The WSJ Still Has Editorial Independence

Rupert Murdoch has installed his hand-picked man, Robert Thomson, as the boss

of WSJ editor Marcus Brauchli. That doesn’t violate the letter of the agreement

Murdoch made to preserve the WSJ’s independence: Thomson is nominally the WSJ’s

publisher, and Brauchli has always reported to the WSJ’s publisher. But Jeff

Bercovici asks today whether Murdoch is already violating the spirit of

the agreement. I think that he isn’t – not yet, anyway.

Bercovici’s issue, which is a real one, is that Thomson doesn’t look

like a publisher, at least as far as publishers are normally understood at US

newspapers. Generally, in the US, the publisher runs the business side of the

operation, and has editorial control only insofar as he controls the editorial

purse-strings: it’s the editor who makes substantially all of the editorial


But Thomson, by Bercovici’s account, has "no duties to speak of on the

paper’s business side; his job is strictly editorial". That means that

Thomson is essentially the top editor at the WSJ, and that the famous editorial

board, which has “approval rights” over the appointment of the managing

editor, is really only approving the number-two editorial-side executive at

the paper.

But here’s the thing: that’s OK. When people talk about editorial independence,

what they really mean is the ability to write about any company or subject that

the reporters and editors want to write about, without Rupert Murdoch controlling

what can and can’t be written about China, say – or even, for that matter,

about News Corp. Murdoch made it very clear from the beginning that he had big

plans for the paper, and that he would get involved in making strategic decisions

about things like where the paper is published, what sections to keep or discard,

and where to target the money he’s investing for new editorial employees.

With a paper which has suffered under the neglectful eyes of the Bancroft family

for so long, there are many, many such decisions to be made – and Murdoch

himself has other things to worry about, like running the rest of the $30 billion

News Corp empire. So it makes sense that Murdoch would charge a loyal lieutenant

to make such decisions for him, and to give Brauchli instant answers to any

requests he might make. Many important decisions are going to be expensive decisions,

and it’s Murdoch, through Thomson, who has the checkbook – not Brauchli.

So in many ways it’s a good thing that Brauchli has a boss who’s entire job

is dedicated to giving him what he wants and needs to bolster the WSJ brand.

None of this need jeopardize the WSJ’s editorial independence. Now of course

it’s always possible that Murdoch and/or Thomson will start micromanaging the

WSJ’s editorial operations, and asking Brauchli for individual journalists to

be removed from certain beats, or for a less aggressive tone to be taken when

it comes to particular coverage areas. But the mere existence of Thomson doesn’t

make that any more likely. If anything, the notoriously meddlesome Murdoch is

less likely to get involved at that kind of level if he has a hand-picked

man he trusts overseeing all aspects of the WSJ’s editorial operation.

So I agree that "publisher" is maybe a weird title to give Thomson,

given the fact that it’s Les Hinton, not Thomson, who seems really to be in

charge of the WSJ’s ad-sales operation. But I don’t think there’s anything particularly

nefarious going on.

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