Until last night, I’d never agreed with the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which is far to the right of any moderate conservative or liberal stance. But I couldn’t agree more with its spirited defense of itself in the wake of the British hacking scandal.
Already, Reuters’s Felix Salmon has posted a survey asking if the Journal’s editorial board actually believes what it’s saying. The New York Times’s David Carr describes the Journal’s pride in its work as the ultimate sign of its corruption. Joe Nocera expects the Journal’s best writers to distance themselves from their own paper.
But why should the Wall Street Journal embrace the idea that Britain’s blood-crazed tabloids have stained its own reputation? No one seriously thinks the Journal would bribe sources or hack cell-phones.
This isn’t even about the original crimes, which the editorial duly denounces. We all agree: the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid that stole a murdered girl’s voice-mail deserved to fold. The people who authorized these tactics should go to prison. The broader scandal lies in vendettas against politicians and their craven efforts at appeasement.
And this shouldn’t be about Rupert Murdoch’s politics. What’s at issue is a topic we have discussed many times before here, which is the future of journalism. The only thing Rupert Murdoch and I have in common is that we both care very much about the future of journalism.
So it was invigorating for me to see, at a very dark hour for the profession, that the Wall Street Journal didn’t excoriate itself in a Stalinist show trial of self-hate, but stood up for the many, many ways in which it is different from The News of the World, stood behind the changes it had made to turn a profit, and remained true to a fired colleague whom it would have been far more convenient to ditch.
This defense of the business of journalism didn’t sit well with all the journalists waiting to attend the next newspaper funeral. And it didn’t sit well with many of my peers in technology, who fulminate against Murdoch’s assault on the Wall Street Journal while building businesses that are threatening to put all newspapers, including the Journal, into the ground.
We can’t get nostalgic about the gold old days of a purer, better journalism, and not just because our memories tend to be rose-colored. We have to make it work. My own take is that Rupert Murdoch is the only businessperson the world has seen outside of Michael Bloomberg with the moxie to do that — not to fulfill a noble civic duty like the New York Times’s Sulzbergers or to aggregate “content” on whatever searches are trending on Google — but to make money from breaking original news.
What gives Murdoch a shot at success in this endeavor is what got him into trouble in Great Britain: his old-fashioned lust for scoops. I don’t like Murdoch’s insistence on shorter stories or his preference for more stories about politics and less about business. But at least therein lies a point of view on how traditional newspapers can remain relevant; at least Murdoch is trying to win.
Who else is left in the media business to care about newspapers? That’s the main reason why Murdoch over-paid for the Wall Street Journal. He stuck to his guns on digital subscriptions, and has resisted Google’s self-serving insistence that all content should be free. He’s under fire now in part because he stood by his editors for too long.
Disagree with Murdoch’s politics all you like. But then compare his commitment to newspapers to that of Sam Zell, the real estate magnate who loaded up the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune with debt, then ran them into the ground. I doubt very much that Zell ever hoped, as Murdoch has, that his children would run a big paper, because the only thing Zell every wanted to do to a big paper was squeeze out its last remaining pennies.
I don’t like giving Murdoch any credit, and not just because of our ideological differences. His ethics are troubling because he doesn’t seem to recognize the boundary between his business interests and the news, and because he is a sensationalist.
And he is overt about his mission to politicize news because he’s convinced that everyone else is doing the same thing; his rationalizations for doing this are no different than that of your run-of-the-mill adulterer or embezzler, except that Murdoch and all the other partisans are cheating the entire apparatus of democracy.
And now his ethical lapses have combined with the aggressive culture he created to result in a new, terrible low: the hacking of a murdered girl’s voice-mail. Let’s just remember that the solution to this problem is the insistence on ethics, not the absence of aggression. If there’s one thing newspapers can’t afford to lose today, it’s what’s left of their aggression. Bravo to the Wall Street Journal for being one of the only ones on the left or the right to know the difference.