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Wall St. Journal Makes Politics Its Business

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 31, 2008

NEW YORK -- The Federal Reserve's effort to rescue Bear Stearns from imminent collapse was a classic Wall Street Journal story, stripped across the top of the front page amid saturation coverage in the paper.

But just below that was a lengthy piece about Barack Obama's national finance chairman, the "petite billionaire" Penny Pritzker, and a dispatch on violent protests in Tibet.

In the four months since Rupert Murdoch took over the nation's leading financial newspaper, the front page has assumed a harder edge, particularly on politics, establishing the Journal as a high-profile player in the presidential campaign.

Murdoch is "clearly interested in challenging the journalistic establishment," says Robert Thomson, the former editor of Murdoch's Times of London, in his first public comments as Journal publisher. "I think American journalism has some soul-searching to do. American newspapers generally have kept up poorly with change. . . . If there's a presumption that what you might call New York Times journalism is the pinnacle of our profession, the profession is in some difficulty."

The swipe at the Times is no accident. Murdoch and his lieutenants, who have made clear they want to challenge the paper for national supremacy, are not above a little trash-talking toward that end.

"Mr. Murdoch wants to see the paper take on added urgency and broaden its areas of coverage," says Marcus Brauchli, the Journal's top editor. "He's very engaged in news. He knows what's going on. He's got good, strong ideas about journalism."

In an interview here in the shadow of Ground Zero, in a building the paper will soon abandon for Murdoch's News Corp. headquarters in Midtown, Brauchli acknowledged that the December takeover caused considerable anxiety. There were predictions that the owner of Fox News might push the news pages at the 2 million-circulation paper to the right or tart it up like his New York Post. Some big-name correspondents bailed out.

"I don't think anyone left us because Rupert Murdoch was coming," Brauchli says. "People left because they got a lot more money. Other companies raided us."

In an era in which newspapers are laying off staff and slashing budgets -- the Journal itself did a round of buyouts last year -- Murdoch is underwriting increased space in the paper and slightly enlarging the 40-person Washington bureau. Brauchli says he expects the newsroom staff of 750, up from 600 two years ago, to grow modestly this year.

Thomson says Murdoch is also opening his checkbook to beef up foreign coverage. "Strategically, Rupert is very much involved," Thomson says. "He loves newspapers. He's passionate about them."

Many current and former staffers are pleased. "Just about everything that's happened so far has been in the right direction," says Paul Steiger, who retired last year as the Journal's top editor. Murdoch "has given them money to expand the news hole and expand staffing. I'm not aware of any bad-Rupert fears manifesting themselves."

The steady flow of campaign stories on the Journal's front page is a departure for a newspaper that built its identity on business coverage, long features and quirky tales known as "A-heds."

Sometimes the Journal would all but ignore breaking news. In 1991, when Anita Hill's allegations of harassment against Clarence Thomas became front-page news across the country, the Journal gave it one paragraph in the front-page roundup column, saying Hill's charge "appears unlikely to delay or affect the outcome" of the Senate confirmation hearings. The next day, after the Thomas saga led the three network newscasts, the Journal ran two paragraphs in the roundup column.

The concept, dating to the 1940s, was that the Journal would be a second read for those who already had digested a local or national newspaper. Brauchli says that approach is now history.

"It's been fabulous to have a much higher appetite for political news during the most interesting campaign of my lifetime," says political columnist Gerald Seib.

The space for political reporting has roughly doubled, insiders say, and even what-happened-yesterday pieces ("Clinton Aims to Push Beyond Ohio and Texas") are winding up on Page 1. The Washington Wire column has been revived. But it is the more enterprising stories that are drawing attention.

The Journal ran a behind-the-scenes piece last month about Hillary Clinton aides Mark Penn and Mandy Grunwald shouting at each other over a disputed commercial, opening the gates to a flood of stories about campaign infighting. An interview with John McCain on economic issues got big play, paired on Page 1 with a report on how a rivalry between blacks and Latinos could help Obama in the Texas primary.

Meanwhile, the fabled A-heds, which often ran at the top of the front page, have been generally pushed to the bottom of the page. On the day when the stories about Bear Stearns and Obama's fundraiser dominated the page, a feature -- squeezed into a tiny space below -- dealt with men buying girdles that are called by less embarrassing names.

John Harwood, a CNBC analyst who left the Journal last year, says the increased campaign coverage "reflects Murdoch's desire for a newsier paper, and for my former colleagues covering politics, that's a great thing. The question that will get asked over time is, does it erode some of the things that made the Journal great in the first place?"

In recent years, says political analyst Charlie Cook, the Journal "became a less essential read" for campaign junkies. "It was just barely above zero. Except for the business coverage and a fun story on the front page, I sure as hell haven't been reading it." Cook says the level of political reporting has improved lately, "but they've lost a lot of their horses."

Beyond politics, the Journal has added a weekly sports page and plans to launch a quarterly magazine that will focus on fashion and travel, which Brauchli promoted earlier this month on a swing through London, Paris and Milan. If that sounds un-Journal-like, he notes that the paper now runs recipes in its two-year-old Saturday edition.

Thomson, rather conveniently, uses the Times as a symbol of what he calls "self-serving" American journalism, describing "a sensibility that fetishizes prizes, that believes the length of a story is a measure of its worth." He says the Times has been unfair in its coverage of the Journal and leans to the left. "The New York Times is generally skewed," Thomson says.

The Times declines to respond in kind, and some Americans may bristle at the British editor's dismissiveness, which highlights that part of the Journal's brain trust was born elsewhere.

The concerns about Murdoch, whose properties range from 20th Century Fox to London's Sun and its topless Page 3 girls, centered on his well-documented history of influencing news judgments. Murdoch, who once donated $1 million to the California Republican Party, has had his New York Post go after selected liberal politicians, and yanked BBC News from his Sky TV satellite service in China to placate the Beijing authorities.

Slate media columnist Jack Shafer, one of Murdoch's sharpest critics, says his predictions about the Australian-born mogul ruining the Journal's reputation for fairness haven't yet come to pass. "I've seen no real pulling of punches so far, but it is the Murdoch pattern," he says. "I don't think he can resist. He never has."

Changes are hard to detect at the Journal's editorial pages, run by Paul Gigot, who recently had dinner with Murdoch. An owner has every right to influence editorial policy, but the pages seem as pugnaciously conservative as they were before the News Corp. takeover.

Brauchli was not immune to the turmoil that surrounded Murdoch's $5 billion bid for parent company Dow Jones. A former Asia correspondent who joined the Journal as a copy editor in 1984, Brauchli, then deputy managing editor, was offered the editor's job last April -- one day after News Corp. made its formal offer to the Bancroft family, which had controlled the company for nearly 80 years.

"It's possible, I suppose, they could have replaced me," Brauchli says. But Murdoch agreed to retain Brauchli and two other top editors as part of an agreement with the family to safeguard the paper's editorial independence. He invited Brauchli to breakfast soon afterward.

Murdoch addressed the staff's concerns in a meeting with the Washington bureau earlier this month. One staffer asked whether he would wield political influence at the Journal.

"What sells newspapers is news," Murdoch replied, according to participants. He said he was not an ideologue and noted that his newspapers in Britain and Australia had sometimes endorsed Labor Party candidates.

For now, at least, Murdoch seems to have calmed the staff. "At this point, people are both relieved and comfortable," Seib says. Brauchli says Murdoch sets "broad objectives" and lets his editors figure out how to meet them.

But he is acutely aware that Murdoch casts a long shadow. Last month -- utilizing a power that no other newspaper editor wields -- Brauchli changed the makeup of the Dow Jones industrial average, removing Honeywell and Altria and adding Chevron and Bank of America. He later noticed the decision being trashed on Honeywell message boards.

"They were all ranting about how Rupert Murdoch had done this," Brauchli says. "People see the hand of Murdoch whether it's there or not."

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