Preserving the public trust

Posted: Aug 25, 2005 12:00 AM

WASHINGTON -- Henry Regnery, the great publisher who founded the Regnery Publishing house in the late 1940s, was at some point in the early 1960s having lunch with Vermont Royster, the great editor of the Wall Street Journal. They were kindred spirits, and Regnery asked Royster his explanation for the Journal's rise to eminence in the world of ink-stained wretches. Royster replied that he always hired the "best minds" without regard to trendiness or cost. The Wall Street Journal has continued as the world's most credible news source and one that refused to conform to the passing prejudice and error of the journalistic herd.

        Naturally, the Journal receives ongoing abuse from the herd for its distressing independence. Yet, rarely is the criticism straightforward but rather an assault on the conservatism of the Journal's editorial page, which strikes conformist journalists as an affront and is the real cause of the herd's distress. Rather, the criticism focuses on the Journal's bottom line, its sluggish share price, and rumors that the family controlling the paper, the Bancroft family, is unhappy and about to sell it.

        The rumors of the Bancrofts' unhappiness are all highly exaggerated and quickly refuted. For this proud family whose ancestor, Clarence W. Barron, purchased the Journal and with it the Dow Jones news service in 1902, conceives of its ownership as a "public trust." That is how Roy A. Hammer, a lawyer and trustee for the entities through which the Bancrofts control the paper, described their sense of ownership. This is not so unusual. Great newspapers have always played a major role in American civic life. I said "great newspapers," not the tabs, serious newspapers, the kind that put gathering news ahead of sensationalism.

        Most of the truly profitable newspapers in the country today are essentially shopping circulars with some cheap journalism printed on those pages not devoted to shopping mall sales. The great newspaper chains take over local papers, fire journalists, and set out to fill their pages with still more advertisements. Well, they supply a service. They let readers know about the price, say, of chicken at the Giant or snow tires at the CVS. But fewer and fewer local newspapers supply much news and analysis. Great newspapers do, and not one that I know of makes a vast amount of money.

        Great newspapers do help to set the agenda for the nation. They break stories of corruption or on other vital matters. One of the few things I find admirable about the New York Times is that its controlling family, the Sulzberger family, is not intent on wringing every penny of profit out of its flagship paper. Thus, last week when I read a long critique in the Times of the Wall Street Journal's management for its sluggish financial performance, I sniffed hypocrisy.

        The hypocrisy is all the greater coming from liberals who are given to disparaging conservatives for their alleged devotion the "Almighty Dollar." Profits are essential to all businesses. For one thing, they are a very accurate poll of the populace's tastes, but there are other services some corporations supply to society. Both the Journal and the Times supply -- at a steep cost -- information that enlightens the citizenry. There are easier ways to make money.

        Yet, as I say, I doubt the criticism of the Journal printed in the Times was really about the paper's bottom line. It was about the conservatives who run the paper. The story leaped with the utmost ardor on the Journal's chief executive Peter Kann for supposedly being inert. Actually, he is stupendously active. Kann and the paper's former chairman, Warren Phillips, pioneered in building the global Wall Street Journal and in the enormous expansion of the company's wire and online reporting staffs overseas. It has more news staff outside the United States than any new source in the country. During an era when even the Times has been rocked by exposure of phony journalists the Journal's credibility remains unsurpassed as does its professionalism.

        Kann has overseen all this and the growth of the paper's editorial page until it became the most influential in the country, the main advocate of growth economics, a major investigator of Clinton corruption, and the proponent of foreign policy ideas that triumphed in the present administration. What is more, in a time of declining circulation, the Journal's subscribers remain with it solidly. The Bancroft family is right. Its ownership of the Wall Street Journal is a matter of public trust and it has executed that trust superbly.