The Players: The New York Times vs. The Wall Street Journal
The First Serve: Yesterday, David Carr of The New York Times wrote a column questioning the future of Rupert Murdoch and News Corps. "The News Corporation may be hoping that it can get back to business now that some of the responsible parties have been held to account — and that people will see the incident as an aberrant byproduct of the world of British tabloids," he wrote. "But that seems like a stretch. The damage is likely to continue to mount, perhaps because the underlying pathology is hardly restricted to those who have taken the fall."
Carr also pointed to Murdoch's strategy of burying problems: "And the money the company reportedly paid out to hacking victims is chicken feed compared with what it has spent trying to paper over the tactics of News America in a series of lawsuits filed by smaller competitors in the United States."
Fellow columnist Roger Cohen, who had previously defended Murdoch, furthered the conversation in a column that appeared on The Times's site yesterday (and appears in the International Herald Tribune, a Times company, today) which questions Murdoch's character. "Murdoch is a flawed genius whose very ruthlessness has now led him to his comeuppance," he wrote. "He knew, more viscerally than anyone, what postmodern societies wanted to satisfy their twisted appetites and he provided that material in all its gaudiness. I don’t think he created those appetites. But he sure fed them"
Meanwhile, Monday The Wall Street Journal published an editorial defending its owner and its integrity (and was met with a chorus of social media jeers--covered here). The board did not stop there and took the opportunity to lob barbs at The New York Times and The Guardian.
"We also trust that readers can see through the commercial and ideological motives of our competitor-critics. The Schadenfreude is so thick you can't cut it with a chainsaw. Especially redolent are lectures about journalistic standards from publications that give Julian Assange and WikiLeaks their moral imprimatur. They want their readers to believe, based on no evidence, that the tabloid excesses of one publication somehow tarnish thousands of other News Corp. journalists across the world."
The Return Volley: Schadenfreude? Chainsaws? Joe Nocera of the The Times responded to the WSJ's allegation of schadenfreude. "Well, yes, the schadenfreude is pretty darn thick," he writes in today's column. "Who would deny it? The whole thing reminds me a little of the ending of Ian McEwan’s wonderful novel “Solar,” in which the many awful things the central character has done in his long life suddenly come together to bury him in an avalanche of comeuppance. I’m O.K. with that."
Nocera also attacks the objectivity of the WSJ's editorial board. "After woefully undercovering the scandal in its news pages, The Journal’s editorial page is now leaping to the defense of its owner. Proving, yet again, that The Journal knows where its bread is buttered."
Robert Pollock of the WSJ defended the Murdoch and his paper in a column of his own this morning. "In the early 2000s, pre-Murdoch, I remember sitting on a journalism panel in New York City listening to one of my fellow commenters rant about "corporate" influence on the media," he wrote. "Never, I honestly replied, had I changed as much as a sentence because I felt such influence at the Journal."
Pollock laced his column with jabs while simultaneously celebrating the objectivity of his own paper: "Everyone knows the Sulzbergers interfere in The New York Times. The Grahams are not hands-off owners of the Washington Post. Wall Street Journal editors and writers had been by far the freest at a major American newspaper. That freedom continued under Mr. Murdoch."
Bret Stephens continued the attack on The Times this morning, comparing the publishing of Wikileaks to the News of the World. He argues that "Both, in short, are despicable instances of journalistic malpractice, for which some kind of price ought to be paid." He pointed to the people Wikileaks had endangered, like Zimbabwe's prime minister, who could be tried and hanged for treason for his private support of U.S. sanctions, mentioned in some of the leaks.
Seen in this light, the damage caused by WikiLeaks almost certainly exceeded what was done by News of the World, precisely because Mr. Assange and his media enablers were targeting bigger—if often more vulnerable—game. The Obama administration went so far as to insist last year that WikiLeaks "[placed] at risk the lives of countless innocent individuals—from journalists to human rights activists to soldiers." Shouldn't there be some accountability, or at least soul-searching, about this, too?
Stephens then ends his column with a cryptic warning, "...I have nothing but contempt for the hack journalism practiced by some of the Murdoch titles. But my contempt goes double for the self-appointed media paragons who saw little amiss with Mr. Assange and those who made common cause with him, and who now hypocritically talk about decency and standards. Their day of reckoning is yet to come."
What They Say They're Fighting About: Murdoch. The Times columnists examine the flaws in his judgment and character. The Wall Street Journal columnists and editorial board defend him.
What They're Really Fighting About: Journalistic integrity and objectivity, as well as just bad blood in general. The Times columnists argue that Murdoch's scandal has tainted his papers and that the WSJ's editorial board more resembles a mouthpiece than a board independent of its owner. They argue that Murdoch has an editorially biased grip on the paper. The WSJ columnists and editorial board are firing back by harping on The Times' journalistic decisions. They argue that The Times' choice to publish parts of Wikileaks was just as grave a transgression and is an example of journalistic recklessness. Also, it's worth noting that The Times and the WSJ have a long-simmering rivalry that has only heated up as Murdoch has tried to put the WSJ in direct competition for the Times' classic reader: the non-business New Yorker. The Journal has certainly seemed not to waste opportunities to take some shots of its own. So this particular battle at least rests on, even if it doesn't directly appropriate, some preexisting tensions.
Who's Winning: The Times, though perhaps more through circumstances than rhetorical force. Now that the phone-hacking scandal has a body count, a hearing, and multiple resigning/firings, there's no way that Murdoch news is going to be lost below the fold--which means the WSJ's coverage of the scandal and endorsements of Murdoch will be under even sharper scrutiny by media pundits, bloggers, and Twitter junkies (many of whom have already voiced their dissent at the first editorial). And while Stephens issues a warning that's fit for a superhero, his own column details the ways in which the public is probably never going to see the relative harm of Wikileaks and the phone hacking the way he does.