Everybody’s Got an Angle

WSJ's Thomson on NYT's Carr

It’s probably an understatement to say that we at The Audit weren’t nuts about the prospect of News Corp. buying The Wall Street Journal, the world’s leading monitor of corporate behavior, the economy and markets, for reasons duly enumerated in this space.

(Heck, our Ryan Chittum was popping off about it while he still worked over there.

“It’s just been a dark day,” said Ryan Chittum, a real estate reporter at The Journal. “There is a tremendous amount of anxiety about being subsumed into News Corp. We are all extremely worried about the future of The Journal and its credibility. Its credibility is The Journal’s calling card and if that’s in question, then it hurts the paper.”)

So it’s probably not a shock to our readers that we give David Carr credit for taking on a noticeable-enough-but-difficult-to-prove subject: the WSJ’s recent rightward tilt, a phenomenon we’ve noticed quite a bit ourselves, as Chittum wrote this morning.

But I like a good crosstown newspaper war as much as the next media critic, and I admire combativeness in editors, so in principle it’s good that the Journal’s top editor, Robert Thomson, rose to his paper’s defense, if for no other reason than to rally his troops (h/t Jon Koblin, the Observer).

Having said that, it’s too bad Thomson heads for the low road:

The news column by a Mr. David Carr today is yet more evidence that The New York Times is uncomfortable about the rise of an increasingly successful rival while its own circulation and credibility are in retreat. The usual practice of quoting ex-employees was supplemented by a succession of anonymous quotes and unsubstantiated assertions. The attack follows the extraordinary actions of Mr. Bill Keller, the Executive Editor, who, among other things, last year wrote personally and at length to a prize committee casting aspersions on Journal journalists and journalism. Whether it be in the quest for prizes or in the disparagement of competitors, principle is but a bystander at The New York Times.
On planet News Corp., no one operates in good faith. Carr can only be channeling the Times’s commercial interests. Why address substance when it’s easier to head straight for motive?

This is the same allegation of bad faith that News Corp. made at the time of the (superb) Times two-day series on Rupert Murdoch’s company before the 2007 deal to buy Dow Jones, the Journal’s parent. The series turned up damaging facts about News Corp.’s behavior in China and the U.S. But facts were never the issue, as News Corp. said in its statement at the time:

“News Corp. has consistently cooperated with The New York Times in its coverage of the company. However, the agenda for this unprecedented series is so blatantly designed to further the Times’s commercial self interests — by undermining a direct competitor poised to become an even more formidable competitor — that it would be reckless of us to participate in their malicious assault. Ironically, The Times, by using its news pages to advance its own corporate business agenda, is doing the precise thing they accuse us of doing without any evidence.”

It’s argument by name-calling. For most companies, it’s a sign of desperation. For a news organization, it’s worse. News Corp.’s business, too, is gathering facts and seeking a response, so it wants to be careful about throwing around allegations of fact-gathering in bad faith.

As for faulting Carr for quoting ex-employees and anonymous sources, that’s something the Journal does every day, as it should.

The allegation against Keller is left floating—like space junk.

But, you know, no one is on the level, and everyone’s got an angle. We’re all somebody’s puppet; it’s just a matter of finding the strings. Principle? That’s just a bystander.

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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.