July 20 (Bloomberg) -- While the widening News Corp. phone-hacking scandal sent Rupert Murdoch and son James in front of a U.K. parliamentary committee and unseated senior officials at the company and Metropolitan Police, the media empire found an aggressive defender in the Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages.
Among at least seven opinion pieces published so far this week supporting the newspaper’s owner were three signed by editorial board members. A fourth, a 1,000-word lead editorial, said media organizations commonly “pay sources for information” and “skew their coverage” to influence public affairs. The piece, titled “News and Its Critics,” added that it was “up to British authorities to enforce their laws.”
“This is the first great test of the Wall Street Journal under Murdoch’s ownership,” said Sarah Ellison, whose book “War at the Wall Street Journal” chronicled News Corp.’s 2007 acquisition of Dow Jones & Co. for $5.2 billion from the family that had controlled it for 105 years.
“I think this establishes the Journal as a mouthpiece for News Corp., unfortunately,” Ellison said.
The editorial described the “righteous hindsight” and “thick” Schadenfreude of groups such as British Broadcasting Corp., the Guardian newspaper and investigative website ProPublica. “We also trust that readers can see through the commercial and ideological motives of our competitor-critics,” it said.
Byron Calame, who joined the Wall Street Journal in September 1965 and was deputy managing editor when he retired from the newspaper in 2004, said it “remains to be seen” if the editorial’s voice resonates with the newspaper’s readers. While it was “well-crafted,” he said, “the defensive tone alone was a disappointment.”
As of 5 p.m. on July 18, the editorial was the second-most-read article on the Wall Street Journal’s website, behind a piece titled “Get Ready for a 70% Marginal Tax Rate.” It was still No. 2 at 5 p.m. yesterday.
News Corp. closed the News of the World tabloid this month after allegations that its journalists tapped the voicemails of murder victims and paid police officers for stories. Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News, competes with News Corp. units in providing financial news and information.
The Wall Street Journal’s opinion pages were called “the primest real estate in all journalism” in a column by editorial board member Robert Pollock. He wrote that Murdoch, the company’s 80-year-old chairman and chief executive officer, has imposed “no editorial direction.”
Murdoch told the committee yesterday that while he checks in with editors of his papers on occasion, he doesn’t meddle.
‘In the Same Building’
“If there’s any editor I’ve spent the most time with, it’s the editor of the Wall Street Journal, because I’m in the same building,” Murdoch said.
Another editorial board member, Bret Stephens, wrote that the reaction to the hacking scandal was harsher than the fallout from whistle-blowing organization WikiLeaks, whose disclosure of classified information he said did more harm.
In a video that followed, Stephens, the editorial page’s deputy editor, described the News Corp. scandal as a “convenient morality play for people who either for competitive reasons or ideological reasons haven’t liked Rupert Murdoch and his company for a very long time.”
Another opinion piece criticized a New York Times columnist who apologized for supporting News Corp.’s purchase of the Wall Street Journal. A fifth described “an outpouring of left-wing ressentiment.”
Today, two attorneys who served in the Department of Justice during President Ronald Reagan and President George H. W. Bush’s administrations wrote that it would be “inappropriate” to apply the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act to News Corp.’s news-gathering.
A seventh piece, by Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., focused on the police response to the alleged phone-hacking, which he said is the bigger scandal.
“So far, the hacking controversy is filtered through the media’s preoccupation with two words -- Rupert Murdoch,” Jenkins, a third Wall Street Journal editorial board member, said today.
The “News and Its Critics” editorial also said that the newspaper’s previous owner, the Bancroft family, had an “appetite for dividends” and that the calls for criminal probes into News Corp. come from a “political mob.” It commended the ethical judgment of Les Hinton, who oversaw News Corp.’s U.K. newspapers during the time of the alleged hacking and resigned as the chief executive officer of the company’s Dow Jones unit on July 15.
The newspaper, the largest by circulation in the U.S., has not been accused of phone hacking.
“The editorial isn’t defending the Wall Street Journal; it obviously easily could defend the Journal,” Dean Starkman, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review’s business press section, said in an interview. “It’s ‘News and Its Critics’ -- News Corp. It’s a defense of News Corp.”
Paul Gigot, the editorial page editor, declined to comment, according to Ashley Huston, a spokeswoman. Former Wall Street Journal op-ed editor Tunku Varadarajan, now the editor of Newsweek International, worked with Gigot for seven years. In an e-mail, he said he saw Gigot’s “high-class mind” and “impressive professional integrity” in the editorial.
David Weidner, a columnist for MarketWatch and the Wall Street Journal, said most of his colleagues would prefer that the newsroom’s work speak for the organization’s integrity.
“The people who are paid to make speeches can make them,” he said in an e-mail. “But you would be hard pressed to find anyone in news who wants opinion pieces read before their own reporting and analysis.”
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