Blowing Up at the Murdoch Journal

Barry Ritholtz rips The Wall Street Journal a new one today, saying that “Under Murdoch, the paper has become politicized to the point of losing a significant portion of its value.”

What set him off? The headline on the paper’s A1 Obama bank-tax story: “New Bank Rules Sink Stocks.”

I’m not convinced of Ritholtz’s argument, even though I usually agree with the idea that attributing stock moves to events is often just noise, which we in the news business euphemistically call an “angle”:

Without getting too philosophical, we know that day-to-day action is mostly nonsense. Selecting a causal factor from the cacophony of news releases, earnings, price data is all but impossible. There is a whole lot of noise, and very little signal. Assigning a definitive causative factor is at best a guessing game, at worst an exercise in futility.

But it’s not much of a reach to think that a proposal by the president of the United States to get tough on too-big-to-fail banks and limit their risk-taking (and thus potential profits) would cause investors to bail out of those banks specifically. That’s reinforced by the fact that stocks of smaller banks actually rose quite a bit, perhaps on the prospect of wounded competition. If nothing else, the new Obama stance signals an end to his Wall-Street-friendly policies. The gravy train is coming to the end of the line. That hurts the biggies’ profit outlook over the medium-to-long term.

You’ll not get us to defend what Murdoch has done to the Journal, which has in almost every respect—including the erosion of its once-ironclad objectivity—gone downhill under his ownership. And Ritholtz does hit on something here: the futzing with headlines and stories (especially ledes, it often seems) that we’ve noticed in the Murdoch era:

I keep seeing headlines that are blatantly political, articles that looked to be edited by a ham-fisted politburo apparatchiks, other signs that the usual outstanding journalism at the WSJ is under assault.

In this case, the page-one headline just doesn’t have anything to do with the story, which is good and as straight a piece on the news as you’ll read anywhere today. This kind of thing is not the reporters’ fault—it’s the editors’. Here’s what David Carr reported last month:

A little over a year ago, Robert Thomson, The Journal’s top editor, picked Gerard Baker, a columnist for The Times of London, as his deputy managing editor. Mr. Baker is a former Washington bureau chief of The Financial Times with a great deal of expertise in the Beltway. The two men came of age in the more partisan milieu of British journalism.

According to several former members of the Washington bureau and two current ones, the two men have had a big impact on the paper’s Washington coverage, adopting a more conservative tone, and editing and headlining articles to reflect a chronic skepticism of the current administration.

The problem with today’s story is that headlines like that allow for no hedging or context when they’re incongruously slapped on stories not about them. Ritholtz points out that other factors beyond Obama’s proposal had bigger impacts elsewhere in the markets:

While the financial sector suffered a 3% decline after some disappointing earnings from various banks, it was the commodities sector that got whacked 4.3%. China made a major announcement they were restricting bank lending to cool inflation and slow the economy.

I noticed this and pointed to a China article in Reads; Tom Petruno at the LA Times pointed out the relationship between the change in China policy to the Commodity sector, and how substantial those losses were.

Ritholtz is kind of doing what he’s ticked at the WSJ for doing, but he’s right that the China factor should have been included. There’s just no room for that in a five-word headline.

So, while I think this is an overreaction, it’s an understandable one in the context of what has happened to the paper over the last two years.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.