Let Murdoch be Murdoch by abolishing the Wall Street Journal Special Committee.

Media criticism.
April 30 2008 6:19 PM

Let Murdoch Be Murdoch

Abolish the powerless Wall Street Journal Special Committee.

Rupert Murdoch. Click image to expand.
Rupert Murdoch 

The "Special Committee" assigned to shield the Wall Street Journal's editorial independence from the meddling of new owner Rupert Murdoch was reduced to a set of high-paid flunkies last week as the media mogul squeezed Journal Managing Editor Marcus Brauchli out of his job without consulting them.

The committee—composed of Louis Boccardi, Thomas Bray, Susan M. Phillips, Jack Fuller, and Nicholas Negroponte—was created as a condition of the sale of the Journal's parent company, Dow Jones & Co., to Murdoch's News Corp. * The Bancroft family, which controlled Dow Jones, feared that having purchased the newspaper, the rotten old bastard would want to exercise the prerogatives of ownership and start making radical changes.

Hence the committee, given explicit "rights of approval" over the hiring and firing of three key Dow Jones positions—the managing editor and the editorial page editor of the Journal, and the managing editor of Dow Jones Newswires. But those familiar with Murdoch's legacy knew that he would soon shirk his part of the bargain.

On this point, Murdoch never disappoints. For instance, when he bought the Times of London in 1981, he promised new editor Harold Evans editorial independence. He started breaking his promises almost immediately, and when Evans confronted him, Murdoch allegedly said, "They're not worth the paper they're written on." As Evans writes of Murdoch in his 1984 book, Good Times, Bad Times, he's like "the philanderer who convinces each new girl that she's the one who'll change him."

Like Brauchli, Evans had a committee "protecting" him. This one, established at government insistence, required a majority vote in the event that Murdoch wanted to sack an editor. But when Murdoch wanted Evans gone, he performed the same end run that just eliminated Brauchli—a big shove and a settlement agreement.

The denutted Dow Jones Special Committee issued its wimpy statement yesterday, vowing that it "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." What they meant to say was, We're each paid $100,000 annually, a lot of money for very little work, so if Rupert wants to drive by and hose us down with a swift, hard piss again, just make sure the checks clear.

Although the Dow Jones-News Corp. agreement endows the Special Committee with "perpetual existence," of what use is a perpetual but powerless regulator? Watchdog committees are only as powerful as the watchdogged allow them to be. Murdoch, who knows his way around a lie and doesn't mind violating any oath he gives, such as the one he gave when he originally purchased the New York Post,telegraphed his genuine feelings about external oversight last summer in Time magazine. "They [the Bancrofts] can't sell their company and still control it—that's not how it works. I'm sorry!" as Eric Pooley quoted him.

I first expressed opposition to Murdoch's purchase of the Journal last year (May 7 and May 8), and while I still hold those views, what's done is done. Even if a way were found to resurrect Marcus Brauchli as managing editor, the Journal of old is never coming back. Seeing as 1) the newspaper business is in trouble, 2) Murdoch is investing heavily in the Journal, and 3) he'll do what he wants anyway, let's find a way to snuff the committee and let him get on with it. I don't trust Murdoch to do the right thing; I'd rather he ruin the Journal on the principle that a newspaper should belong to its owners than continue with his Special Committee charade. A Journal editorial observed the importance of letting a newspaper do its own thing on Jan. 20, 1925, stating:

A newspaper is a private enterprise, owing nothing to the public, which grants it no franchise. It is therefore affected with no public interest. It is emphatically the property of its owner, who is selling a manufactured product at his own risk.

******

I found that quotation in H.L. Mencken's A New Dictionary of Quotations on Historical Principles From Ancient and Modern Sources (1942). Ain't it a beaut? Let's pass the hat and send the genocidal tyrant a copy on his next birthday (March 11). If you've got a better birthday present in mind, send your idea to slate.pressbox@gmail.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray,"Slate's readers' forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word abolish in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to slate.pressbox@gmail.com.

Correction, May 1, 2008: This article originally included Jennifer Dunn in the Special Committee. Dunn was appointed to the committee but died. She was replaced by Susan M. Phillips. The change has been made in the copy. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

Jack Shafer was Slate's editor at large. You can follow him on Twitter or email him at Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com.

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