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Paul Steiger Did What?

Posted by: Jon Fine on May 8, 2007

The long run in journalism for Norman Pearlstine, a former top editor of the Wall Street Journal, is marred by one nasty late-career blot: he turned over Time reporter Matt Cooper’s notes to federal prosecutors. Weirdly enough, something similar is happening to his successor. The nasty blot on Paul Steiger’s career, which comes literally days before his retirement, is his decision to withhold advance notice of Rupert Murdoch’s bid for Dow Jones from the Journal’s newsroom.

The news of which, naturally, broke in the Times:

… [Murdoch] sent an e-mail message marked “Personal and Confidential” to Mr. Steiger telling him of the bid, and offering his reassurances that he would uphold the editorial integrity of The Journal if he were successful.

Mr. Steiger felt bound by the “confidential” nature of his communications with Mr. Murdoch, according to people within Dow Jones, and it weighed heavily on his decision.

Several other editors were aware of the offer, these people said, including Marcus Brauchli, the chosen successor to Mr. Steiger who is scheduled to begin his new duties next week; Dan Hertzberg, deputy managing editor; and Nikhil Deogun, the paper’s Money and Investing editor. Mr. Brauchli, Mr. Hertzberg and Mr. Deogun all declined to comment.

I can understand, even if I don’t particularly agree, why Steiger might decide his corporate role at Dow Jones in this case superseded his job as the paper’s top journalist. What I have a harder time understanding is that several other top editors—who have less lofty corporate roles within the company—knew about the memo, also. But no one, from Steiger on down, managed to issue a well-timed whisper or two.

In general former WSJ deputy managing editor Barney Calame gets no love in this space, since I’ve spent the last 18 months struggling through his excruciatingly-by-the-book-and-extraordinarily-tedious ombudsman columns in the New York Times. But I’ve got to think: Had the Murdoch memo made its way into his hands, would he have kept it from the newsroom?

No way.

The newsroom of the Journal is in a uniquely uncomfortable spot right now. They have to cover an ongoing deal process that involves their company, as many within their ranks are openly agitating against it. One key Murdoch rep has made it clear that perhaps some reporters there should be, uhm, on notice for nothing more than having done their jobs in the past:

[News Corp. spokesman Gary Ginsberg] said the only instance when Mr. Murdoch did have objections involved a 2000 Journal profile of his third wife, Wendi Deng, which delved into her romantic history.

“If it’s a legitimate news story, Rupert would say fine,” Ginsberg said. “But it wasn’t a legitimate news story, in that Wendi had no role in the company at that time. What they were doing was looking for a pretext to write a public story about a private individual.”

I didn’t think this situation could get more complex, conflict-ridden, and unpleasant for the Journal’s newsroom. But Steiger’s move ensures it just did.

Reader Comments

Rob Hunter

May 9, 2007 1:37 PM

Allow me to play devil's advocate by posing the alternative scenario: Steiger and lower-level editors, all of whom own big slugs of stock options, decide they owe it to their readers to break the story themselves. They do. The stock price soars. Steiger & Co. profit handomely from their scoop. Crucifixion ensues. On top of the initial flogging from media critics, there's the ongoing specter of top-level editors being somehow beholden to Murdoch for giving them a hot scoop on a silver platter. Welcome to hell.

In theory, wasn't it more ethical, given their obvious conflicts, to do nothing? Particularly since they knew full well that shareholders would oppose?

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