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Murdochalypse or Schadenfreude? The Wall Street Journal Defends Its Boss

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When Rupert Murdoch‘s News Corp. acquired the Wall Street Journal in 2007, a big question was how editorially independent the newspaper would be able to remain. If nothing else, the Murdochalypse (not my coinage) precipitated by the British phone-hacking scandal has provided a test. First, Murdoch favored his national American newspaper with a defiant interview, defending News Corp.’s handling of the scandal, which ran on Friday. And this morning the Wall Street Journal editorial page ran a blistering piece defending Murdoch’s stewardship of the paper and charging his critics with hypocrisy and “schadenfreude.” (There’s also a WSJ business feature on the Schadenfreude of Murdoch rivals, though to be fair, they’re not the only ones using the term.)

In itself, I don’t think either necessarily indicates the WSJ is in the bag for its owner on this story. On the other hand, if Murdoch bought the paper hoping it would be in the bag on stories that concerned him, he’s probably not disappointed with it right now.

The interview on Friday was criticized as a puff piece, partly for its mere existence—i.e., Murdoch’s granting the interview to his own paper—and partly for its content. As to the first, Murdoch may have decided to favor one of his own by giving the interview, but I would assume any other newspaper would have taken the interview had they had the chance. As for the content, the New York Times’ Joe Nocera argued that the story was little more than p.r. for Murdoch and proof that the paper had become “Foxified.” He’s got a point, particularly about the piece not asking questions about what Murdoch knew and when he knew it, though I would say the construction of the piece—which begins with Murdoch’s ridiculous claim that News Corp. has made no more than “minor mistakes”—is more of the give-him-enough-rope variety.

(In any case, it’s not nearly as ludicrous as the Fox and Friends segment arguing that the whole story has been overblown, because other companies have been “hacked”—drawing an insane equivalence between that and a company hacking private citizens.)

As for the editorial, what makes it hard to isolate the Murdoch effect is that the WSJ long had one of the most partisan-conservative editorial boards in major-market journalism. The pre-Murdoch WSJ edit board, I suspect, would have done something similar: that is, react on politics, seeing a conservative figure under attack and kicking up dust with ad hominem attacks against his critics, on the enemy-of-mine-enemy theory. The major difference here being that the current WSJ also went to length to emphasize how much Murdoch has invested in the paper (presumably, reading between the lines, stung by criticisms of its news coverage).

That doesn’t make the WSJ’s rationalizations any less ridiculous though: saying that there is a lot of sleaze in British tabloids, equating the voicemail hacks of crime victims and war widows with publishing Wikileaks government documents, and suggesting that the “schadenfreude” of competitors and people who don’t like Murdoch’s politics somehow exonerate him. Is there schadenfreude involved here? Uh, sure: like in the Anthony Weiner scandal, or in the scandals of any politically involved celebrity, ever. Are Murdoch’s media rivals glorying in his misfortune? Human nature would suggest yes. (Also, it’s not exactly a secret: media outlets overcover stories about the media, period.) But here’s one way to avoid giving fuel to schadenfreude and gleeful enemies: Don’t run the kind of newspaper where people commit crimes and steal people’s voicemail. It works wonders!

It’s possible, in other words, that there is schadenfreude here and that Murdoch is getting a rightful comeuppance for the despicable acts of his newspaper. Just as it’s possible that the WSJ editorial board really believes what it wrote, and yet is ludicrously wrong.