Am I the first to note the semantic symmetry between a memo Marcus Brauchli wrote to his staff upon his departure from the top editing job at the Wall Street Journal and something Leonard Downie Jr. said to the assembled newsroom as he exited from the equivalent position at the Washington Post?
“[N]ow that the ownership transition has taken place, I have come to believe the new owners should have a managing editor of their choosing,” Brauchli wrote in an April staff memo, acknowledging that he wasn’t going to fight the eviction engineered by new owner Rupert Murdoch.
“A new younger publisher needs a new younger editor,” Downie reportedly said to his staff in late June, as the freshly ensconced Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth eased him from his slot.
The moral of the story? As much as journalists like to pretend that editors shape newspapers, the real power has always belonged to publishers. Executive editors come and go at the New York Times, but the Sulzbergers stay. Nobody but a trivia hound remembers the names of all the editors who served under Otis Chandler at the Los Angeles Times. And Col. Robert McCormick the Chicago Tribune publisher had greater impact on journalism than Col. Robert McCormick the Tribune editor.
So, Mr. Brauchli, as you ready yourself for your Sept. 8 investiture as the new executive editor of the Post, my first parcel of unsolicited advice is less for you than it is for your staff: They should remember that while they’ll be taking their orders from the editor, they really work for the publisher. The first key to a successful newspaper is for the editor and publisher to work as if they are equals, even though they aren’t. Former Post publisher Donald Graham and Downie did such a fine job of acting that over time they started to look alike. (You’d have a hard time separating the two in a police lineup.) Downie and Graham’s predecessors, Ben Bradlee and Katharine Graham, loved to make believe that he was the boss, but they fooled no one.
You, of course, are the last person who needs a lesson in who is in charge ever since the genocidal tyrant Murdoch humiliated you during your run as Journal managing editor.
Second bit of unsolicited advice: You arrive at the Post with only one blemish to your journalistic reputation, about which Post media reporter Howard Kurtz asked you for a piece he posted this afternoon.
In order to complete the purchase of Dow Jones & Co., Murdoch agreed to install a five-person board to guarantee the Journal’s editorial integrity. The board was supposed to firewall you from Murdochian interference. But as your former Journal colleague Dean Starkman wrote in a piece titled “Brauchli’s Baggage” recently, for the firewall to work it basically had to be activated by you. Yet instead of complaining to the board about the usurpation of your powers, you took Murdoch’s hush money and left. How much money? David Carr of the New York Timeswrites “$3 million to $5 million.”
Your sputtering explanation to Kurtz about why you didn’t force the issue with Murdoch isn’t going to put it to rest. You told Kurtz:
“What was important … was the Journal, not me—that the editorial integrity be preserved, not that my job be preserved. … Fighting for my job would have been mostly selfish and undermined the fight to maintain quality journalism.”
“I never saw any evidence that the owners had tried to impose ideological or commercial agendas on the news coverage.”
The Journal’s integrity was not “preserved” by your expensive silence; Murdoch and Robert Thompson, your successor as Journal managing editor, bat it around Rupert’s office every night like kittens playing with yarn.
As Carr writes, a formal protest by you to the board might not have made a real difference. But it would have revealed for the umpteen-thousandth time what a seething bag of deceit and double-dealing Murdoch is. People need to read that news once a year, even if it is old news.
Unless you want your staff to think of you as the guy who zipped his lips for $3 million, may I suggest that you say what Harold Evans and every other editor swindled by Murdoch has ultimately said: I knew Murdoch was capable of lies, monstrous lies, heinous lies, but I thought it would be different with me. I was naive, which is hard for a journalist to admit. I don’t want the Murdoch blood money to jinx me, so I’m giving all $3 million of it to my alma mater, Columbia, to endow a chair in his name in the psychology department to study congenital liars.
Or something like that. Just ask yourself, “What cheeky thing would Ben Bradlee say?”
Next up: People are going to give you a hard timeabout not knowing anything about Washington because you’ve never worked or lived here. Flash them a smile and concede that they’re right—but that your ignorance is an asset! One of your missions is to unite the newspaper newsroom on 15th and L Streets and the dotcom newsroom in Arlington, Va. Behind closed doors, make a bunch of weightlifter grunts as you pretend to fuse the two. Then send flowers to your publisher, Ms. Weymouth, to thank her for easing your labors by eliminating its CEO back in April. Then issue a decree. Done.
A couple more words of advice. Don’t visit Ben’s Chili Bowl until you’ve lived here a couple of years, and then go by yourself so nobody thinks you’re a rube; the best views of the federal city are from Anacostia; and Dashiell Hammett is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Go visit him.
The great thing about giving advice is that you know it will be ignored. Please send advice to email@example.com. (E-mail may be quoted by name in “The Fray,” Slate’s readers’ forum, in a future article, or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a “Press Box” correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word Brauchli in the subject head of an e-mail message and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.