At Murdoch's Journal, the fix is already in

››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

It took less than 48 hours after the final purchase agreement was announced for it to become glaringly obvious that Rupert Murdoch does not have The Wall Street Journal's editorial well-being at heart, and that the newspaper is in for a world of hurt under Murdoch's reign.

It took less than 48 hours after the final purchase agreement was announced for it to become glaringly obvious that Rupert Murdoch does not have The Wall Street Journal's editorial well-being at heart, and that the newspaper is in for a world of hurt under Murdoch's reign.

What was the instant tell? It came in the form of the independent committee created to be a buffer between Murdoch and the Journal. The "Special Committee," as it's called in the merger agreement, had been one of the stipulations put forward by Bancroft family members who owned Dow Jones & Co. and who were concerned about what Murdoch would do to the Journal once he purchased it. The early talk was that the committee would be made up of former journalism all-stars and other heavy hitters who would have the power to rebuff Murdoch if he tried to meddle with the news coverage or insert his lackeys onto the masthead.

So much for that grand plan.

Instead, questions were immediately raised about the Special Committee when Reuters reported that one appointed member was not only a personal friend of Murdoch's, but he also ran a computer education foundation that had received $2.5 million from Murdoch's News Corp. That represented a rather obvious conflict of interest for someone who was supposed to be independent from News Corp. (More on that later.)

Worse, the Special Committee is going to be chaired by a far-right GOP yes man who not only faithfully regurgitates Republican talking points in print for a living, but who in early 2003 predicted the fighting in Iraq would be "relatively inconsequential," and who months later declared that America had won the Iraq war in "a cakewalk."

That's who Murdoch has tapped to protect the Journal's editorial integrity? Good luck. I mean, was Sean Hannity not available?

To be honest, I don't know many realistic media watchers who think some sort of independent board set up to protect the Journal from Murdoch would, in fact, protect the Journal from Murdoch. But the symbolism is rich: Murdoch is such a journalism wrecker the he has to be kept a safe distance from his own newsroom. The fact that the committee itself appears to be such an unserious undertaking, and that Murdoch doesn't care who knows it, simply foreshadows the dangers that loom for the paper.

And sure enough, as currently spelled out, the committee's duties seem to be mostly toothless. The committee will have only a "say" in the hiring of top editors. And as Editor & Publisher's Mark Fitzgerald pointed out last week, "it appears that the [committee's] enforcement amounts to the power to write a report and publish it in the Journal." Fitzgerald also "didn't see any mechanism that would permit a lowly reporter to approach this august committee with a complaint -- let alone any guarantee that the journalist would not suffer any reprisals for being a whistle blower."

The Special Committee members include retired Associated Press chief executive Louis Boccardi, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab co-founder Nicholas Negroponte, former Tribune Publishing president Jack Fuller, former Congresswoman Jennifer Dunn (R-WA), and former Detroit News columnist Thomas Bray.

The committee will meet approximately four times a year, yet its members will get paid handsomely; $100,000 annually for their very limited services. Am I the only one who detects a whiff of a pay-off here? It's similar to News Corp.'s unusually generous offer to cover the Bancroft family's bankers and lawyers' fees totaling more than $40 million, which raised doubts about whether the pro-News Corp. advice some advisers gave the Bancroft family was tainted.

It's just another reason why I think journalism pros Fuller and Boccardi ought to think twice before signing on to this Murdoch boondoggle. Both men enjoyed distinguished careers in journalism and boast proud legacies. But accepting Murdoch's six-figure handout for a quasi no-show job? How is that going to add to their resumes?

Adding to the discomfort, Fuller and Boccardi will be answering to Bray, tapped by News Corp. to chair the Special Committee. Bray may not have a national reputation, but for readers of the Detroit News who have been banging their heads against the wall for years reading Bray's columns filled with misinformation, his reputation is well known.

Bray's previous moment in the media spotlight came in 2000, when he was removed as the editorial page editor at the Detroit News. (He stayed on as a columnist.) At the time, the paper's publisher insisted the "reassignment" was a routine personnel change, but conservatives in the press, exhibiting a raw sense of entitlement mixed with old-fashioned self-pity, rallied to the editor's defense. They alleged that Bray had been fired simply because he was conservative, with The Weekly Standard attacking the News publisher for trying to devote "more space to liberal opinion." (Bray himself never publicly suggested his move to columnist had been unfair.)

"He was a dissenting voice from liberal orthodoxy and an all too rare one among major city dailies," then-Wall Street Journal columnist Paul Gigot said at the time. Conservatives went on and on about what an amazing opinion page team Bray had assembled at the Detroit News, although it appears Bray's main claim to fame was that he discovered Tony Snow, who, prior to becoming a Republican White House mouthpiece, wrote a faithful GOP column for the Detroit newspaper.

Yes, Gigot today is the Journal's conservative editorial page editor and yes, Gigot helped select Bray as chairman of the Journal's Special Committee. In fact, to help soften the blow of losing his Detroit News job back in 2002, the Journal's right-wing editorial operation gave Bray a job writing for OpinionJournal.com. And no wonder they wanted Bray on their team.

In recent years, he has wondered why Americans support federally funding any arts programs. He's a vocal critic of affirmative action. He wrote that "[t]ax cutting is a legitimate, even a necessary, tactic in fighting the war against terrorism."

He's anti-union, he ridicules environmentalists, and he's not much of a political prognosticator either. In a June 21, 2006, column, Bray, eyeing Michigan politics, announced, "Gov. Jennifer Granholm, tabbed as a Democratic star only four years ago, is in deep trouble" in her re-election campaign.

Fact: Less than five months later, Granholm won in a rout, defeating her GOP opponent by 15 percentage points.

Over the years Bray has been a dependable "liberal media bias" parrot, claiming the mainstream media are too tough on Republican politicians, and President Bush in particular. He has also blamed the dishonest, liberal media for turning Americans against the war in Iraq and claimed that if Americans were simply told the truth about all "the favorable news from Iraq," they would view the battle differently.

Of course, the Journal's news team, which reports extensively and often critically about Bush and Iraq, would have to be included in Bray's critique of the liberal media. So, if Bray already considers the Journal's news team to be part of the liberal media problem, how exactly is he going to protect its integrity as chairman of the Special Committee?

And then there's Iraq, where Bray has embarrassed himself time and time again. Read this whopper from January 12, 2003, as Bray cheered Bush's war on terror: "While there may be occasional shooting matches on the periphery, as in Afghanistan or Iraq, these are likely to be relatively inconsequential." [Emphasis added.]

Or this lede from Bray's April 13, 2003, column:

There are many reasons for the astonishing military victory in Iraq: a brilliant plan implemented by Gen. Tommy Franks; America's high-tech dominance of the battlefield; the skill and courage of U.S. forces; the moral clarity of the commander in chief.

Even in September 2003, Bray was convinced Iraq represented a victory for America: "In the two years since [9/11], American forces have liberated Afghanistan and Iraq."

By February 2004, Bray, undisturbed by his rash of miscues, declared, "Weapons or no weapons, a good case can be made that Bush still did the right thing" invading Iraq.

More? "The sniping and car-bombing is mighty unpleasant, but it reflects bitter-end resistance by isolated fanatics rather than the roots of a Vietnam-style guerrilla war."

Bray has been comically, and habitually, wrong about the most pressing public policy issue of the day, so naturally he gets appointed to chair a committee tasked with protecting the editorial integrity of one of the nation's largest newspapers, while pocketing $100,000 annually for his duties. Makes perfect sense to me.

Even if Bray's career didn't resemble that of a predictable GOP errand boy, the fact remains that based on his background he has no expertise for the committee he's been asked to chair. Meaning, what does Bray understand about maintaining the Journal's integrity? He traffics in opinion, and sadly, often weak Republican misinformation. Unlike Fuller and Boccardi, who boast a generation's worth of newsroom experience and who are keenly aware of the potential conflicts of interest that arise in the newsroom, all Bray has done for the past couple of decades is blissfully dump Republican spin onto the media landscape.

More Special Committee woes

Amazingly, on a committee with just five members, Bray's appointment was not the only embarrassment. The other surrounded the appointment of Nicholas Negroponte, a well-respected MIT academic who has taken up the gallant crusade of making computers more affordable to needy children around the world. Negroponte, nonetheless, was not the right person for the Special Committee simply because he's not independent.

It was News Corp. that pushed for his inclusion on the committee, despite the fact News Corp. has donated $2.5 million to Negroponte's nonprofit group, One Laptop per Child. That raised an obvious conflict of interest since, according to the merger document, the committee members were to be independent, which was defined as people who "are able to consider and evaluate objectively any issue that comes before the Special Committee and whose judgment is not impaired by any interest in or relationship with the company [News Corp.]." [Emphasis added.]

A News Corp. spokesman insisted that despite the $2.5 million donation, Negroponte was, in fact, independent of News Corp., stressing, "[T]here is no objective standard of independence." (I guess it all depends on what the meaning of "independent" is.) A Dow Jones spokeswoman quickly agreed, telling a reporter for the Journal, "We are confident of the capability of the [committee] individuals to make independent decisions."

This is precisely what journalism pros feared: that the normally intelligent, sane executives at The Wall Street Journal would suddenly lose their equilibrium during unsightly attempts to please their new heavy-handed boss. The fact that the Journal flack was forced to perform what is likely to become a ritual, albeit humiliating, linguistics dance in public even before Murdoch actually purchased the paper, is distressing. Keep in mind that the Journal point person argued, in all seriousness, that a person whose (admirable) foundation had received $2.5 million in donations from Murdoch's News Corp. was still independent from Murdoch and had no relationship with News Corp.

In reality, the Journal's none-too-subtle message was clear: This Special Committee is pure window dressing. We don't take it seriously, and neither should you.

In that case, perhaps it's fitting that Thomas Bray was chosen to chair it.

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