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ANNALS OF COMMUNICATION
The New Yorker - April 11, 2011
MURDOCH’S BEST FRIEND
What is Robert Thomson doing at the Wall Street Journal?
BY KEN AULETTA
Last April, the magazine Hello! featured an exclusive eighteen-page spread on the baptism of Wendi and Rupert Murdoch’s young daughters, Grace and Chloe. The cover displayed a group photo of the Murdochs and their guests, all dressed in white, in Jordan, where they had come to witness the children’s baptism in the place where Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist. The patriarch was in the front, bespectacled and earnest, a boutonnière pinned to his white shirt. Queen Rania of Jordan stood nearby, as did Nicole Kidman and Ivanka Trump.
The magazine said that the spread offered “an intriguing insight into the media mogul’s tight-knit circle of friends.” But one guest was conspicuously absent from the two dozen photographs of the festivities: Robert Thomson, the managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, and, according to an insider, the only employee of Murdoch’s News Corporation who was in attendance. In the central photo, Thomson’s long, thin face was turned away from the camera; his six-foot-two-inch frame was bent forward, and the top of his head was sliced off by the banner headline. He was unidentified in the caption.
Thomson likes to remain slightly hidden. But he is perhaps Murdoch’s only close friend. The two men are both from Australia, are married to Chinese women, and were born (thirty years apart) on the same day, March 11th. In restaurants, they order Australian wines and delight in discussing that country’s politics. They are also both raising their children as Catholics. “It surprised me how important it was to both of them that their children were baptized and instructed,” one family intimate says. “This is something they did together. The four kids sat down with a priest.” Murdoch is godfather to Thomson’s nine- and eleven-year-old sons, and, on several occasions, the Thomsons have joined the Murdochs and their daughters for vacations on Murdoch’s yacht or at his ranch in Carmel, California. In 2007, soon after Murdoch purchased Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal, he transferred Thomson from News Corp.’s Times of London, where he was the editor-in-chief, to New York, to become publisher of the Journal. The family intimate says, “Robert has a unique relationship with Rupert. He’s his closest friend, in the true sense of the word.”
In public, Thomson sounds like Murdoch when he describes, in rococo prose, the journalistic “élite that has all the ossification of the traditional bourgeoisie.” Both men enjoy rattling a too comfortable establishment. Or, as a former associate of Murdoch’s puts it, they share a “resentment of people in power who didn’t build it themselves.” The first time I met Thomson, in April, 2010, at a dinner for international journalists, I was taken aback when he told me that the Times—not occasionally, not unconsciously—was blatantly and consciously guilty of liberal bias.
Many at the Journal and at News Corp. speculate that Thomson, who is fifty, is a surrogate son to Murdoch. But two people who know Murdoch very well call this assessment simplistic. One of them observes that Thomson and Murdoch “have a complete mind-meld,” but he continues, “They are not like father and son. Robert has never struck me as obedient. He’s too wry and sardonic.” The family intimate of Murdoch marvels at Thomson’s willingness to take issue with his boss privately—though never in public. “The Murdochs don’t naturally trust people. They are appreciative that their father has a friend.”
David Wessel, the Journal’s economics editor, describes the relationship this way: “One of the jobs of the editor of the Wall Street Journal is to keep Rupert Murdoch happy with what we’re doing, because we are reliant on News Corp. for resources at a time when . . . newspapers may not be the world’s greatest investment. There is no one else who can do that.” A senior newsroom editor says, “They probably talk five times a day. You’re kicked out of his office when Rupert calls.” Murdoch pops down to the Journal newsroom most days when he’s not travelling. He is engrossed in the paper, a friend who attended the baptism in Jordan says. “It’s the first thing he wants to talk about—‘Have you seen the front page?’ ”
Robert Thomson was born in rural Torrumbarry, a hamlet with a population of about a dozen and a pub that was managed by his parents. The family moved to Melbourne when Robert, the oldest of three boys, was five. His father worked various jobs, including driving a truck for a delicatessen, before becoming a proofreader at a newspaper called the Age. Jim Thomson brought the paper home every night. “I always thought it was a little miracle that there would always be a paper on the table,” Thomson recounted in a 2009 speech to the American Australian Association. He attended an all-boys Catholic high school, graduated in 1979, and worked that summer as a copyboy at an afternoon newspaper, the Herald. A year later, he enrolled part time at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. It took him a decade to graduate, with a degree in journalism, largely because his journalism interfered. He advanced at the Herald from copyboy to Sydney correspondent. “I think he keenly felt the need to prove himself, to ‘catch up’ with the very middle-class, university-educated ‘cool’ group of young journalists there,” a former Australian colleague says.
The Sydney Morning Herald hired Thomson in 1983 as a senior feature writer and, two years later, sent him to Beijing, where it wasn’t long before he started writing for the Financial Times. Thomson learned to speak Mandarin. “He was clearly the smartest journalist in Beijing at the time,” recalls Seth Faison, who was a correspondent with the South China Morning Post before joining the New York Times, and is today a public-relations executive. Thomson soon joined the Financial Times full time, and was sent to Japan, where he learned Japanese and earned a similarly exalted reputation.
Thomson stood out in another way. “He looked sort of eccentric,” Faison says. One colleague recalled his skinny black jeans, black leather jacket, and punk-rock hairdo. He was interested in art and philosophy, and invited colleagues to his apartment for late dinners and conversation with artists and intellectuals. At these events, he introduced guests to Ping Wang, a vivacious woman who spoke little English and who was the daughter of a general in the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. They married in 1992.
Adi Ignatius, who was then a Wall Street Journal correspondent and is now the editor-in-chief of the Harvard Business Review, remembers that Thomson “was quite a good athlete” but wore black socks while playing tennis. Ignatius, who remains a friend, says he had a “big laugh” and “didn’t take himself seriously,” traits that disguised “how ambitious he was.” Neither Ignatius nor Faison was aware that Thomson had any pronounced political views. “Robert certainly wasn’t spouting rhetoric that would have made you think it was just a matter of time before he and Murdoch hooked up,” Ignatius says. In Japan, Thomson, then in his late twenties, became slightly stooped and had some difficulty bending down. He received a diagnosis of ankylosing spondylitis, a disorder that causes inflammation of the joints and, in many cases, fusion of the spinal bones. It is a painful, progressively debilitating disease, and its visible symptoms are usually a hunched back and fatigue. Sebastian Mallaby, then a correspondent for The Economist in Japan, says this condition added to Robert’s allure. “He has a kind of sweet humor. Some people are funny in a cutting way. He managed to be funny but never nasty. You can understand why he stood out to many bosses, including Rupert Murdoch. He has magic dust, which comes from being a self-made guy from a modest Australian background who has this physical stiffness yet is very comfortable.”
In 1994, Thomson was named foreign-news editor of the Financial Times, and moved to London. Some of his colleagues found him to be opaque; if you asked a question, he might not even respond. But, for the most part, he was popular with his correspondents, who praised both his editing skill and his ability to get their stories on the front page. No one detected political bias, says Chrystia Freeland, who was the Financial Times’ Moscow bureau chief and is today the global editor-at-large for Reuters. Four years later, Thomson moved to New York and became the U.S. managing editor of the Financial Times. The company poured close to a hundred million dollars into digital operations and other investments, and gave Thomson permission to hire more than sixty reporters and editors. Over the next three years, in part because the paper’s price was heavily discounted, circulation in the United States more than tripled.
In 2001, the editorship of the Financial Times opened up. The two leading contenders were Thomson and Andrew Gowers, another senior editor at the paper. “Robert really thought he had the inside track,” an insider at the Financial Times says. “He also thought he was a better journalist than Gowers. He was. But he didn’t get it.”
Gowers’s appointment was announced in the fall of 2001. Thomson was furious, but he kept it to himself. While in New York, he had got to know Murdoch, and in early winter Murdoch invited him to lunch at News Corp.’s headquarters. An executive who knows the two men well recalls that Murdoch was smitten. Murdoch nursed a simmering class grievance, which Thomson came by naturally. Both believed that the Financial Times had made an outrageous choice. Once again, the British upper class had peered down its nose at an Aussie.
In March of 2002, Murdoch hired Thomson as the editor of the Times of London, the only one of Murdoch’s publications with aspirations to be a world newspaper. Thomson’s focus was not just on building the Times but on beating the Financial Times. The battle between Thomson and Gowers was “personal,” a senior Financial Times editor says. “Robert hired a number of people from the F.T. He did it in a very systematic way. He waged psychological warfare against the F.T. A van turned up outside the F.T.’s offices in London: ‘BUY THE TIMES.’ ‘THE TIMES IS THE BEST BUSINESS NEWSPAPER IN ENGLAND.’ It drove Gowers nuts.” Thomson could not have been displeased when, in 2005, Gowers resigned. Gowers went on to head corporate communications for Lehman Brothers (before it went bankrupt) and media relations for BP (before the oil spill).
Thomson was criticized for making the Times of London frothier, for reducing it to tabloid size, for cutting back investigative coverage, and for editorially supporting the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He was called a Murdoch clone, and lost some stars, such as Simon Jenkins, who took his column to the Guardian. Still, for only the second time since the Second World War, the Times earned a profit. Murdoch and Thomson took the first of many family vacations together.
In the spring of 2007, Murdoch made a five-and-a-half-billion-dollar preëmptive bid to buy Dow Jones and the Wall Street Journal. A Murdoch insider says that “there was zero business justification” to pay that price for a company that made only a hundred and fifty million dollars in 2006 and would do worse in 2007. Even before the bid was publicly announced, “Thomson was Murdoch’s spiritual adviser for the takeover,” Sarah Ellison writes in her book “War at the Wall Street Journal.” According to a Murdoch insider, Thomson helped shape many of Murdoch’s public statements during the negotiations. He agreed with Murdoch that, with newspapers contracting and closing, they could not assume that people would read a local paper first and then fill in their business news by reading the Journal. The Journal had to broaden its coverage of politics, foreign affairs, sports, culture, and New York. It had to be a first-read newspaper; it had to replace the Detroit News and the Los Angeles Times; and it had to fulfill Murdoch’s longtime dream of challenging the New York Times.
During the takeover contest, Thomson kept open a back channel to Paul Steiger, who had stepped down as managing editor of the Journal, and to Marcus Brauchli, an old friend who had been appointed to that post. To this day, Brauchli tells friends he believes that Thomson sincerely thought they would work as a team at the Journal, with Thomson as publisher and Brauchli as editor. But this is not how a close Murdoch adviser saw it. “From the get-go, Rupert planned to name Thomson as editor,” he says. “There was never a doubt.”
Publicly, Murdoch announced that he would preserve the Journal’s editorial independence, and, as a condition of the deal, News Corp. and Dow Jones agreed to the formation of an editorial committee of outsiders to approve the hiring and firing of the Journal’s top editor. (Murdoch had appointed a similar panel when he acquired the Times of London, in 1981; a year later, he removed its editor.) Privately, Murdoch told associates that he expected to play a role at the paper. When I profiled him for this magazine, in 1995, he told me that the part of his worldwide empire that gave him the most pleasure was “being involved with the editor of a paper in a day-to-day campaign. Trying to influence people.”
When Murdoch acquired the paper, in December of 2007, he appointed Thomson the publisher of both the Journal and the Dow Jones Newswires. They set out to reduce the number of editors and the length of stories. Too many pieces had the “gestation of a llama,” Thomson complained. Many reporters were displeased. The new management “made their contempt for the institution and its traditions abundantly clear,” James Bandler, a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter, says. Bandler quit the paper in 2008 and went to Fortune.
In the winter of 2008, Brauchli and another editor were in Thomson’s office to discuss a redesign of the Saturday paper, which was losing money. They were showing Thomson some new layouts when Murdoch came in. The owner wanted to talk about that day’s paper. He spread it out on a table and, using a Magic Marker, began drawing boxes on the pages. “What struck me was Murdoch’s incredible attention to detail—the size of the headlines, what was going to go where,” recalls one attendee. “He drew a box on the front page and said, ‘This is where the pictures go.’ He said he hated those long stories on the front page. He wanted Washington and political stories on page one. He wanted current events on the front page. He wanted those eccentric front-page stories to disappear.” As Murdoch spoke, Thomson “melted away,” stepping back to watch.
“Murdoch wasn’t angry; he was fierce,” the attendee said, describing what occurred as “not a conversation.” He said, “Marcus was told that this was the way it was going to be.” Shortly afterward, in April, 2008, Brauchli resigned under pressure; because Brauchli, who accepted a large severance, did not object to his removal, Murdoch was able to circumvent the restrictions of the independent board. Murdoch then appointed Thomson managing editor of the Journal and editor-in-chief of the Dow Jones Newswires. Thomson ceded his title of publisher to C.E.O. Leslie Hinton, a longtime News Corp. executive.
The newsroom got its first sustained look at Thomson, a tall, rail-thin, slightly stooped man with a high forehead, short hair that hugged his scalp, and half glasses pushed down on his long nose. His attire was early Beatles: white shirts, thin black ties, black suits with narrow lapels, and pointy black shoes. Unlike many editors, he listened more than he talked, sometimes unnerving people with his silences. In occasional speeches and frequent e-mails to the staff, he was facile, fond of obscure words and alliteration. He described journalists who “fossick for facts,” and said that if an actor were to play a contemporary reporter it would be as some “dissolute, disheveled, disillusioned individual . . . perhaps Mickey Rourke.” No one doubted his intelligence, but he was awkward. When he was out of earshot, he was called Lurch, after the hunched and clumsy butler in “The Addams Family.”
Thomson, like Murdoch, does not spend much time on niceties. To attack what he labelled “a culture of complacency,” he lopped off fifty editorial and reporting positions, but announced that the paper and Dow Jones Newswires would hire ninety-five additional journalists. Thomson regularly criticized the Times, whose circulation is about half that of the Journal’s. He said, among other things, that it was no longer “a serious competitor.” When Thomson announced the creation of a Greater New York section, the Times management issued a staff memo implicitly mocking the foreign-born editor and owner and offering what they called “helpful hints”: “The Dodgers now play in Los Angeles, SoHo is the acronym for South of Houston, Fashion Week has moved to Lincoln Center, Idlewild is now JFK and ‘Cats’ is no longer playing on Broadway.”
Meanwhile, reporters at the Wall Street Journal worried that they would be pushed to make their stories more conservative, especially after Thomson brought in, as his deputy, Gerard Baker, the Washington-based U.S. editor of the Times of London. Thomson explained to editors, according to Newsweek, that Baker would infuse “fun” into the Journal. Baker was an opinionated right-wing columnist, who had written of Obama, “Is America ready for this dangerous left winger?” When it was announced that Dow Jones would be moving from the tip of Manhattan to News Corp.’s offices in midtown, where it would share a building with Murdoch’s Fox News, many journalists wondered whether they would be forced to set their office TVs to Fox. At the least, Thomson seemed intent on eradicating what he perceived as a leftward slant in the paper and in the media in general.
In March, 2009, he sent a letter to the staff that was dubbed the “Knackery Memo.” Thomson understood that he was competing not just against newspapers such as the Times but against electronic services including the A.P., Reuters, and Bloomberg. He wrote that the old system of trying to quickly disseminate Journal news to Dow Jones wires—a reform labelled “the Speedy”—wasn’t working:
A headstart of a few seconds is priceless for a commodities trader or a bond dealer. . . . Henceforth all Journal reporters will be judged, in significant part, by whether they break news for the Newswires. With these objectives in mind, we are sending Speedy to the knackery and saddling up a successor.
Members of the newsroom looked up the meaning of “knackery”: any premises where livestock are slaughtered when they are worn out and useless. Reporters moaned that they were being asked to become wire-service reporters. Investigative reporting, which takes time and had not been a priority at Murdoch’s newspapers, was headed to the knackery. They thought that Thomson was dismissive of the Journal and its gloried past.
Many of the paper’s most talented reporters and editors left for the Times, CNBC, Fortune, The Economist, or Bloomberg. According to internal documents, Bloomberg has hired a hundred and six journalists from Dow Jones since Murdoch’s bid became public. Matthew Winkler, a former Journal reporter who left in 1990 to establish Bloomberg News, where he is editor-in-chief, says, “The Journal I came from, which focussed on in-depth reporting, is no more.”
By 2010, staff morale had improved. Although News Corp. had to write off as a loss half the enormous price it had paid for Dow Jones, Murdoch was spending to improve the newspaper. The deputy managing editor, Alan Murray, an unabashed supporter of Thomson and Murdoch, says, “We are now owned by people who want to win and have the resources to win. . . . It’s a totally different and, for me, exhilarating environment.” The result is that the paper is livelier, the photographs are more vivid, and the book reviews are more acute. And although there are fewer investigative reports, the Journal has done some exemplary in-depth work on the BP oil spill, the Pakistani origins of the terrorist massacre in Mumbai, and the threats to privacy posed by digital companies that track users and tantalize advertisers.
As Thomson and his staff became more familiar with each other, the newsroom grew to believe that Murdoch may have saved the paper. “We were headed off a cliff three years ago,” one prominent writer, who remains wary of Murdoch, says. “There was a real question whether the Journal could survive. The business side was incompetent.”
Employees were pleased as well to see the Journal become the only major U.S. daily with a rising circulation. The staff also appreciated Thomson’s relationship with Murdoch. “The praetorian guard that surrounds Rupert—I’m not sure they serve him well,” one family intimate says. “You have to have balls to tell Rupert he’s wrong twice, because the first time he will robustly rebut you. Rupert’s natural position is to come out fighting. It takes someone who is either foolish or a great friend to come off the canvas and say, ‘You’re wrong.’ Robert does it privately.”
Thomson made some popular decisions, such as installing Gerald Seib as the Washington bureau chief. In the sixth-floor newsroom in the News Corp. building, he created a hub that conferred more decision-making authority on editors, who sat elbow to elbow and could discuss ideas freely. As Thomson got more comfortable, he lightened up a bit. In a “Dear All” memo, he thanked everyone for “a remarkable effort” in covering the 2010 election, and he offered special praise “to Alan Murray and Jerry Seib, who are as sagacious as they are loquacious.” Dow Jones, he wrote in an end-of-year memo, “has thrived during a testing period for journalists and journalism, and is poised to prosper in a Rabbit Year, which is supposed to reward lapine diligence and intellectual fecundity.”
People now often describe Thomson as witty. Still, he remains somewhat remote. He spends much of his time in his office and meets with few reporters individually, and he isn’t much of a presence at the daily 10:30 A.M. news meeting. All the news editors cram into a conference room; bureau chiefs from around the world participate via telephone. Thomson runs the meeting, but he is so often quiet that David Wessel, who is regularly on the line from Washington, says he sometimes forgets that Thomson is there.
Thomson has a sense of how to draw in readers. In December, 2008, the paper ran a forty-five-hundred-word front-page account headlined “THE WEEKEND THAT WALL STREET DIED.” It was reported by four people. Thomson suggested that they replace their opening paragraph with a scene that was buried in the story. The reporters took the suggestion. So the piece began with the Lehman Brothers C.E.O., Richard Fuld, Jr., his firm on the verge of bankruptcy, calling the home of the Bank of America chairman, Kenneth Lewis, “the man he thought could save him.” Fuld kept calling Lewis over the weekend, but got no response until, finally, Lewis’s wife answered and told the head of Lehman Brothers, “If Mr. Lewis wanted to call back, he would call back.” Fuld apologized for disturbing her. “Within hours of his call, Lehman announced it would file for bankruptcy protection. Within a week, Wall Street as it was known—loosely regulated, daringly risky, and lavishly rewarded—was dead.”
People often speak of Thomson’s breadth. James Murdoch, Rupert’s son and a senior News Corp. executive, says the first words that spring to mind when asked to describe Thomson are “his intellect.” He goes on to say, “He’s very worldly. He’s a very learned person, with a wide range of interests.” Not everyone finds him easy to understand. “Robert is tactile,” a former colleague at the Financial Times says. “He is incredibly good at reading people’s minds and sussing out their motives. And he’s great at cultivating an aura. Silent power. He uses that as a weapon. Robert is inscrutable. He will look at you and just smile.” One close colleague believes that Thomson is in pain from his physical ailments, but he says that he has never heard him complain.
Although he is the editor of one of the world’s foremost newspapers, Thomson has not been profiled since he joined the Journal. After numerous e-mail exchanges with me that spanned from June to January, Thomson never specifically declined to be interviewed for this story. He wrote in early July that he was “still mulling whether to do an interview—I don’t much mind, but people here are a little tired of the ‘War at the Wall Street Journal’ nonsense and the whining of ex-Journal types and the antipathetic adumbration of the Columbia set.”
On October 1st, we met for an off-the-record breakfast not far from his apartment in Chelsea. I e-mailed him a week later, and he responded, “Still pondering the prospect of disrobing in front of you.”
I e-mailed Murdoch, Hinton, and the communications chief of Dow Jones, Bethany Sherman, requesting interviews. Eventually, Sherman called back. When I asked whether I could speak with Murdoch, or other senior officials, she said that no one at Dow Jones would agree to be interviewed about the paper, the business, or Thomson, because “we don’t think we’ve gotten a fair shake from you.”
Murdoch was unhappy with my 1995 profile of him, which praised his business boldness and criticized his journalism. Since then, when I’ve contacted his office on any subject, Murdoch has refused to grant an interview. To advisers and friends, Murdoch makes plain that he remains angry. Whether following instructions or not, Thomson declined to coöperate. As this story went to press, I e-mailed Thomson one last time, saying that I would be remiss not to ask him, again, if he would speak with me. His response was fittingly gnomic, graceful, and in accordance with the likely desires of his boss: “I’m the one who is remiss, but I will be conferring with the fact checker.”
The Journal under Robert Thomson is more readable but less distinctive. “The old Wall Street Journal had a front page that really wasn’t a newspaper front page,” Alan Murray, the deputy managing editor, says. “It was a magazine.” He has cited the example of Lorena Bobbitt, who, in 1993, “chopped off her husband’s member.” The old Journal didn’t publish a word about it until many months later, when they wrote about the surgeon who reattached John Wayne Bobbitt’s penis. Today, Murray said, the Journal would showcase the story.
On October 25th, the newspaper logo on page 1 appeared above a black box with pictures of four aging rockers and the headline “HOW MANY STONES ARE GRANDFATHERS?” Two days after the November elections, the results consumed the first ten news pages. In its new Greater New York section, introduced in April, 2010, the paper regularly includes gossipy coverage of celebrities like Lindsay Lohan.
Many Journal expats mention, as an example of Murdoch’s and Thomson’s fetish for “newsy” stories at the expense of compelling ones, how the new Journal handled Susanne Craig’s profile of the Goldman Sachs C.O.O. Gary Cohn. Craig got full access to Wall Street’s most successful and secretive investment bank, and to Cohn, who was the closest adviser to Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman’s C.E.O. Craig spent the better part of three months in early 2010 reporting the story, which was intended to be a twenty-five-hundred-word front-page leader. The paper held the story until June, and then ran it at twelve hundred words in an inside section of the paper. Craig left for the Times in August, 2010. (Ken Brown, her editor, denies that the story was held because it wasn’t newsy; he says it was held to protect Cohn from being unfairly associated with news stories about Goldman having sold clients mortgages it thought were junk.)
Handed a copy of the January 19, 2011, Journal and asked to critique it, the Times managing editor, Jill Abramson, pointed out what she believed were flaws in her competitor: “I don’t find that many things that I have to read. It’s a quick-delivery system.” When she was a reporter in the Journal’s Washington office, from 1988 to 1997, she said, “we were interested in the story behind the story. ” After citing some of the people she had hired from the Journal, Abramson said, “I only wish I had the budget to hire all the esteemed colleagues of mine in the Washington bureau who wanted to come to the Times and left the Journal.”
Thomson has also become a fiery advocate for business policies that, in general, journalists are expected to be dispassionate about. In October, 2009, several weeks after Murdoch denounced news aggregators as “plagiarists” and “kleptomaniacs,” Thomson appeared onstage with Google’s vice-president, Marissa Mayer, at the Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco, and startled the audience (and Mayer) by announcing, “Marissa unintentionally encourages promiscuity. . . . The whole Google model is based on digital disloyalty. It’s about disloyalty to creators.” One editor-in-chief of a rival publication thinks Thomson has crossed a line: “For me to get on a soapbox and critique companies makes it awkward for my reporters. I don’t want to get in the way of reporters reporting.” In March, however, Bill Keller, the Times’ editor, did something similar, writing a column that assailed the Huffington Post.
Many former Journal reporters add that the paper now has a Murdochian conservative bias. A former reporter whom the Journal tried to persuade not to leave says that the political pressures to write certain kinds of stories were “subtle things.” He says, “The editor sits at a dinner table next to Rupert and he speaks out about voter fraud, which was a bugaboo of Fox News. A reporter is assigned to look into it. . . . I had a sense it was these guys trying to please and get Rupert’s attention.” Jackie Calmes, who covered Washington for the Journal, describes “a gnawing feeling” that she was expected to punch harder at Democrats and go softer on Republicans. In August, 2008, she joined the Times.
Murdoch has a history of using the news pages of many of his London and Australian papers, not to mention the Post and Fox News, to advance candidates or causes. He is a major donor to the Republican Party. No one inside or outside the Journal offered me specific instances of Murdoch and Thomson pushing a politically biased story. But Murdoch does not issue commands. What occurs is a form of anticipatory censorship. David Yelland, the former deputy editor of the Post and ex-editor of Murdoch’s largest London tabloid, the Sun, told the London Evening Standard last spring, “All Murdoch editors . . . go on a journey where they end up agreeing with everything Rupert says. But you don’t admit to yourself that you’re being influenced. Most Murdoch editors wake up in the morning, switch on the radio, hear that something has happened and think, ‘What would Rupert think about this?’ ”
Thomson may have taken this journey, too. In a long article in January, 2010, for the Australian, the Murdoch-owned national newspaper, he criticized the idea of government subsidies for weakened newspapers, arguing that the practice would undermine their independence. He continued:
But in the age of the bailout, why not? If banks and car companies are now virtually arms of the U.S. government, why not extend the principle to journalism, where some practitioners are already virtually an arm of government in their affectionate reporting of the present U.S. administration? The accusation is that journalists are “in the tank”—the problem is that the tank is so full that Washington needs a drip tray to cope with the overflow.
If readers are offended, it’s not apparent in the numbers. In the six months ending in September, 2010, the Journal’s average weekday circulation was up two per cent. Meanwhile, the Audit Bureau of Circulations reported that the major daily papers lost on average five per cent. The Times and the Washington Post both fell six per cent, USA Today four per cent, and the Los Angeles Times nine per cent. However, a substantial reason for this is that the Journal, unlike most of its competitors during this time period, allowed people to subscribe to its online edition only. So, when the Journal says its circulation is rising, it doesn’t mean that all the new readers are paying three hundred and sixty-three dollars a year to have the paper land at their doors in the morning; many are paying a hundred and fifty-five dollars to read it on their electronic screens. Also, the Web site brings in only a fraction of the advertising revenues of the print edition.
To its credit, the new Journal has been transparent about many of the activities of its corporate parent. It reported News Corp.’s campaign contributions to Republicans and the failings of MySpace, which Murdoch acquired in 2005. To its discredit, the paper has avoided some News Corp. scandals. Much of the British press and the New York Times have written extensively about how Murdoch’s News of the World, a London tabloid, hacked into the voice-mail messages of celebrities, a practice that has provoked a Scotland Yard investigation. The Journal has published three small stories, all deep inside the front section. On February 25th, the Times ran a front-page story quoting court documents asserting that Roger E. Ailes, the chairman of Fox News, urged the former News Corp. publishing executive Judith Regan to lie to federal investigators to avoid embarrassing a Republican friend. The Journal barely mentioned the story.
People who work there try to look at the bright side. “I worry less now, because we have the financial stability most newspapers don’t have,” Gerald Seib, the Washington bureau chief, says. “Rupert Murdoch was willing to ride through the dark tunnel of the last few years. The old Dow Jones, I fear, would not have been able to ride through the same way.”
Rupert Murdoch just turned eighty, and the original newsroom fear—What is Rupert going to do to us?—has been supplanted by: What will happen when Rupert Murdoch is gone? David Wessel says, “I hope that the next generation of News Corp. is as committed to newspaper journalism, and particularly the newspaper I work for, as Rupert Murdoch is.” Murdoch has four adult children, all of whom have some connection to the News Corp. empire, though only Elisabeth, forty-two, who just rejoined the company after her own television production company was acquired by News Corp., and James, thirty-eight, work there. Both are senior executives, though just last week James’s succession seemed to be made clear when he was promoted to deputy C.O.O. of News Corp.
In February, I met James Murdoch at a restaurant near the News Corp. offices and asked about his commitment to newspaper journalism.
“The Journal and Dow Jones are now very much a part of this company—and journalism in News Corp. has been and will always be the keystone of our culture,” he responded, while sipping a bourbon-on-the-rocks. “All of the turmoil in the industry presents more, not less, opportunity for our journalists and our work. Despite the gloom about newspapers, our newspapers in the U.K. are well on their way to historic profitability. Our Australian newspapers are strong. The Journal stands out as a distinctive brand and a tremendous product, and we will keep investing in it, keep innovating.”
Shareholders have long tolerated Rupert Murdoch’s passion for newspapers, which are less profitable than other parts of the empire. But it is not clear that they will be as tolerant if his children pursue the same course. If the children resist shareholder pressure, do the Murdochs risk losing control of News Corp.?
Robert Thomson’s future is also a mystery. Those who know him best think he wants one day to return to Australia. In a 2005 interview with the Independent in London, he said there was “no doubt” that at some point he would return to the Far East, “for personal as well as professional reasons.” A member of the Murdoch entourage to whom Thomson has confided says, “I think he wants to go home. He talks about it. He wants his children to be Australian.” However, when an Australian paper speculated in January about his imminent return, Dow Jones immediately shot down the rumor. And there are no indications that Thomson plans to leave while Murdoch is still in control, which Thomson believes will be for quite a while.
Every major newspaper assigns a reporter to gather information about older luminaries and to write advance obituaries. A former colleague of Thomson at the Journal recently described the time an editor talked about doing this for Murdoch.
“Rupert is not going to die,” Thomson said.
“In the event he does?” the editor responded.
“Rupert is not going to die,” Thomson repeated.
In recounting the story, the colleague of Thomson said, “Robert is smart. He knows a reporter will write the obituary. But, if the story gets back to Murdoch, he’ll think how clever and charming Robert was.”