Requiem for a newspaper: The Wall Street Journal falls into the Murdoch trap

Requiem for a newspaper: The Wall Street Journal falls into the Murdoch trap

Flipping the Rolodex of descriptors this morning, I pause at P for “plus ça change” and W for “waddya think was going to happen?” Rupert Murdoch has pulled the wool yet again. The Times and the Journal have been full of stories this week suggesting that the WSJ’s new owner is interfering with his newspaper’s editorial independence—first by foisting changes so that it might compete more directly with The New York Times (more politics, shorter stories), then by firing the ancien régime editor Marcus Brauchli, who wasn’t moving fast enough to make those changes. And this time, Rupe’s chinless, coupon-clipping victims (the Bancroft family) are so thoroughly bumfuzzled that it barely merits the usual blah blah blah about history repeating itself first as tragedy, then…oh, you know the drill.

Murdoch pulled exactly the same trick on then-editor Harold Evans when he took over the Times of London in the early ’80s (it took Evans a year to quit in the face of Murdoch’s reassurances that he wouldn’t interfere; Brauchli was gone in less than six months). Now Murdoch has slipped around an entire committee set up to ensure that the Journal retained editorial independence. Brauchli himself was involved in writing terms of reference that, according to this morning’s Journal, ensured that the committee had “the rights of approval over the hiring or removal of three key editors—the managing editor, the editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal and the managing editor of Dow Jones Newswires under its current structure.”

A dandy sentiment, but as committee chair Thomas Bray (formerly the editorial page editor of the Detroit News) points out, “that Marcus agreed to [leave] without coming to us put us in a very difficult spot. The agreement says nothing about our role in a resignation.” Even it appears if the resignation was—how to say?—jollied along.

Anyway, here’s the point: Brauchli signed a so-called non-disparagement agreement (NDA) in return for a whacking severance; the committee members are each getting a hundred grand to say things like they’ve been put in a “very difficult spot”; and the Bancrofts, who initiated all this nonsense to salve their consciences, are off somewhere getting prosthetic chins paid for by Rupert Murdoch’s billions.

On Monday of this week, David Carr, the Times’ brilliant blogger/columnist/media shit disturber, described a scene at a barroom adios held by Brauchli for another walk-the-planker that sounded straight out of the movie Network:

One reporter, one who doesn’t have a cushy severance agreement so we will leave his name out of it, apparently found the mannered wake at the Grill Room a little too much to bear. According to two people who overheard the conversation, the reporter stepped up to…Mr. Brauchli and said how disappointing his acquiescence had been.

I asked a British source who’s seen this all before what he thought:

It’s an odd one, isn’t it? The fact that Brauchli isn’t complaining rather weakens the committee’s case. But Murdoch has effectively paid him off by giving him a presumably highly lucrative “consulting” role, which probably doesn’t involve doing very much.

I reckon Murdoch has handled it with typical low cunning. Rather than sacking Brauchli, he made his job impossible by appointing a “publisher” who is not doing any publishing but is actually running the newsroom. Brauchli bows to the inevitable but is rewarded with a healthy stipend to stop him making trouble.

Not sure about this committee…they’re not very big names on it, are they? A former editorial page editor of the Detroit News and a business school academic.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

So let’s call that what it is. Requiem for a newspaper: one drunken reporter mouthing off in a bar and paid Potemkin flunkies flapping around to make it all look “above board.” I doubt Rupert Murdoch’s going to lose even a minute’s sleep.

WSJ Editor’s Resignation Is Criticized By Committee [Wall Street Journal]• At Journal, the Words Not Spoken [New York Times]• Murdoch’s ‘Head of Content’ [New York Times]