Times 2, Journal 0: The newspaper war heats up over Tom Cruise, Bear Stearns and Murdoch’s henchman
In a feature piece last Monday, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz offered an overview of Manhattan’s current newspaper war: The New York Times versus The Wall Street Journal. Interviewed therein was the Journal’s new publisher—former Times of London editor and Murdoch henchman Robert Thomson—who took the opportunity to aim several broadsides at his uptown rival:
“I think American journalism has some soul-searching to do. American newspapers generally have kept up poorly with change… If there’s a presumption that what you might call New York Times journalism is the pinnacle of our profession, the profession is in some difficulty.…”
Thomson, rather conveniently, uses the Times as a symbol of what he calls “self-serving” American journalism, describing “a sensibility that fetishizes prizes, that believes the length of a story is a measure of its worth.” He says the Times has been unfair in its coverage of the Journal and leans to the left. “The New York Times is generally skewed,” Thomson says.
Scrupulous in his effort to avoid that same criticism, Kurtz sought out a rejoinder from the Times: “The Times declines to respond in kind, and some Americans may bristle at the British editor’s dismissiveness, which highlights that part of the Journal’s brain trust was born elsewhere.”
They declined, that is, until the next day, when a Timesman who is not authorized to comment, “responded in kind” on the condition of anonymity:
“Do we take seriously what he says about the Times? No. We do take seriously what he says about the Journal, though. Whatever it says on the masthead, Thomson’s the editor. He’s moved his office next to the news floor.”
As an opener, this is a beaut. It’s replete with insinuation that Rupert Murdoch is really the dark puppet master—part free-market pirate, part Bond villain. As my interview with the Timesman progressed, it morphed into a short seminar titled Kicking the Journal’s Ass 101—with every round house accompanied by more or less the same caveat.
“We [the Times] can’t afford to be smug. [The Journal is] off their game during a period of transition and we know they’re going to come back.”
In the meantime, the Times doesn’t mind standing on the Journal’s neck. To wit, the former absolutely destroyed the latter on the collapse of Bear Stearns. Says the Timesman: “When [JPMorgan Chase CEO] James Diamon went over to meet with the executives at Bear Stearns to explain the merger [namely, the low share price], it was a pretty ugly scene. [Times reporter] Landon Thomas had it all in the paper the next day.”
How he got it all remains a matter of speculation, though it’s clear that Thomas or another Times reporter was in the room. What’s significant here is that The Wall Street Journal was more or less shut out—which, on a finance story of that magnitude, is the equivalent of the Times failing to report the results of a presidential election and the Journal splashing it all over the front page.
Beyond that, the Timesman, taking a wry tone, suggested that the Journal had made some “odd decisions regarding story selection recently.” For instance, on March 28, a short item ran in the Journal reporting that Viacom chairman Sumner Redstone had taken a kiss-and-make-up lunch with Tom Cruise, whom Redstone had fired a couple of years back. It’s the sort of gossip item that would normally never see the light of day in a financial paper. The Times passed on the entire matter.
And though the Timesman didn’t say as much, the implication was clear: while the Cruise tip may not have come straight from Murdoch, it sure smelled like it. When it comes to their money Journal readers aren’t exactly ideological. If they get the feeling that they’re getting spun that’s going to be a problem.
The Timesman finished the aria with a judicious disclaimer—it might not mean anything, maybe it’s just me, etc., etc.—and rang off. The battle, it seems, has truly been joined.
• Wall St. Journal Makes Politics Its Business [Washington Post]• Murdoch’s ‘WSJ’ Will Destroy the ‘Times’—With Journalism! [Gawker]