New 'WSJ' Editorial Review Committee Looks Like A 98-Pound Weakling

By: Mark Fitzgerald Am I missing something? That's the reaction I had as I pored over the dense, lawyerly text of the Dow Jones editorial agreement with News Corp. that is supposed to protect the integrity and independence of the newsrooms and opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal and its siblings from Rupert Murdoch's real or imagined design to bend the flagship to his business or political interests.

I was struck by what I didn't see in the agreement.

There's a reference right up front to the Special Committee's powers to "enforce" the agreement, yet the more I read, the more it appears that the enforcement amounts to the power to write a report and publish it in the Journal.

Maybe I missed it, but I didn't see any mechanism that would permit a lowly reporter to approach this august committee with a complaint -- let alone any guarantee that the journalist would not suffer any reprisals for being a whistle blower.

Now, the Journal has an editorial union, and maybe the bargaining agreement's disciplinary system is considered protection enough. But how about those many journalists with management-sounding titles who are inevitably cherry-picked out of every labor contract? Where's their shield?

Turns out I'm not the only one who considers the agreement a rather thin reed to carry the weight of a century-old institution.

"It seems like a pretty flimsy structure to me," Rick Edmonds, The Poynter Institute's media business analyst, told me Wednesday.

Edmonds noticed two things about the document right away. First, it would be kicked back to the writer by any newspaper copy editor in the land. But more important, it never really gets around to making any kind of mission statement.

Indeed, in true corporate counsel fashion, it is far more concerned with such details as the notice the committee must give a member it wants to remove involuntarily. (It's partly covered in section 1.2(f)(ii): "(T)he Member shall have been given at least ninety (90) days after the delivery of such notice to the Member to discontinue, and during such time shall have not discontinued, the acts or failures to act specified in the notice.")

As for the powers of the committee, well, Edmonds says he's as mystified as I am: "It sort of starts talking about a couple of, quote, 'powers,' but it really doesn't put that in a real context."

And while it refers at one point to the committee's binding decisions in matters brought up by the managing editor, who is the Journal's top newsroom editor, or the editorial page editor, Edmonds points out that it flunks the real-world test.

"I have sort of a hard time envisioning this arrangement functioning," he said. Any top editor with issues with News Corp. serious enough to warrant that kind of decision would be unlikely to want to remain a News Corp. employee, he suggests. Edmonds writes about the agreement -- and makes predictions about Murdoch ownership -- in his Poynter blog today.

The five people reportedly named to the initial committee -- Lou Boccardi, former head of the Associated Press and a director of the Gannett Co.; columnist Thomas Bray; former Republican House member Jennifer Dunn; former Tribune Co. president Jack Fuller; and Nicholas Negroponte, founder of MIT's Media Lab -- are so clearly among the best in the business and beyond reproach that, Edmonds says, they must know something we don't.

Still, it's astonishing that weeks of agonizing among the Bancrofts and the Dow Jones board, and negotiations with News Corp., could muster so little power in a document so big.

By my Microsoft Word count, the agreement runs 6,958 words. And yet, Yahweh, according to the King James version, needed just 383 words for the Ten Commandments.

But then, I suppose, Yahweh was trying to guide Moses and humanity away from Lucifer and mankind's fallen nature.

Dow Jones was dealing with Rupert Murdoch.


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