WSJ committee Must Prove Its Mettle

It gets benefit of doubt, but now it’s time to fight

At a certain point, tragedy turns into farce, and we are getting awfully close to clown-car territory at The Wall Street Journal.

The special committee on editorial integrity, created last year as part of the News Corp. deal for the Journal’s deadbeat parent, Dow Jones & Co., issued a statement saying it objected to being treated, literally, as an afterthought in the abrupt and strange resignation of Marcus Brauchli as managing editor of the word’s leading financial publication.

This resignation increasingly looks like a pilot parachuting out of a packed airliner.

The committee was made a condition of the sale by the Bancroft family, which controlled Dow Jones for a century. Its main power and responsibility is a right to veto decisions to hire and fire the paper’s top editors or any material changes to their jobs.

It turns out that Brauchli and News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch sprung this deal on the committee after the fact, forcing Brauchli to say this, quoted in his newspaper:

“It was not our view that I had to report to the committee my voluntary resignation under the terms of the editorial agreement,” Mr. Brauchli, 46 years old, said Tuesday. “I regret that they first learned of my resignation late in the process.”

The “our view” in that statement is a bit chilling. The man’s gone over. The point, though, isn’t that he had to report to the committee, but that he, Murdoch, and the publisher Murdoch appointed, Robert Thomson, either didn’t think of it, or, more likely, chose not to.

Interestingly, the committee issued its statement in the form of a chronology, making the point that Brauchli reported no problems at its regular quarterly meeting in February and that the resignation came as a surprise, in the form of phone calls from Murdoch himself to each member of the committee on April 21.

The committee is headed by Thomas J. Bray, former editorial-page editor of the Detroit News; other members are Louis Boccardi, former chief executive of The Associated Press; Jack Fuller, retired president of Tribune Publishing Co.; Nicholas Negroponte, co-founder of M.I.T.’s Media Lab; and Susan M. Phillips, dean of the George Washington University School of Business.

The committee coins a new term—“unresign”—in saying that while there’s nothing to be done now, it believes its rights were trampled—which they were.

Although our charter does not directly envision a process for dealing with a resignation, Committee members expressed the view that learning of the Brauchli matter after the fact failed to meet the letter and the spirit of the agreement….

The Committee met subsequently and decided that there was no practical way to “unresign” Brauchli and start the process over. Under the agreement, the committee has the duty and responsibility to approve or disapprove such actions.

The committee also says it will get tough next time and will call Thomson and other News Corp. officials on the carpet.

The Committee intends to exercise fully its role in the approval of a successor managing editor and to take the steps necessary to prevent a repeat of the process it has just been through. The Committee will be meeting directly with Wall Street Journal Publisher Robert Thomson and News Corp. officials in the near future to discuss these and other matters.

First, it’s stunning to think that a 7,000-word agreement, crafted by some of the most expensive lawyers in the world, does not even contemplate the possibility that an editor might resign. This is a shocker.

Second, this looks bad for Brauchli, but to say that is to define down the responsibility of Murdoch and Thomson, who, as a matter courtesy, if nothing else, should have shown the committee a modicum of respect.

Third, the committee’s claim that it didn’t know anything until April 21 looks foolish given that the whole world knew Brauchli was under siege. The committee, remember, includes three crack newshounds, supposedly. Woof woof. It has the power, by the way, to hire its own lawyers and investigators, if needed.

Fourth, the breach of this agreement—which even the committee now acknowledges—hurts the paper. It hurts its credibility in the markets. It hurts its credibility as a corporate watchdog. It hurts.

As I wrote last year, News Corp. was never the right buyer for Dow Jones, which, as screwball as it could be about so many things, was scrupulous about ethics. It avoided even taking on debt so as not to appear beholden to banks.

Its code of conduct was uncompromising:

Managers, by virtue of their positions of authority, must be ethical role models for all employees. An important part of a manager’s leadership responsibility is to exhibit the highest standards of integrity in all dealings with employees, customers and the world at large. Managers must avoid even implicit or unspoken approval of any actions that may be damaging to the reputation of Dow Jones, and must always exercise sound business judgment in the performance of their duties.

It went on and on.

The committee, whether it likes it or not—whether it knew it or not—has donned that mantle. It has responsibility to vet and approve an editor worthy of WSJ traditions and then to defend the editor’s power.

Now, it has exactly two choices: either un-unresign—or fight.

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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.