What Murdoch Won't Want to Change at the Wall Street Journal

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Mr. Toplin is a professor of history at the University of North Carolina (Wilmington) and the author most recently of Radical Conservatism.

Recently, the board of Dow Jones & Co decided to accept Rupert Murdoch's offer to purchase the organization. Murdoch's apparent success in adding this substantial investment to his portfolio has aroused a good deal of concern in newspaper and television commentaries. Critics worry that the media giant will be expanding his already extraordinary influence over the world's news and entertainment businesses. They note, too, that control over Dow Jones will enable Murdoch to affect the Wall Street Journal's reports and editorials (WSJ is a division of Dow Jones). Murdoch has a reputation for interfering in the activities of his news companies, a practice that irritates the advocates of independent-minded Journal ism. Those critics warn that the Australian-born mogul is likely to make the Journal into a right-wing organ, much as he did with the Fox News Channel and his other media properties.

How Rupert Murdoch deals with staff at the Wall Street Journal remains to be seen, but he need not change the newspaper radically to bring its editorial policy in line with his personal views. The current WSJ cannot be characterized as a paragon of objective and balanced journalism. Its news reporting is impressive, but it practices a sharply partisan editorial approach. For years, the Journal's editorial writers have been stridently ideological in registering their opinions about U.S. domestic and foreign policies. During the years of George W. Bush's presidency, those editors have remained enthusiastically supportive of the administration's attempts to remove regulations on corporations. The editors have generally promoted a libertarian-style philosophy that casts doubt on most government-led reform programs. WSJ editors have opposed efforts to adopt stronger rules for campaign financing. The Journal's opinion writers rejected attempts to increase the minimum wage substantially and to create a publicly-based national health care system that extends benefits to the entire American population. Rupert Murdoch was probably quite pleased with these and other editorials when he encountered them as a reader rather than as boss at the Journal .

One of the best recent examples of the Journal's Murdoch-like approach to politics can be seen in its editorial positions on the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Although the Journal's editorials have recently expressed worry about America's growing troubles in Iraq, that attitude was not on display during the weeks immediately preceding the March 19, 2003 invasion. Commentaries in the Journal before the invasion resembled the language employed at that time by hosts and pundits who appeared on Murdoch's Fox News Channel.

Contributors to the Wall Street Journal beat the drums for war consistently during that period and gave virtually no space for voices opposed to war. A reader of its editorial pages during the first eighteen days in March 2003 would have difficulty understanding what the opposition to war was all about. The Journal's editorials and op-ed articles blasted opponents of armed conflict, suggesting that critics of military action were failing to support the nation and the president in a time of crisis. Editors joked about Democrats, saying that Nancy Pelosi's critique of Bush's policy "could have been written in Paris." WSJ editors charged that Senator Tom Daschle wanted to provide the "right of French first refusal." The editors argued with confidence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction and represented a serious threat to world peace. The United States was going to war for purposes of "self-defense," they told readers. "Saddam poses a clear and present danger for Americans." WSJ editors also maintained that the Iraqi dictator harbored al-Qaeda members in his country. Saddam Hussein had links to Osama bin Laden, they asserted.

Most op-ed contributors to the Journal during those eighteen days in March before the outbreak of war demanded military intervention. They did not treat war as a moot question, and they did not appear troubled by unforeseen complications that could result from U.S. occupation. The task ahead seemed obvious. The United States should fight Iraq immediately and remove Saddam from power. Oriana Fallaci, a controversial Italian journalist known for damning critiques of Islam, invoked an analogy from history, arguing that the Iraqis would greet U.S. military action with glee. Fallaci pointed out that the Italians hanged their evil dictator, Benito Mussolini, once Allied troops gained control of Italy near the end of World War II. Saddam Hussein could meet the same fate at the hands of angry Iraqis once an American-led coalition arrived. Winston S. Churchill, grandson of the famous British wartime leader, called for courage to act against "this monster once and for all." Churchill claimed there was a link between al-Qaeda and Iraq and warned that Saddam Hussein "possesses" an arsenal of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons. Wall Street Journal columnist Daniel Henniger saw connections to al-Qaeda, too. He said George W. Bush needed to "stick Saddam Hussein in a hole," before more U.S. citizens died from 9/11-type tragedies involving suicide bombings, anthrax, or other horrible attacks.

Only two WSJ op-ed columnists did not provide full-throated calls for war in the eighteen days before the fighting began, yet their arguments did not suggest fully committed resistance to war either. Kofi A. Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, made a vague appeal for wise decision-making in a time of crisis in his op-ed, and Albert R. Hunt, who identified himself as an "anti-Saddam hawk," expressed concern that the U.S. might enter a "minefield" in Iraq if it did not establish a clear exit strategy and obtain promises from other nations to share the burden of stabilizing Iraq. These two essayists provided the only meager examples of contrary opinion that the Wall Street Journal offered in its editorial pages. The thrust of opinion was overwhelmingly hawkish and clearly in the spirit of commentary television viewers heard at the time when watching Murdoch's Fox News Channel.

Rupert Murdoch may press his views at the WSJ once the business deal is completed, yet he is unlikely to create a political revolution in the newspaper's editorial offices. The Journal's opinion writers have been in his camp for years.

Related Links

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    George R Gaston - 8/12/2007

    Unlike the publications you named, the Journal is a Daily newspaper. It can be purchased printed, on line, or both. What the article did not make clear is that Barrons is also a DJ product. It seems that Mr. Murdoch was able to grab the golden ring this time.

    The point I was trying to express was that the Journal's editorial position is, at best, a secondary concern to its readership.

    If you spin news in the Journal, you cost your readership money, and it’s pretty easy to cancel a newspaper subscription.

    Andrew D. Todd - 8/7/2007

    My view is that the discussion about the Wall Street Journal is a bit overheated.

    The distinction between a magazine and a newspaper is increasingly artificial. By that standard, the Wall Street Journal is not so unique, because there are a number of business magazines, both general (Business Week, Fortune, Forbes, Economist, etc.) and specialized (Business Travel News, Advertising Age, etc.). At this stage, a magazine has a website and a blog, as a matter of course. If a business magazine has a scoop, the magazine publishes it on the website. A rough rule of thumb is that it is imprudent to actually print more material than an average reader would be willing to keep around for a couple of months. Anything more transitory should go onto the website. Most newspapers have become hostages of their printing plants, and are unable to consider the merits of going to weekly or monthly publication.

    William J. Stepp - 8/6/2007

    What incentive does Murdoch have to "tamper" with the WSJ's news coverage? Why would he do this?

    To call the Journal's op-ed page "ridiculously right-wing, dishonest, and disgraceful" is laughable. It's right-wing, but hardly ridiculous in it's editorial views. If the Journal is "dishonest and disgraceful," maybe you think he'll bring in Jayson Blair or Janet Cooke to clean it up? And what are the words to describe the NYT and the WP?

    Michael Green - 8/6/2007

    Whatever one thinks of Rupert Murdoch, I think that Professor Toplin misses the broader point. Frederick Birchall, the acting managing editor of The New York Times (which ultimately will benefit when Murdoch starts tampering with the WSJ's news coverage), once said the editorials didn't matter as long as he controlled the front page--in other words, even as ridiculously right-wing, dishonest, and disgraceful as the WSJ editorial page is, the real concern is that Murdoch will move the news columns in that direction. And the threat is very real.

    George Robert Gaston - 8/6/2007

    The Journal’s editorial position may be conservative, it may be libertarian or it may be liberal. The paper’s editorial position is largely immaterial. When your readership has their eye on the bottom line, your opinion is just not that important. Accuracy and attention to detail in the news portion of the paper are the real heart of the matter.

    The paper is a source of business news. That is the news typically pushed into a four page section of the average American daily. Some business news is available on cable television, (CNBC and Fox if you can stand to watch it). So, to its target reader the paper’s editorials are, by in large, an afterthought. Who would pay that cover price for an Op-Ed page?

    If the purchase is what it took to keep the paper on the streets, then the purchase was a good thing. If by purchasing Dow Jones, Murdoch and Roger Ales improve the quality of the business news operation at Fox, so much the better.

    It could be that a global business news operation is necessary for a global economy.

    Mike Schoenberg - 8/6/2007

    What is not mentioned is what will happen after Mr. Murdoch takes control. Will he allow objective news reports or will there be layoffs etc.

    Juan Antonio Hervada-Giménez - 8/6/2007

    I tend to agree with William J. Stepp. On the other hand, I feel that a relevan factor that is being lost in the fuzz about Mr. Murdoch's personality is that the WSJ is about the only truly major newspaper that has succeded in going over to an Internet based business model. Indeed, I think that using the term "national newspaper" is missplaced; the WSJ is a ***global*** newspaper and, well, I think that mr. Murdoch is perhaps the first global publisher...

    William J. Stepp - 8/5/2007

    The current WSJ cannot be characterized as a paragon of objective and balanced journalism. Its news reporting is impressive, but it practices a sharply partisan editorial approach.

    All three of the America's national newspapers are sharply partisan in their editorial opinions. Big deal, that's what editorial pages are for.
    At least the Journal doesn't lie in its news reporting. I don't think it has ever had a Jayson Blair moment, with plagiarism and fabrication as part of its news reporting.

    The Journal's reporting is not obsessed about race and class in a PC kind of way, as is the NY Times (I don't read the Washington Post). Its reporting on these issues is far more objective, fact-based, and grounded in reality.

    The editors have generally promoted a libertarian-style philosophy that casts doubt on most government-led reform programs.

    While the Journal has rightly been skeptical of government "reform," it is certainly not pushing a libertarian-style philosophy on a whole host of issues. The Journal has long been in favor of the drug war, although it published a number of op-eds by Milton Friedman attacking it from a libertarian position. As you point out, the Journal is for the war in Iraq, which is hardly a libertarian position. It printed Randy Barnett's op-ed recently about libertarians and the Iraq War, which raised some questions about it.

    Even on issues where libertarians would agree with the Journal, it usually takes a watered-down and unprincipled postion, at least according to plumbline libertarian theory. The Journal wants to reduce taxes; libertarians want to abolish them. The Journal wants to reduce
    "intellectual property" restrictions; libertarians maintain the IP is really intellectual monopoly, and that copyright and patent laws should be repealed.

    That said, many of the Journal's criticisms of governement intervention are good ones that libertarians endorse.

    I think the angst over Murdoch's control of the Journal is misplaced. He's not about to interfere with the Journal if doing so will damage its reputation.
    And I think he will continue its transformation into a 21st century newspaper with investment in new technology.