The Wall Street Journal Obviously Isn’t a British Tabloid. So Why Do So Many People Want to Believe That It Is?

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.

Discussion

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=543164114 Nils Gilman

    I appreciate the contrarianism, Glenn, I really do. But I think it misses a fundamental point. 

    The real reason we need journalism is because we need some institution (or at least systematic function) dedicated to shining the light on the happy horseshit, hypocrisy, malfeasance, and self-dealing on the part of the powerful. In short, Journalism as an industry is not worth defending except insofar as it engages in muckraking — if all it is, is another channel of entertainment, then why should we care if it survives? If it's just about digging up dirt on celebrities, or the sex lives of politicians, or the unhappinesses of murder victims, who cares if it survives

    Is muckraking what any of Murdoch's news channels are fundamentally dedicated to doing? I wouldn't disagree with Murdoch's ruthless business tactics if they were in the service of preserving a space for muckraking. But is that what they do? I think they do, to some extent, when their party is out of power, and as such, I don't mind them. Alas, outfits like Fox News seem less dedicated to digging up dirt than to cheering for their side — which is not exactly the same thing.

    The real question is how can we preserve a space for investigative journalism. That work used to get subsidized by classified ads because of the economics of mass print production and distribution, but that's now gone. And I don't think Murdoch's really got a solution aimed at that problem.

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      Nils, do you think the WSJ is more interested in digging up dirt on Obama or Oprah?

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=543164114 Nils Gilman

        The LRB recently suggested that “celebrity drivel, xenophobia, materialism, kitsch jingoism, shag-’n’-brag and bullying of the vulnerable… is to the red meat of political debate what cowpats are to filet mignon” — not so sure that's true.

        I think the WSJ news section is indeed more interested in digging up dirt on Obama than Oprah (although Oprah, specifically, strikes me as a legit target for dirt-digging – a powerful media mogul in her own right). But the news section of the Journal has also been decimated by Murdoch. I don't blame him for this: I think he sincerely wants to save it, but the number just don't work. The sad fact is that for-profit investigative journalism may simply not be something that can exist. 

        So the question remains, how can we preserve the critical social function of investigative journalism in the name of the public interest? I think the answer may simply be to accept that dirt-digging will inevitably revert to the form it takes in most places other than the US: in the hands of the partisan press, where news organizations are unashamedly affiliated with certain political parties. In this sense, Murdoch (via Fox News) is indeed a pioneer and a visionary. One just wishes that he married his partisanship with a Tory attitude toward facts. But then, if he did that, he wouldn't actually be representing the POV of the Grand Old Party's core constituency, which rejects facts at odds with its agenda as the product of as liberal conspiracy.

  • Babak

    After the Murdoch tabloid has been found to have allegedly bribed the police, the WSJ editorial finds the nerves to ask:”Do our media brethren really want to invite Congress and prosecutors to regulate how journalists gather the news?”

    I don't know about your media brethren, but I sure do!

    Does anyone really think it's a coincidence that News of the World and its behavior are under the ownership of Rupert Murdoch?

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      I do not think we need new federal laws or a special prosecutor to investigate what happened between a British tabloid and the British police. The British laws have proven themselves quite sufficient.

      • Babak

        The British laws failed. It was only after a lot of pushing by the NY Times (and even that for selfish and competitive reasons) along with some detective work by an actor (of all people) that an investigation got going. Without those coincidences, the police would continue to be happy taking bribes from Murdoch's lieutenants and going on with business as usual.

        When media becomes such a monopoly and this big a political force in a country, everyone should be concerned.

        • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

          Good point but it would be more accurate to say that British law enforcement failed. Passing new laws, especially here in the states, wouldn't change that much would it?

  • Leo9Hawk

    You were “invigorated” to see that the WSJ didn't engage in a “Stalinist show trial of self-hate”? This comment suggests that you aren't really aware of what Stalin's show trials were.  They certainly were not careful, self-examinations – in this case, one that would benefit a newspaper whose high-level executives appear to have lied to the British Parliament.  The WSJ seems to be doing exactly what Rebekah Brooks was doing last week – before she canned the entire NOTW staff (saving newspapers, is it?) and then got herself fired because tossing all those journalists out of jobs (which she had helped turned into a form of skullduggery including blackmail) didn't quite work as planned.

    It's Murdoch and his minions, getting secrets on celebrities and public figures, and then not only publishing those secrets as what you are calling “breaking news” but ALSO, in some cases, using it to press them for other stories, thus building a stable of go-to figures whose lives they could build into fodder for a frustrated, easily distracted public.

    This is closer to Stalinist tactics than you seem to be aware: trafficking in secrets, using them against people, corrupting police and politicians with secrets and secret pay-offs, and then, when things get bad, getting rid of anyone in your way (in Stalin's case, using, indeed, show trials but also firing people or resorting to secret assassinations; in Murdoch's case, firing people or shutting down a legacy news medium (after, that is, he had turned NOTW into a post-reality TV newsprint soap opera).

    Comparing what might have been a more probing self-examination by the WSJ to a Stalinist show trial is just really unfortunate historically, and in contemporary terms, it actually misses the point. Murdoch is using the kinds of tactics that Stalin used when he was not yet serious about a problem!

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      Leo9Hawk, what specifically does the Wall Street Journal have to apologize for, other than being owned by someone who also owns a sleazy and now-defunct tabloid? The analogy I was making to a Stalinist show-trial was of someone forced to confess to a crime committed by another. In this case, the crime was committed by News of the World. The Wall Street Journal shouldn't have to confess to that.

  • DJ

    Glen: Is it really a good idea to pontificate like this from the Redfin pulpit? Shouldn't Redfin be politically neutral. Glen, the citizen can say whatever he wants but shouldn't Glen, the Redfin CEO be more circumspect?

    • http://blog.redfin.com GlennKelman

      Good point; I almost didn't publish this one for that very reason. I tried not to take a position on Rupert Murdoch's politics, but I do think Redfin has a history of taking a position on media and journalism, which is relevant to our business. What I took exception to was the outrage that the WSJ would express pride, at this moment, in its own mission. I'll stick to less controversial topics in the future.

  • Seo

    THIS IS Good point but it would be more accurate to say that British law enforcement failed………so  Please log on our website for Jaipur Property

  • http://sandiego-movers.co San Diego Mover

    This is an obvious way that the media is stirring the pot of rumor. If it goes unchecked our 1st amendment right may be in jeopardy. Because of a few unscrupulous idiots.

  • Pat

    “No one seriously thinks the Journal would bribe sources or hack cell-phones.”

    I do. Les Hinton, publisher of the WSJ, resigned as a result of the phone hacking scandal. I think it is perfectly reasonable to suspect that the tactics applied at News Of The World migrated with Les to the WSJ.

    “And this shouldn’t be about Rupert Murdoch’s politics”

    It isn't – its about a man who has made many enemies, and the chickens are coming home to roost. Milly Dowler's phone was hacked. She was a complete innocent murder victim, not the usual royals or Hollywood figure. This scandal has made it impossible for anyone to defend News and Murdoch in Britain. The “politics” assertion is ignoring that laws were broken.

    There have been 9 arrests so far and investigations are nibbling up the corporate ladder. These investigations are criminal not political. The fact that there is a certain amount of schadenfreude does not illegitimatize the investigations.