One of the more delicious aspects of all-but-certain purchase by Rupert Murdoch of the Wall Street Journal and the large multinational communications company that surrounds it is that it may mark the very first time that Murdoch will push his new editor-slaves to the left.
The thick and tasty fudge on top of that creamy scoop makes the sundae complete: the strange, conservative heritage of the Bancroft family and the late editor Robert L. Bartley has already begun its big, slow melt. A few years after Ole Rupert brusquely flings open those doors, and it will be little more than the faintest hint of a dirty ring left on the counter.
The Wall Street Journal is one of the great newspapers. I read it most days, and its coverage of business-related news and politics goes well beyond the usual scorecard-keeping that constitutes much of financial reporting. The Journal employers wonderful writers and reporters, who, in my mind, write about sociology through finance. They tell stories about who we are and where we're going. I read it and I learn.
Its editorial pages, famously separate from the news department (indeed, often an embarassment to the newsroom), are a cesspool of disinformation, flip-floppy "conservatism," and pure offensive vitriol. I still read 'em. They're the mainstay of the ever-shifting winds of American conservatism, which redefines itself based upon what party is in office or what loose alliance can be cobbled among the social misfits. And there are the rare gems - who doesn't love to hate Dan Henninger?
But the editorial themselves - the voice of the Bancrofts - are like drifting right-wing confetti, blown by a political wind - first here on government power (against our type of people), then there on government power (for our type of people).
That is history, of course.
Bartley is dead these four years now, and billions of bytes have been spilled his legendary inconsistency as a conservative, his myriad vendetti, his disenchantment with facts, his erstwhile claim to knowing "the one truth."
One of the more familiar of Bartley's calumniations involved his dismissal of a polygraph test supporting Anita Hill's contentions against Clarence Thomas. "Lie detector tests," blustered Bartley in a lead editorial entitled "Credibility Gap," "are so unreliable they are rarely allowed as evidence in court." Alas, just eight months later, the Journal argued against an Iran-contra perjury indictment of former Secretary of Defense (and editorial page contributor) Caspar Weinberger. Thundered Bartley: "Mr. Weinberger has taken and passed a lie-detector test on the matter."
But that's in the past. What's present and future for the Journal opinion page is the loss of its freedom; the take-over by a willful press baron who is anything but a liberal to be sure, but possessing of that quality that is antithetical to the high-minded (but shifty) opinion-sneezers at the Journal - pragmatism.
They know it too - they feel it with an intestine-clutching panic that is said not to bother Murdoch at all, as he tested the munchies at that fundraiser he threw for gal pal Hillary Clinton in Los Angeles. The cold sweat dripped off the Journal's lead editorial on the proposed merger this week (I could barely keep a grip on the 6:20 to Bronxville):
At the editorial page, this has meant that for a century we have been able to adhere to a worldview we now distill to the phrase "free people and free markets." This began, more or less, with the classical liberalism of William Hamilton, who as a Scotsman before emigrating had dabbled in British Liberal Party politics. It has continued through a series of editors who have adhered to those principles despite shifting political fashions and partisan winds.
Over the years this independence has also meant the freedom to challenge prevailing media conventions and political power. Following Hamilton as editor in the 1930s, Thomas Woodlock battled Keynesian economics and the New Deal. The Journal was skeptical of FDR's dalliances with prewar Britain -- until the day war began and our short editorial was headlined, "We Have a Duty." The editorial hangs in our office today.
As he campaigned for re-election in 1948, Harry Truman denounced the Journal as the "Republicans' Bible," a line that earned him a rebuke from Editor (of the editorial page) William Grimes because "our loyalties are to the economic and governmental principles in which we believe and not to any political party." In one of his visits to the White House, Editor Vermont Royster was thanked by John F. Kennedy for supporting his free-trade agenda. "Young man," said Royster, "the Wall Street Journal was supporting free trade before you were born." The Journal hasn't endorsed a Presidential candidate since Herbert Hoover, preferring instead to praise or assail the candidates' ideas.
On occasion this has meant the Journal has come under outside pressure, both commercial and political, but the Bancrofts and our publishers have always stood firm.
There is nothing quite like the thrill of being wrong, dead wrong in every sense, vilified-and-mocked-by-history wrong - and still putting on a dusty plaque up in the office to celebrate poor judgment. It's almost admirable. Oh Bartley of sainted memory, how wrong we were -and we do hope Mr. Murdoch understands:
Our former Editor Robert Bartley once told us of being called on the carpet by Henry Kissinger, then the Secretary of State, for opposing detente and arms control with the Soviet Union. Journal Publisher and CEO Warren Phillips accompanied Bartley to the meeting, and started things off by asking Mr. Kissinger what all of his Spengler-pessimism talk vis-a-vis the Russians was about. The anti-detente editorials kept coming, and Bartley and Mr. Kissinger later became friends.
The 1990s were especially controversial with the Journal's reporting about Whitewater and Bill Clinton's ethics, and more than one liberal thought he could mute Bartley's campaign in the wake of the Vincent Foster suicide. But the Bancrofts and Publisher Peter Kann stood up to the pressure.
Yes, the glory of the Vince Foster episode. I'm sure Rupert will get the low-down from Hillary on how the Journal's band of brothers bravely stood their ground on that day, my friends. What, is that pleading I hear from the editorial foisters? Are they arguing economics, now?
We could tell other stories, but the essential point is that our owners have allowed us to speak our mind on behalf of a consistent set of principles. Readers may like, or loathe, those beliefs and our way of defending them. But we like to think this brand of independence is one reason the Journal has attracted such an influential readership. To borrow a phrase from modern business lingo, we hope it is part of our value proposition.
At a dinner honoring their century of Journal ownership in 2002, Bob Bartley expressed his gratitude to the Bancrofts for their support, noting that some of his editorials over 30 years must not have sat well with everyone in the ideologically diverse clan. But Bartley added that his proudest boast was that he ran the only editorial page "that sells newspapers." We can't say what any future owner would do, but we doubt one would be foolish enough to undermine this market appeal.
Rupert enjoys being calls foolish by his soon-to-be-employees - I've known a few of the lads at The Post over the years (indeed my own byline appeared there for a while), and Murdoch, you know, wasn't much a presence. Left the editors alone. Understood the value proposition. Much like Steinbrenner.
This little church-door missive ends with a note nailed up from a 1951 edition of the Journal - ah, the parentheticals are mine. I confess it:
"On our editorial page we make no pretense of walking down the middle of the road. Our comments and interpretations are made from a definite point of view. We believe in the individual, in his wisdom and his decency. We oppose all infringements on individual rights [unless by Republicans], whether they stem from attempts at private monopoly, labor union monopoly or from an overgrowing government [unless led by Republicans]. People will say we are conservative or even reactionary [or inconsistent]. We are not much interested in labels but if we were to choose one, we would say we are radical [especially when Democrats are in power]."
Fear walked the WSJ's editorial page this week - the kind of fear that comes from a terminal diagnosis. For the old war-mongering, classist, anti-government, isolationist (Democrats in power), interventionist (Republicans in power), Wall Street Journal editorial page, that diagnosis is clear.
Prescription: Start a blog.