It used to be that New York City was a big enough town to accommodate the massive institutional egos of both The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. But ever since the Times published an article on Sunday suggesting that the Journal’s news coverage has been tilting to the right since it was sold two years ago to Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, things have gotten downright ugy.
Journalist and science writer John McQuaid called the dust-up “an all-out pissing match” and went on, “I’d say great – nothing like a little journalistic competition to lubricate the gears of democracy, right? Except that it’s not that kind of newspaper war. It’s a stupid, Murdochian war. In other words, a war which is not about anything but war itself, or, to be precise, a state of neverending ideological conflict.” Business Insider even illustrated their coverage of the story with a photograph of women mud-wrestling.
The main basis for the conflict appears to be the Journal’s attempt to challenge the Times on its own turf of local coverage. DailyFinance, for example, notes that “tensions between The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal are on the rise as the two papers increasingly compete for the same pool of general-interest and local-market readers.”
This week’s battle in the ongoing war began when Times media columnist David Carr wrote on Sunday, “A little over a year ago, Robert Thomson, The Journal’s top editor, picked Gerard Baker, a columnist for The Times of London, as his deputy managing editor. … Mr. Baker, a neoconservative columnist of acute political views, has been especially active in managing coverage in Washington, creating significant grumbling, if not resistance, from the staff there.”
Thomson quickly fired back with a note condemning the Times article. “The news column by a Mr David Carr today is yet more evidence that The New York Times is uncomfortable about the rise of an increasingly successful rival while its own circulation and credibility are in retreat,” Thomson charged. “The attack follows the extraordinary actions of Mr Bill Keller, the Executive Editor, who, among other things, last year wrote personally and at length to a prize committee casting aspersions on Journal journalists and journalism. ”
The New York Observer, wondering what those aspersions might have amounted to, found that the letter in question was one asking the committee that gives out the George Polk Awards in Journalism to “correct a claim in [its] news release” about a prize-winning article on the Three Gorges Dam in China.
“In your release you state that subsequent to The Journal’s series on Three Gorges, ‘China acknowledged that it must relocate as many as 4 million people,’” Keller wrote. He went on to explain that this figure had been put out by a local city official in China who was looking for more government funding to expand his city and that “Beijing has officially and repeatedly denied that environmental problems at the dam have resulted in any new plans for resettling people.”
The Times is clearly concerned about the Journal’s expansion plans and has been devoting extensive coverage to them, reporting last month that “The Wall Street Journal plans to assemble a local news staff in New York, continuing to expand beyond its historic focus on business news by adding traditional city desk beats like courthouses, City Hall and the state capital. The push into metropolitan news is part of The Journal’s effort to create a New York edition, probably beginning early next year.” Both papers are also planning to launch competing San Francisco editions.
Even at the Times, however, there appears to be a sincere concern about the decline of the Journal’s reporting standards. One columnist, who describes himself as having been a devout follower of the unique business coverage offered by the pre-Murdoch Journal, wrote sadly last year, “Mr. Murdoch believes that the country is yearning for a national conservative daily, so that is where he is taking The Wall Street Journal. He is also an old-fashioned news hound, so he’s pushing for straighter, snappier, less analytical stories. As the owner — and as a man with a very clear vision of what he wants — he has every right to impose those changes. But to me — and I’m speaking now not as a someone who works for a competitor but as someone who has always adored reading The Wall Street Journal — the paper he is producing is less distinctive, less interesting and less important to its core business readership.”