“Creative destruction” and the WSJ

“Suck it up,”an editorial in the Wall Street Journal seems to tell WSJ staffers: “Those of us who extol the virtues of Joseph Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” for others can’t complain when it sweeps through our own industry.”

The piece — in the context, of course, of the journal’s mooted sale to Rupert Murdoch or some other bidder — goes on to discuss the role of the Bancroft family as owners, and tout the WSJ as standing above other big newspapers in the U.S. in the journalistic independence of its editorial page.

The owning family, says the editorial, has for a century allowed the editorial page “to adhere to a worldview we now distill to the phrase “free people and free markets” … It has continued through a series of editors who have adhered to those principles despite shifting political fashions and partisan winds.”

“… the Journal has come under outside pressure, both commercial and political, but the Bancrofts and our publishers have always stood firm.”

In a not-subtle flick at widespread charges that Murdoch capitulated to China’s requirement of aiding its censorshop in return for his doing business in that country, the WSJ has this to say:
“Perhaps the sternest commercial test has come as we have expanded abroad, especially in Asia. The Journal has been banned or had its circulation restricted in many countries, and a reporter for another Dow Jones publication went to jail in Malaysia. In Singapore, a big market for the Journal, the government made the editorial page the first target of its campaign to curtail Western coverage of its domestic politics in the mid-1980s. While other companies–notably Bloomberg–have surrendered pre-emptively, the Journal has been nearly alone in fighting back. Freedom of the press has improved in Asia as democracy has expanded, and we’re proud to continue fighting for freedom and human rights today in China.”

While the WSJ does some of the best straight reporting in the world, bar none, I often find its black-and-white editorial page stance — in which it takes enormous pride — offensive. I think the concept of “creative destruction” is the most odious phrase in the quasi-religious ideology of economism that has swept America’s right. Even so, there’s a plaintive poignancy and almost-appealing naivity in the following words written by editorialists who now find themselves at the mercy of economism and face the possibility of being “creatively” destroyed:  

“We could tell other stories, but the essential point is that our owners have allowed us to speak our mind on behalf of a consistent set of principles. Readers may like, or loathe, those beliefs and our way of defending them. But we like to think this brand of independence is one reason the Journal has attracted such an influential readership. To borrow a phrase from modern business lingo, we hope it is part of our value proposition.

At a dinner honoring their century of Journal ownership in 2002, Bob Bartley expressed his gratitude to the Bancrofts for their support, noting that some of his editorials over 30 years must not have sat well with everyone in the ideologically diverse clan. But Bartley added that his proudest boast was that he ran the only editorial page “that sells newspapers.” We can’t say what any future owner would do, but we doubt one would be foolish enough to undermine this market appeal.”