Who Says the Editors Are So Smart?

As Rupert Murdoch continues his $60-a-share courtship of the Bancroft family and their showcase property, The Wall Street Journal, there’s been a fair amount of whining and yelping from journalistic watchdogs nervous about Mr. Murdoch’s intentions. In their dark imaginings, if Mr. Murdoch’s purchase is successful, he will proceed to sully The Journal’s editorial purity with a hands-on management style and infuse it with his own biases, dealing a terrible blow to the public interest.

But at the end of the day, who’s to say Mr. Murdoch—or any owner, for that matter—is any less suited to determine a newspaper’s editorial direction than the editors? Who’s to say a newspaper’s editor is more independent than its owner? Just as owners do, editors come to the job carrying significant conflicts of interest and other baggage—whether because of personal relationships, aspirations toward landing a better job, hoping to get their kids into certain schools or lifelong political affiliations and friendships.

And when it comes to decisions about editorial content, who’s to say the capitalist worldview of a newspaper owner handicaps him or her any more than an editor is limited by his or her intellectual worldview and liberal bias? In the past, legendary newspaper owner-publishers such as William Allen White at The Emporia Gazette, Joseph Pulitzer at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Adolph Ochs at The New York Times were extraordinary editors in their own right and brilliant managers as well.

At The Wall Street Journal, the two Dow Jones chief executives who ran the company from 1975 through 2006, Warren Phillips and Peter Kann, were former journalists who thus took what they believed to be the appropriate hands-off attitude toward the newspaper. And look what happened: They utterly failed to maximize the newspaper’s stunning potential and were dismal management failures, leaving this crown jewel with little to stand on other than its great legacy.

So far, Bancroft family members who represent 64 percent of the votes in Dow Jones have remained cautiously opposed to Mr. Murdoch’s $5 billion offer. If they wish to vote against it, that’s their business. But to claim such a vote should be made on the basis of journalistic integrity is far from the whole story.