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Four years ago, as Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. began its takeover of Dow Jones, there was unrest in The Wall Street Journal newsroom. There were letter-writing campaigns to the Bancrofts, the family that owned Dow Jones; Journal-ists voiced objections, and some quit.
This story first appeared in the July 20, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
These days, for the first time since Murdoch bought the paper, with the News International phone-hacking scandal spreading at a rapid clip, the newsroom has seen its parent company’s name splashed in papers across the globe every day.
So how do Journal reporters and editors feel now?
“We allowed ourselves to think for three or four years that, sure, we’re part of News Corp., but we’re separate and distinct from News Corp.,” said one Journal newsroom source. “The scandal obviously underscored the notion that we’re very much in the same corporate camp as Fox News, The Sun and The News of the World and some of the other publications that maybe we don’t want to be associated with.”
“I feel a distance from being apart of News Corp. even though we’re in the same building and we have to walk by Fox News and The New York Post and all that to get to work,” said another Journal reporter. “But [when Dow Jones chief executive officer Les Hinton resigned], it was just a moment of feeling like the slime gets on all of us.”
Nevertheless, there hasn’t been any sort of uproar in the newsroom. It has been surprisingly quiet. No one has quit; no one is protesting coverage; there haven’t been any letters spread throughout the newsroom objecting to the breathless unsigned editorial in the Journal published on Monday that aggressively defended Rupert Murdoch.
On Tuesday, as Rupert and James Murdoch testified before a British Parliamentary committee, the worst anyone could say is that it was a distraction. If anything, Journal-ists are a bit defensive about how some people are dragging the paper into the scandal.
“You find yourself in a very weird position espousing pro-Murdoch sentiment,” said one Journal reporter.
“You’re also in the eye-opening position of seeing how rabid the coverage is. It has felt very over-the-top.”
“We still do the best we can, we still do things the way we did before 2007,” said a newsroom source. “The idea that we’ve been infected with populist sentiment with the News Corp. machine — I don’t think that’s fair.”
“We haven’t talked about the [Journal] editorial that much,” said another reporter. “We were just talking about what bulls–t that Nocera column was.”
In Saturday’s New York Times, op-ed columnist Joe Nocera came down hard on the Journal, scoffing at the idea that the paper could maintain editorial independence under Murdoch. To make things worse, he wrote, the Journal has begun to function as a shill for business interests and the Republican Party line. He pointed to the Journal’s coverage of its own parent company’s scandal as evidence. An interview published in the paper on Friday with Murdoch “might as well have been dictated by the News Corporation public relations department,” Nocera wrote.
He also wrote: “The dwindling handful of great journalists who remain at the paper — Mark Maremont, Alan Murray and Alix Freedman among them — must be hanging their heads in shame.”
Murray, the deputy managing editor, said he felt no such shame.
“I’m not defending anything that happened at the News of the World,” Murray e-mailed to WWD. “But yes, we do feel we are suffering from guilt by association. My feeling, and that of many here, is that this is in many ways a better paper than it was four years ago, and Rupert Murdoch and Les Hinton both deserve great credit for investing in us and supporting and encouraging good journalism here.”
Maremont and Freedman didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Other Journal newsroom staffers agreed with Murray, though.
“Nocera thought that was kowtowing, and I think Rupert was sort of hanging himself with his own words,” said a newsroom source of the Journal’s interview with the News Corp. chairman. “I thought it was a good piece of journalism, and he thought it was a bad piece of journalism.”
The most serious complaint from the paper’s newsroom seems to be aimed toward the Journal editorial on Monday — “The Schadenfreude is so thick you can’t cut it with a chainsaw,” read one part, describing coverage of News Corp. — but sources said that was par for the course, since the newsroom often has objections to Paul Gigot’s editorial page. (Gigot declined to comment.)
There have been some reporting challenges, too.
“All my sources want to talk about is this,” said one reporter of the scandal.
“Every one of my sources calls up and says, ‘Are you hacking my phone?’” said another.
So what happens next? Dow Jones and the Journal need a new ceo after Hinton resigned due to his involvement with the News of the World scandal. Managing editor Robert Thomson has been telling colleagues that it will not be him — he’s staying in his position, a source close to Thomson said.
One senior editor said that if the scandal reaches the U.S., the paper will be forced to act in a serious way. On Tuesday, the New York Police Department said it had been contacted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation as part of an inquiry into whether News Corp. journalists tried to hack the phones of 9/11 victims after the terrorist attacks. On Capitol Hill, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and in both the House and Senate have called for an FBI investigation or Congressional investigations and hearings.
Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.), assistant majority leader and the number-two Democrat in the Senate, called for Congress to investigate News Corp. on Sunday’s “Meet the Press,” and Rep. Peter T. King (R., N.Y.), who chairs the House Homeland Security Committee, and a few other lawmakers have called for an FBI investigation.
But a spokeswoman for the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which Durbin sits, said Tuesday that Sen. Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), the panel’s chairman, had not received any requests for a hearing or investigation into the phone-hacking allegations against News Corp.
King, responding to a question about whether he would hold hearings into the allegations, said in an e-mail Tuesday: “It would be premature to comment until the FBI completes its investigation.”
But if government action does come together, the senior editor said, “Clearly there is pressure on the paper in the coming weeks if it becomes a U.S. story, and it has real resonance here, not just to report the story but to get ahead of the story.”