Wall Street Journal comes under fire for defiant phone-hack op-ed

Joe Pompeo
July 18, 2011

On day 12 of the latest and most treacherous chapter in News Corp.'s six-year-old phone hacking saga, one of the company's most venerable properties finds itself in the cross hairs.

The fallout began around 9 p.m. Sunday night, shortly after a defensive and defiant editorial from Monday's Wall Street Journal hit the web.

The thousand-word opinion piece does include a condemnation of the British tabloid reporters whose criminal journalistic practices--the widespread hacking of voicemail accounts and bribery payments to the British police--have brought the U.K. division of Rupert Murdoch's media conglomerate to its knees. But the fiery missive, complete with take-downs of London law enforcement and the paper's peers on Fleet Street, is hardly a mea culpa.

"Our competitors are using the phone-hacking years ago at a British corner of News Corp. to assail the Journal, and perhaps injure press freedom in general," it begins.

And so began the backlash.

"The Wall Street Journal editorial pages have been disgraceful for some time, but this is the utter depths," remarked columnist and journalism professor Dan Gillmor, who was among the coterie of media observers who took aim at the op-ed on Twitter.

"And now WSJ has dropped a hydrogen bomb on itself. I'm canceling my sub," said paidContent founder Rafat Ali, while media critic Jay Rosen called the article a "Deluded dishonest whining victimology delivered in the form of a Wall Street Journal editorial on the phone hacking crisis."

"Remarkable WSJ would run this defiant, pugnacious, self-congratulatory editorial at this juncture. Very Fox News-like," tweeted Variety's Brian Lowry. (Fox also is owned by News Corp.)

Sarah Ellison, meanwhile, the former Journal reporter who went on to chronicle Murdoch's controversial purchase of the paper, expressed her disgust thusly: "Tonite's WSJ Editorial is sad. I've always defended the Edit page, but now It's a PR arm."

The un-bylined commentary, published two days after the resignation of Journal publisher Les Hinton, formerly an executive at News Corp's British publishing division, News International, stands in stark relief beside the heartfelt apologies News Corp. chairman Murdoch issued Friday both to the citizens of Great Britain and to the family of 13-year-old murder victim Milly Dowler, whose voicemails were among those allegedly accessed by News of the World hackers. The Dowler incident has provoked widespread indignation in England since, at the time of the girl's 2002 disappearance, the Dowler family was led to believe their daughter might still be alive on the basis of the activity in her voicemail account.

The editorial also appears to be an attempt to deflect public outrage over the scandal--or at least spread around some of the blame.

It characterizes much of the scandal as a matter of police malfeasance. "If Scotland Yard failed to [investigate] adequately when the hacking was first uncovered several years ago, then that is more troubling than the hacking itself," the op-ed argues. It then goes on to assail other news outlets: "It is also worth noting the irony of so much moral outrage devoted to a single media company, when British tabloids have been known for decades for buying scoops and digging up dirt on the famous."

But the notoriously lurid U.K. tabs weren't the only ones to incur the Journal's wrath: "The idea that the BBC and the Guardian newspaper aren't attempting to influence public affairs, and don't skew their coverage to do so, can't stand a day's scrutiny. ... 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."

The piece even includes a none-too-subtle dig at the Journal's former managing editor, Paul Steiger, who took the reins of the nonprofit investigative journalist outfit ProPublica in the wake of News Corp's 2007 acquisition of the paper: "The prize for righteous hindsight goes to the online publication ProPublica for recording the well-fed regrets of the Bancroft family that sold Dow Jones to News Corp."

A spokeswoman for the Journal declined to comment. But it would be surprising if the editorial hasn't sparked at least some acrimony inside the newsroom, where reporters have have been diligently covering the story of their parent company's alleged transgressions. Monday's paper includes four hacking-related articles, not counting the op-ed.

Indeed, some staffers anonymously aired their repulsion to the Daily Beast last week.

"It makes our stomachs churn, to be bizarrely held accountable for some [expletive] tabloid guys from eight years ago. It's absurd," said one veteran Journal staffer. Another added: "This slightly naïve notion that nobody really knows that we're part of News Corp., that what they do, what Fox News does, what Rupert Murdoch does, doesn't affect us--when something like this happens, it forces people to recognize that it does."

As for today's op-ed, perhaps, as paidContent's Staci D. Kramer put it, "the Journal and its journalists would be better off if it had been spiked."