scotland Yard's two top officials. The situation is so dire that Prime Minister David Cameron, until five minutes ago a great friend of Murdoch and his former lieutenant Rebekah Brooks, has asked Parliament to postpone its summer vacation so he can address the burgeoning scandal on Wednesday.

This editorial strikes just the wrong tone at just the wrong time. When Murdoch acquired the Journal in 2007, there was much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments on the part of many people who are not enamored with Murdoch's brand of journalism. They feared what would happen to one of America's finest newspapers.

The Journal no doubt has changed. It is much less distinctive, with less emphasis on the quirky page-one features that helped make it special. It devotes much more attention to political coverage, and some have seen a decline in the comprehensiveness of its business coverage.

But the Visigoths seem to have stopped well short of burning the village. Few would argue that Murdoch has wrecked the Journal. It is still a top-flight newspaper.

Jim Ottaway, whose family owned a chunk of the Journal, was an outspoken critic of selling the paper to Murdoch. Yet in an interview with Bloomberg TV not long before the scandal exploded, Ottaway said, "I have to say that many of the things I said and feared Rupert Murdoch would do he has not." Ottaway said the Journal under Murdoch "is nowhere near as awful as I thought it might be." That's why the Journal editorial is so disappointing. With the parent company under siege, for good reason, this was the time for a clear-sighted look at the situation, a moment to exhibit independence. Instead what we got was a PR man's spin, a defense lawyer's brief.

Particularly disingenuous is the editorial's effort to play down the scope and seriousness of the scandal. It says, "It is also worth noting the irony of so much moral outrage devoted to a single media company, when British tabloids have been known for decades for buying scoops and digging up dirt on the famous. Fleet Street in general has long had a well-earned global reputation for the blind-quote, single-sourced story that may or may not be true."

This is accurate but utterly beside the point. The current contretemps isn't about paying for information or thinly sourced stories. It's about hacking into the phones of 4,000 people and paying law enforcement officials for information. That's in an entirely different cosmos of bad behavior. The paragraph brings to mind Nixon spokesman Ron Ziegler's famous dismissal of that Watergate unpleasantness as a "third-rate burglary."

The overheated editorial accuses the Journal's media colleagues of "braying for politicians to take down Mr. Murdoch and News Corp." (You just don't get enough "braying" sightings these days.) It dismisses as a "political mob" those asking whether alleged payments by reporters at the now-shuttered News of the World to obtain police information violated the U.S. Corrupt Foreign Practices Act.

The editorial also takes a shot (without naming them) at a couple of former teammates, ex-Journal Executive Editor Paul Steiger and Richard Tofel, a longtime executive at Dow Jones, the Journal's parent company. Steiger is editor-in-chief and CEO of ProPublica, a highly regarded nonprofit investigative reporting outfit. ProPublica and the Guardian last week co-published an article by Tofel, ProPublica's general manager, in which members of the Bancroft family expressed regret that they had sold the paper to Murdoch. They wouldn't have done so, they said, if they had been aware of the phone-hacking at the News of the World.

The Journal awarded ProPublica a prize for "righteous hindsight" for recording the "well-fed" regrets of the Bancrofts, a dysfunctional ownership that cashed out bigtime with the sale to Murdoch.

We'll score this one for the Journal editorial and against the Bancrofts. The family certainly knew that they weren't selling their cherished paper to Mother Teresa. Essentially, they sold the paper to Rupert Murdoch and were shocked that they had sold the paper to Rupert Murdoch.

The editorial also had it right with this shot at the outraged statesmen in the United Kingdom: "The British politicians now bemoaning media influence over politics are also the same statesmen who have long coveted media support." So true. British politicians of all political flavors have been frantically sucking up to Murdoch and his minions for years.

So what about the schadenfreude allegation? It's true that Murdoch has long been a polarizing figure, with no shortage of nonfans in the media as well as on the political left. And there's little doubt many of them are having a wonderful time watching the hitherto untouchable mogul squirm.

But that, too, is beside the point. This is a very significant story, as the rapidly mounting casualty list in Britain makes clear. To do anything but to cover it as aggressively as possible would be a disgrace.