The Wall Street Journal riddle

So far, Rupert Murdoch's audacious $5 billion play for the Dow Jones Company, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, has played out as a lose-lose proposition for the would-be media baron. According to news reports, his offer has been a non-starter with most members of the Bancroft and Ottaway families, which control the Dow Jones voting stock and have final say over any possible sale.

So far, Rupert Murdoch's audacious $5 billion play for the Dow Jones Company, publisher of The Wall Street Journal, has played out as a lose-lose proposition for the would-be media baron. According to news reports, his offer has been a non-starter with most members of the Bancroft and Ottaway families, which control the Dow Jones voting stock and have final say over any possible sale.

But the overture's also been a loser in that Murdoch's bid has opened the door to a very public and bruising examination of the crass brand of journalism his properties often practice, and why he would be the wrong person -- too irresponsible, too unprincipled -- to own the venerable Wall Street Journal.

There's been something very comical about watching Murdoch try to temporarily prop himself as some sort of champion of the press. With his Cheshire smile, he's cooing about how he would never interfere with his newest media property: “I have also always respected the independence and integrity of the news organizations with which I am associated.” (The New York Observer's Joe Conason was just one of many who thoroughly disproved that claim.)

And it's been especially satisfying to watch the Dow Jones trustees declare their disdain for Murdoch, calling him out in exquisite detail for being an enemy of the press and, in fact, a danger to democracy. Jim Ottaway Jr., a veteran newspaper man who retired as a Dow Jones board member in 2006, issued a blistering statement, labeling the New York Post and Fox News as “clear and present threats to honest American journalism” and denouncing how “Rupert Murdoch and his News Corp. ... misuse their media ownership concentration for personal, political, and business interests, not primarily the public interest.”

Ottoway's son Jay, a Dow Jones investor, echoed that feeling: “There is plenty of evidence that Murdoch does not treat his news services as a public trust.”

Due to securities regulations, Bancroft family members are more constrained on what they can say publicly about a possible sale. Yet several key players have let it be known, in no uncertain terms, that they view Murdoch as a “devil” who would “ruin” the Journal.

Honestly, it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

That's not just because I oppose Murdoch's factually challenged approach to opinion and reporting. Instead, I think it's important that journalists and others in positions of power speak honestly about what Murdoch does with his news properties. Too often, timid Beltway media players, either spooked by the charge of liberal media bias or intimidated by Murdoch's PR goons, shy away from accurately describing the pseudo type of journalism that Fox News has perfected. They even feel uneasy hinting at Fox News' obvious Republican slant. For instance, in 2004, the Journal (ironically enough) went so far as printing a formal correction after one of its news stories referred to Fox News as being "a network sympathetic to the Bush cause." Talk about being afraid of the facts. (As Slate's Timothy Noah noted at the time, “I don't even know any conservatives who dispute that Fox News is sympathetic to Bush.”)

What's also been heartwarming to fans of the newsroom is to hear the trustees speak so passionately about the integrity the Journal must maintain. In a time when investors see newspapers mostly as a commodity, the Bancrofts and Ottaways still see journalism as a “public trust” and a “contribution to our open society,” as Jay Ottaway put it.

Added Jim Jr.: “The family has respected its inheritance as a responsibility to protect an important national institution that plays a major role in American democracy and debates of public issues.”

But therein lies the Wall Street Journal riddle. While cheering each anti-Murdoch statement from the families, I'm left perplexed by the fact that the Ottaways and the Bancrofts are so (admirably) focused on maintaining journalistic integrity at the Journal that they are willing to leave Murdoch's billions on the table, yet they're the same trustees who allowed the newspaper's right-wing editorial page to practice, and perfect, a noxious brand of misinformation that doesn't even qualify as journalism. If owning the newspaper remains such a deep public trust for the families, why have they allowed the editorial page to stain the entire Journal news operation?

As Trudy Lieberman wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review 10 years ago, “Unlike the Journal's meticulously researched in-depth news columns, which many consider a model of journalistic excellence, the editorial page rarely offers balance, is often unfair, and is riddled with errors -- distortions and outright falsehoods of every kind and stripe.”

More telling is the fact that the editorial page, which rose to prominence under the tutelage of Robert Bartley, couldn't care less when it gets the facts wrong. I assume that's because most times editors know they're getting the facts wrong. Meaning, it's done on purpose. That's not journalism, not even partisan, opinionated writing. That's propaganda. And for whatever reason, the Bancroft and Ottaway families, proud protectors of the Journal's integrity, have let that infection fester at the newspaper for decades now.

And it's not like they haven't noted and haven't been dismayed. “Although Ottaway family members have had grave disagreements with the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal from time to time, we never questioned the intellectual honesty or the agenda behind the opinions,” is how Jay Ottaway put it diplomatically.

Reading that, I wanted to grab Ottaway by the shoulders and yell, “Why the hell not?!” The editorial page's lack of intellectual honesty has been glaringly obvious for years. I say that not simply because I disagree with the page's far-right political perspective. I say that because the Journal's editorial page appears to function with no ethical, let alone journalistic, guidelines. Indeed, the page proudly advertises its intellectual dishonesty on a daily basis.

That the trustees charged with protecting the Journal's integrity, and who have “grave disagreements” with the editorial page, stand back and do nothing remains baffling. Demanding accountability would not mean the families were meddling in the newspaper; it would mean they were saving it from further disdain.

“They lack credibility to the point that the emperor has no clothes”

In 2003, President Bush called Bartley a “giant of journalism” when he awarded the editor the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civil award. In truth, Bartley, who died that same year, was a chronically dishonest writer and editor who didn't even practice journalism as it is commonly defined. The examples of purposeful misinformation are practically endless; they stretch as far as the eye can see.

Like last month when the editorial page argued that the recent purge of U.S. attorneys under President Bush was no big deal because when President Clinton was sworn into office he sacked all the U.S. attorneys. That feeble GOP talking point survived less than 24 hours before it was pointed out that it's customary for an incoming president to replace U.S. Attorneys at the beginning of a term; it was Bush's unprecedented attempt to fire them midterm that sparked the controversy.

For a head-shaking example of the page's purposeful ignorance, go back and read the June 21, 2005, global warming editorial, “Kyoto By Degrees.” In it, the Journal's editorial page announced that the “scientific case” for global warming “looks weaker all the time.” Virtually every factual point the editorial tried to make was instantly proven to be laughably wrong by sharp-eyed bloggers.

Another gem that bordered on parody at the time it was published and today reads like something from the pages of The Onion came on November 17, 2004. The editorial was titled “Victory in Fallujah.” Go here for a line-by-line demolition of the Journal's war-mongering misinformation.

Meanwhile, on December 1, 2005, the daily tried to smear journalist James Fallows, who had written critically about the U.S. effort to train a new Iraqi army. In an editorial, the paper reported that Fallows had never even spoken with military trainers. The allegation, which the Journal never bothered to check with Fallows, was categorically false.

OK, one more (it's a golden oldie): During Clarence Thomas' confirmation battle in 1991, the Journal attacked Anita Hill's claim that she had passed a polygraph test to substantiate her sexual harassment charges: “Lie detector tests are so unreliable they are rarely allowed as evidence in court.”

Just eight months later, as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting noted, the Journal's editorial page argued against an Iran-contra perjury indictment of former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger because, “he had taken and passed a lie-detector test on the matter.”

The trustees should be concerned about the editorial page because it often does direct damage to the reputation of Journal's vaunted news team. For instance, last year The New York Times, as well as the Los Angeles Times and the Journal, revealed details about the administration's effort to track bank records of terrorists. Conservative press haters went bonkers, insisting the Times was guilty of treasonous behavior. But the activists were strangely silent about the roles played by the Los Angeles Times and the Journal.

So in a futile effort to stitch together a coherent argument as to why The New York Times alone should be singled out for criticism, the Journal's Times-hating editorial page explained that Journal reporter Glenn Simpson -- unlike his competitor -- was essentially handed his version of the banking story scoop by the administration on a silver platter and that Simpson dutifully wrote a softer version of the same story. The description was supposed to serve as a compliment, but for anybody in journalism who didn't work for the Journal's ideological editorial page, the description representing a shocking insult, portraying Simpson as an administration shill; a stenographer really.

Not surprisingly, Journal reporters were livid. The New York Observer collected some telling anonymous quotes:

“People feel like we're walking around with knives in our backs. We rely on our editors to stick up for us. There's really a feeling we've been left to twist in the wind.”

“They're wrong all the time. They lack credibility to the point that the emperor has no clothes.”

“To have [editorial page editor] Paul Gigot as our captain is bullshit. It's not for real.”

And then there was this, on the record, from Journal political reporter Jackie Calmes: “I'm unhappy. I know a lot of other people are unhappy. The question is: What do we do about it?”

Of course that unpleasantness could have been avoided if somebody connected with the Journal had, during the previous decade, stood up and pointed out the uncomfortable, yet obvious, fact that the paper's high-profile editorial page often dismisses facts and ethics with shocking ease.

The Journal discovers Whitewater

All of that was highlighted during the 1990s when the editorial page, led by its conspiracy-buff editor Bartley, uncorked a decade's worth of comical 'enterprise' pieces as the kooky staff of ideologue writers set out to connect the dots, for example, between president Clinton and the supposedly murderous Mena airfield in western Arkansas, where the then-governor teamed up with the CIA and Ollie North -- yes, Ollie North -- to run drugs and guns.

And then there was Whitewater, a story that the Journal's editorial page writers embraced and embellished to the point where they actually made their Mena coverage look sane. Better yet, convinced they'd done journalism a favor, they enshrined their Clinton-hating work in a bound, four-volume, 2,022 page set, Whitewater: From the Editorial Pages of the Wall Street Journal (A Journal Briefing), and sold it for $67, plus shipping. (A four-color poster laying out the overlapping Clinton crimes cost an extra $12.) Note that today, used volumes can be purchased via for just 9 cents each.

Paging through Whitewater Vol. I-IV, once readers tire of the endless allegations that never panned out and the intricate weaving that supposedly stitches all the conspiracies together, what washes over you is the Waiting for Godot pointlessness of the Clinton chase. Like the bums in Beckett's play, Journal editors, unburdened by actual proof, were sure something big is coming, be it the imminent indictment of the Clintons or the pending presidential pardon of Susan McDougal. It all had the same name -- Whitewater! And if it helped Journal editors to reassure themselves from time to time in print, well then, so be it:

  • “The spring of 1994 brought a flood of Whitewater revelations.”
  • “The Starr investigation has suddenly moved to a high level of seriousness for all parties.”
  • “Whitewater hasn't been rushing, but it continues to bubble.”
  • “Kenneth Starr's Whitewater investigation is building a head of steam.”
  • “The Starr investigation is showing signs of vigor.”
  • “Whitewater continue to pound ... the waves have been building. Keep an eye on the weather glass; the storm may be closing in.”

According to Sidney Blumenthal's 2003 book The Clinton Wars (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), there was a reason why the Journal's editorial page clung so tightly to the belief that the Whitewater hoax would eventually produce political gold; the page was working in cahoots with independent counsel Kenneth Starr behind the scenes. Wrote Blumenthal:

A veteran journalist who had firsthand contact with The Wall Street Journal's editorial board told me the story went back to 1996. He had learned then that Starr had approached Robert Bartley, the Journal's editor, “seeking help” for “a mutual exchange of information on Whitewater.” ... The Journal's editorial and op-ed articles insisted that a great scandal was there. Starr asked Bartley for assistance, which would of course never be publicly acknowledged: the Journal would dig up information for Starr, and he would continue to serve as a primary news source for it. Starr soldiered on; the Journal continued to thunder and publish wild accusations -- Clinton at the center of an international cocaine smuggling ring! -- but the arrangement yielded only fool's gold.

What additional proof do the Bancrofts and Ottaways need that they ought to question the “intellectual honesty” of the Journal's editorial page?

A footnote: The recent platitudes coming from Peter Kann about maintaining the Journal's integrity has been especially hard to take, seeing as how it was Kann, a former Journal reporter and later CEO of Dow Jones, who gave Bartley the green light to drive the editorial page off the cliff. Following the news of Murdoch's $5 billion bid for Dow Jones, Kann released a statement regarding the importance of “ensuring the continued integrity and independence of [the Journal's] journalism and the continued pursuit of its public service mission.”

Yet in 2003 Kann specifically told The New Yorker that he had no problem with what Bartley was doing. “I don't think there's any position of major consequence that the editorial page has taken over the years that I would not be a believer in,” said Kann.

So much for his concern about “integrity” as well as journalism and “its public service mission.”