The day will come when the next executive editor of The Washington Post will have to choose between the easy way or the hard way. Difficult decisions come with the job.

This is worth thinking about now that Marcus Brauchli is reported by Radar’s Charles Kaiser to be one of two finalists to take over for Len Downie, an editor who showed that the old school was the right school after all.

When confronted with a difficult choice as managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, Marcus Brauchli took the easy way.

I worked under Brauchli, and was and remain a fan of his work at the Journal. I thought he had some good ideas as managing editor before NewsCorp. took over.

But a review of his brief and unhappy reign as managing editor under NewsCorp., from December through April, might be instructive.

If we can remember back, way back, more than a whole year ago, the longtime Journal reporter, Beijing bureau chief, and national editor was named the paper’s managing editor shortly before Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp. made its bid for the Journal’s parent, Dow Jones & Co., in April, 2007.

Through no fault of his own, Brauchli was among those roped into the awkward snafu in which Murdoch disclosed the bid in an email to Paul Steiger, the newspaper’s then-managing editor. After informing Brauchli and two other top editors, Steiger decided to sit on the news, which was eventually broken by CNBC, home of the “Money Honey,” Cramer, Squawk Box, and what have you.

After taking over as M.E., Brauchli handed off coverage of the deal to the now-semi-retired Steiger but was part of a small group of top editors who consulted with the noble-yet-greedy Bancroft family, which controlled the paper’s fate via a sperm lottery and proved a walking argument for the estate tax, on how best to preserve the Journal’s editorial integrity and independence in the event of a sale to the notoriously flexible, resourceful, and tricky News Corp.

The net result of all this talking, hand-wringing, and lawyering was a 7,000-word editorial side agreement that created a five-person committee of journalistic and other luminaries, pillars of integrity all (except for the guy whose foundation got $2.5 million from NewsCorp), la crème de la crème.

This committee, once you cut through the gobbledygook, had one and only one job: to protect the autonomy of the Journal’s managing editor (okay, as well as that of the editorial page editor and the head of the Dow Jones Newswires, so three jobs).

The deal was explicitly designed to prevent NewsCorp. personnel’s encroachment on the editors, a scenario that was anticipated and which duly did occur.

The agreement, as it turns out, was flawed in that it anticipated, if not actually required, that the Journal’s managing editor would want to protect his or her autonomy, at least enough to file a complaint with the committee in the event the M.E.’s autonomy was infringed upon. That of course happened the moment Murdoch named Robert Thomson as publisher and redefined that job as a kind of super-managing editor. Thomson promptly moved into the Journal newsroom and essentially took over.

In the four months of this arrangement, the paper’s page-one content lurched around like a Model-T in a silent movie with two people fighting over the wheel - political news one day, hard-core corporate coverage the next, the features known as A-heds careening up and down the page.

In April, Brauchli abruptly resigned and wrote a letter to the staff saying he “had come to believe the new owners should have a managing editor of their choosing.”

Okay, but here’s the problem. If Brauchli believed the new owners’ ideas were good, he could have implemented them himself. If he believed they were bad, he could have gone to the committee—a committee unique in the annals of American journalism set up expressly for him.
But he didn’t do either.

One could argue, I suppose, that there was no principle at stake—that it was merely a question of new owners’ wanting their own format, style, aesthetic, what have you, that it really wasn’t a question of the basic editorial direction of the paper. But that’s not right. It was all about editorial direction.

Then one could argue that editorial direction doesn’t matter, but that would be a strange thing for an editor to say.

Finally, one could argue that Brauchli’s right—new owners have a right to do what they want.

But in fact, they actually don’t. Remember, they signed away that right when the signed the editorial agreement.
That’s what those 7,000 words were about. Murdoch specifically gave up that particular right as part of the deal.

It was filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. People discount it and laugh about it, but there it is, big as life, as long as your arm and fully in force. Brauchli’s named at the bottom, in Schedule B.

It gave Brauchli, in fact, extraordinary power to direct the course of the paper, no matter what the new owners wanted.

He didn’t use it. And that’s okay, I suppose. He was well-compensated, reportedly between $3 million and $5 million, and that’s okay, too.

But think about it this way: Had NewsCorp. taken over Washington Post Co. under the same terms and moved Thomson into the newsroom, would Downie have handed over control of the Post’s legacy without recourse to a committee that was put in place to protect his autonomy. Or would he have stood up to Murdoch?

How about Ben Bradlee?

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Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014). Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.