WSJ Decline Blamed on 'Vitriolic Right-Wing Attack Editorials' Scaring Advertisers

The decline of the Wall Street Journal, which allowed Rupert Murdoch's purchase of it, can be blamed in part on how advertisers “perhaps weren't enthralled” with the newspaper's “vitriolic right-wing attack editorials,” Washington Post op-ed writer David Ignatius contended in a Thursday column. In “The Path That Led to Murdoch,” Ignatius, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who has held a variety of top positions at the Post since 1986, asserted that during the 1990s “the Journal's editorial page increasingly did its own reporting, with equal portions of journalistic hustle and ideological spin, and it often overshadowed the news side. I suspect that helped undermine the franchise. Advertisers, in the end, perhaps weren't enthralled with a newspaper distinguished by vitriolic right-wing attack editorials.” (Screen shot is from appearance last year on the Chris Matthews Show.)

Ignatius didn't have anything to say about the impact on the New York Times of its vitriolic left-wing attack editorials and I wouldn't count on members of the mainstream media any time soon pointing to that editorial page as the culprit for declining ad revenue at the Gray Lady.

An excerpt from the bio for Ignatius on the WashingtonPost.com's “PostGlobal” blog:
From September 2000 to January 2003, Ignatius served as executive editor of the Paris-based International Herald Tribune. Prior to becoming a columnist, Ignatius was the Post´s assistant managing editor in charge of business news, a position he assumed in 1993. He served as the Post´s foreign editor from 1990 to 1992, supervising the paper´s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. From 1986 to 1990, he was editor of the Post´s Sunday Outlook section. Before joining the Post in 1986, Ignatius spent 10 years as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal....
An excerpt from his August 2 column:
....But the business acumen and good luck that had powered the rise of Dow Jones petered out during [Peter] Kann's tenure [late 1980s into 1990s] as chief executive. As the company's economic fortunes declined, so did some of its journalism. The A-heds stopped being funny, and then they disappeared. The left-hand "leaders," as we called them, which once offered some of the clearest analysis of America and the world, became thumpingly ordinary. Then they, too, disappeared -- in one of the series of redesigns that destroyed the look and feel of the old Journal without creating a strong new identity.

The Journal's tradition of investigative journalism continued on hard business stories, as in its coverage of Enron. But the Journal no longer dominated coverage of non-business subjects, such as the mob (as with Jonathan Kwitny) or Washington scandals (as with Jerry Landauer) or politics (as with Albert Hunt) or foreign policy (as with Karen Elliot House). The Journal's coverage of these subjects now is solid -- occasionally superb -- but it lacks the panache of the old days, when the business side of the paper was booming, money was rolling in and everyone gloried in taking risks.

The Journal of the mid-1980s was a demonstration of the proposition that good journalism and good business go hand in hand. This was the decade of the Wall Street dealmakers, and the Journal had a managing editor (Norman Pearlstine) and reporter/editor (James B. Stewart) who went after them with the intensity of journalistic Gordon Gekkos. It was a tough, canny paper -- whose front page each morning had more voltage even than the fiery editorial page.

That balance began to change in the 1990s, after Pearlstine and his pal John Huey left for Time Inc. The Journal's editorial page increasingly did its own reporting, with equal portions of journalistic hustle and ideological spin, and it often overshadowed the news side. I suspect that helped undermine the franchise. Advertisers, in the end, perhaps weren't enthralled with a newspaper distinguished by vitriolic right-wing attack editorials.

For Journal alumni, the past decade has been like watching a car wreck in slow motion. The people driving the car were our friends, the journalists we respected most. Now an ambulance of sorts, in the person of Rupert Murdoch, has arrived to pick up the bodies.

People will bemoan what Murdoch does to the Journal, no matter what it is. They will say that he is killing a great newspaper. But the sad part of this story is that "the empire," as we reporters once liked to call it, was already dying -- and that so many of its wounds were self-inflicted.
Brent Baker
Brent Baker
Brent Baker is the Steven P.J. Wood Senior Fellow and VP for Research and Publications at the Media Research Center