“The Victor and the Vanquished”

Vanity Fair excerpts upcoming Sarah Ellison book on Murdoch's Journal takeover

Reading the Vanity Fair excerpt of Sarah Ellison’s upcoming War at The Wall Street Journal, on Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of The Wall Street Journal, is, well, dispiriting (and I lived through part of it).

Ellison shows in detail how swiftly Murdoch was able to crush his opponents, in this case top editor Marcus Brauchli, with hardly a fight. No wonder he thinks sober-minded American journalists, like those at, say, Columbia, and exemplified by the Journal staff, are high-falutin’ pantywaists.

Here’s how Murdoch’s lieutenants defenestrated Brauchli just four months after Murdoch took over, in a transparent bid to put Robert Thomson in charge (emphasis mine):

“There’s no easy way to put this,” Hinton said. “But we want you to step down as managing editor. We don’t think things are working out. We’d like to make a change.” Neither Hinton nor Thomson went into detail or explained why. Brauchli knew they were merely handing down a verdict arrived at by their boss.

Murdoch’s influence often began with installing a like-minded editor. He had dispensed with formidable editors at the Sunday Times (Neil, Harry Evans), New York magazine (Clay Felker), and others. As a student of history, Brauchli shouldn’t have been surprised. He had imagined this grim scenario a hundred times, even going as far as to liken himself to a soldier in Iraq who sees officers shot and wonders if the next bullet will be for him. Then he heard himself say, “I think it would be impossible for me to remain as editor if I don’t have the support of the owner.” His 24 years of climbing ended abruptly with that sentence. “I’ll do whatever I feel is in the best interests of the Journal as an institution, including stepping down if necessary. But I think you’re making a mistake.”

Thomson chimed in. “Don’t worry. We can take care of you financially.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Brauchli replied.

Not exactly Winston Churchill there.

And indeed he was taken care of, to the tune of $3.4 million on top of a $3 million severance.

There are lots of great anecdotes in here about the whole sordid episode, from the interloper Dow Jones CEO Rich Zannino (“In a blue French-cuffed shirt with linen trousers and brown loafers”) leaving out his $16 million payday in his announcement to staff of what a great deal this was, to Murdoch’s childish alpha-dog moves:

Soon after the news meeting began, Brauchli’s assistant appeared at the door. “Rupert Murdoch is calling,” she said. And there it was, the new order. Her words interrupted the usual banter, and Brauchli got up to take the call. The first news meeting of the Murdoch era, and already the old man had interfered with the process. This would become a familiar scene in the coming months. The remaining editors couldn’t help but note the irony in the moment. Then they continued on, amid nervous laughter, to discuss the contents of the next day’s paper.

When he walked back to his office to pick up the phone, it turned out that his haste had been unwarranted. Murdoch left him on hold for a few minutes before picking up. The mogul gave a terse apology and quickly moved to the business of the call.

And there’s a good anecdote on how Murdoch’s influence filters down:

Thomson strolled by Brauchli’s office and said, in a stage whisper, “Operating profit, operating profit, operating profit.” Brauchli was initially puzzled but then realized that Thomson must be referring to the earnings release. Brauchli brought Thomson into his office and explained that the Journal always emphasized net income first in its stories, since that figure took into account taxes, depreciation, and all the other costs that affected a business’s performance, and the paper considered it the most important figure in a company’s earnings release. Any other number allowed a corporation to include or exclude various charges and other figures that could make the earnings appear rosier. “Oh, don’t change the standard, then,” Thomson replied. “Just be consistent.” The following day, Brauchli was amused to see that the New York Post’s story on the topic led with a “record” increase in operating income.

Lastly, Murdoch was kind enough to offer Brauchli a ride back from DC on his private jet the night news broke (elsewhere, because of interference by Murdoch) that he was out as Journal editor, and we get this scene:

After the dinner, Brauchli took Murdoch up on his offer for a ride home. He boarded the private plane, which carried Murdoch, Ginsberg, speechwriter and new Journal columnist William McGurn, and longtime Murdoch investment banker Stanley Shuman. Murdoch, propped up on cashmere pillows, bow tie loosened, watched The O’Reilly Factor on the mammoth flat-screen TV that overlooked the conference table where all his guests sat. Murdoch dipped in and out of the conversation. No one spoke a word about Brauchli’s resignation. When Murdoch occasionally lost interest, he turned toward the television and adjusted the volume so he could hear a bit better. “Has a good rhythm, doesn’t it?” he said to polite nods.

I think I would have taken the Fung Wah, myself.

What does Brauchli think now?

Privately he has told friends that the Journal has “lost ambition, depth, and originality,” which once set it apart. When asked about his recollections of his tussle with Murdoch, Brauchli replied, from his desk at the Post, “Do I miss being there? Not really. It’s a different place than it was when I grew up there.”

To say the least.

Which again raises questions about the noticeable silence from ex-honchos at Dow Jones and the Journal about what’s happened to their beloved paper.

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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 rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.