The Wall Street Journal Tries To Absolve The Wall Street Journal

Amidst the turbulent News Corp. phone-hacking scandal, Rupert Murdoch's Wall Street Journal received a welcomed pat on the back when the newspaper's Special Committee, tasked with protecting the daily's editorial integrity, announced Monday that the Journal had not been implicated in the scandal, and that Murdoch's newspaper integrity remains in tact.

The committee toasted the Journal's staff full of “talented, experienced, principled people” and assured readers the paper was in no way associated with the “the journalistic rot on sad display in the U.K.”

Have there been any credible claims that reporters at the Wall Street Journal hacked phones or otherwise broke the law in pursuit of stories? Certainly not that I've seen. So in that regard, the committee's findings were not surprising, or even newsworthy. (It would be shocking to think anyone at the newspaper had been involved in hacking.)

A more compelling point facing the Journal though, is that when confronted with its first real test of having to cover Murdoch and his company as part of a big, breaking news scandal, the Journal failed in very important ways. Namely, it failed for an entire week to report on the central role that its publisher, Les Hinton, played in the British hacking scandal. (He was ultimately forced to resign.) And then the Journal's opinion pages were turned into a misguided Murdoch cheering section.

On those two key points however, the Special Committee remains oddly nonjudgmental.

Also troubling is that the committee, deep into its public statement, concedes the Journal was guilty of key journalism transgression while covering the News Corp., yet fails to explain who was responsible for those failures, or how the paper will make sure they don't happen again in the Murdoch era.

From the Special Committee [emphasis added]:

The Journal was slower than it should have been at the outset to pursue the phone-hacking scandal story, in our opinion, though it is doing much better now with aggressive coverage, fitting placement in the paper, and unflinching headlines. We agree it could have done a better job with a recent story allowing Mr. Murdoch to get his side of the story on the record without tougher questioning. We have discussed this with the involved editors.

I'm sorry, but those represent huge Journal failings. They also represent the exact type of transgressions Murdoch critics feared would unfold when he purchased the paper.

But the Special Committee will have none of that [continuing directly]:

But a pattern of wrongdoing? A culture of journalistic malpractice? Shills for Rupert Murdoch or anybody else? That is not the newsroom we have observed over our four years

Reassuring readers, the Special Committee reports that as the scandal unfolded, members “stepped up” their oversight efforts and had “useful meetings with Robert Thomson, the editor, and other key editors, with the general counsel and the acting publisher of The Wall Street Journal.”

What did editor Thomson actually say about being slow off the blocks in covering the hacking scandal? What did editor Thomson say about handing over portions of the Journal's news pages to allow Murdoch a chance to air his story in a puffy interview? That, we're never told. Only that the committee members felt their “candid” meeting with Thomson was “useful.”

Oh good.

Either the Journal should have the guts to employ a truly independent ombudsman to ferret out the newspaper's shortcomings, while providing a detailed, tick-tock account of news gathering missteps (complete with on-the-record quotes from the editor), or it should admit it's not interested in that kind of intrusion. But the idea that its Special Committee kinda/sorta fills the role of an actual ombudsman is a bit of a joke; a joke that's trotted out when Murdoch's empire becomes mired in an embarrassing scandal.

I mean, do members of the Special Committee honestly think the pages of the Wall Street Journal have not been used as a platform to push back and lash out at Murdoch's critics? The fact that it has has been widely commented on in recent days. Yet the committee, in all its “conversations” with newspaper staffers, appears not to have noticed.

They seem not to have noticed that by the end of last week the Journal had published seven hacking-related opinion pieces; all of them either defending Murdoch, lashing out at his critics, or obfuscating the facts of the scandal. Think back to before Murdoch owned the paper: If this same News Corp. scandal had broken and Murdoch wasn't signing the Journal paychecks, do you think even one of those seven columns would have been published by the business daily?

Me neither.

For those who aren't familiar with the peculiar Special Committee, it was created at the time of Murdoch's purchase of the Journal in 2007. The five-person committee was formed at the insistence of the daily's former owners as a way to try to protect the newspaper from its new proprietor. (That's never a good sign.) Bancroft family members were so concerned about the damage Murdoch might do to the newspaper that they insisted a stand-alone working group be formed to protect the Journal's independence; to make sure Murdoch didn't interfere with the newspaper too much.

Not surprisingly, given the new owner's heavy-handed history of newspaper meddling, the committee proved to be something of a farce.

That the committee would be rather toothless was telegraphed from the outset when the Journal hired Thomas Bray to be its committee chairman. Who is Thomas Bray? He's a former Detroit News columnist who spent much of his journalism career bashing Democrats, whining about liberal media, and dutifully pushing the Republicans' anti-union, anti-environmentalist talking points.

Am I suggesting Bray cannot oversee a review of the Journal? I am not.

Am I suggesting the Journal's decision to hire a professional partisan like Bray makes it harder for readers to take seriously the Special Committee's things-are-fine-inside-the-Journal verdict?

I am. And it does.