The Daily Diary of the Impartial Spectator Weighs a Buy-out

Even before I spent the weekend at the meetings of the History of Economics Society, at George Mason University, I had been thinking a good deal about the Impartial Spectator.

That was the metaphor Adam Smith employed to characterize the psychological mechanism by which we routinely temper our basic selfishness in order to live together, relatively harmoniously, in large numbers. Smith didn’t use the word “conscience,” probably because of the weight of its religious connotations. This was the eighteenth century, after all. He was as much a child of the Enlightenment as the next man. But he needed the concept of an ingrained taste for fairness to explain why our innate animal nature didn’t take over and dominate our affairs.

So he explained to a friend, “We learn, therefore, to set up in our minds a judge between ourselves and those we live with.  We conceive ourselves as acting in the presence of a person quite candid and equitable… merely a man in general, an Impartial Spectator who considers our conduct with the same indifference with which we regard that of other people.”

In 1759, he laid out a complicated moral philosophy based on what he asserted was the nearly universal human capacity for feeling sympathy for others.  “How selfish soever man may be supposed,” stated the first sentence of The Theory of Moral Sentiments, “there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortune of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it except the pleasure of seeing it.”  But it wasn’t do-good altruism, as opposed to self-interest, that made things work. Beneficence, wrote Smith, is the ornament, not the foundation of human affairs. “Justice…is the main pillar that upholds the whole edifice.” The book earned him a university professorship.

Sixteen years later, though, Smith published An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations and that was the book which made him famous. It also turned him from a moral philosopher into an economist. This time Smith employed another metaphor, the Invisible Hand, to describe the spontaneous order that interdependent markets tend produce: a pattern of coordination that looks as though it must have produced by some the design of some individual or group, but that instead arises from a process that can’t be described as having had the outcome “in mind.” Today we call this mechanism the “price system.” David Ricardo and the next generation began the intricate work of excavating and refining Smith’s intuition into the modern high-tech concept of “general equilibrium,” meaning a pervasive interdependence produced by the tendency of factors to move from low rates of return to high, forever tending to counterbalance.

With the triumph of the Invisible Hand, the Impartial Spectator promptly receded into the outer twilight of the economists’ discourse. It’s a measure of the extent to which their field dominates a certain kind of public conversation that today the term sounds quite foreign to our ears. Its last sustained appearance in popular culture occurred more than eighty years ago, after Sigmund Freud assigned it a place in his psychology as the “superego.” Only in recent years have technical economists begun to recognize that they must now painstakingly reinvent Smith’s anatomy of the mind if they are to maintain their relevance.

That doesn’t mean that the rest of us have done without the faculty, however, for Adam Smith was right. The Impartial Spectator, or something very much like it, plays a big part of our daily lives together. You can find the mechanism of the referee hard at work in courts of law, in science, in literature and entertainment, in sports and, not least, in daily newspapers.

And that, in a nutshell, is why Rupert Murdoch’s bid for Dow Jones & Co. and its flagship newspaper, The Wall Street Journal, is so unsettling.  Murdoch is many things: a second-generation newspaperman, a bold entrepreneur, a shrewd judge of technology, a past-master of nichemanship (he started the right-wing Fox television network in the United States, but operates the middle-of-the-road television network in Italy), the proud father of six children (from three marriages) who stand ready to continue the business, at least in one way or another. But one thing Murdoch is not now and never has been is an aspirant to the very demanding role of Impartial Spectator.

The WSJ, in contrast, is a national institution, and not just any national institution, but one whose news pages for half a century have evolved into journalism’s gold standard of even-tempered and well-balanced coverage of the major controversies of our times. Outsiders little understand the way that newspapers operate to produce a daily account of the world and the significant changes taking place in the world. From the daily meetings in which stories are assigned and their importance assessed, to the constant stream of subtle evaluation at every level about individuals’ performance and suitability, newspapers are all about the exercise of judgment in the service of creating an institutional temperament.  Each newspaper seeks to portray and project a certain character, most often that to which its publisher aspires, which is then brought to bear by many hands on the daily task of assessment and review. And the best papers are those that explicitly aim to perform the role of Impartial Spectator, that is, to deliver the news “without fear or favor.” 

The market deems Murdoch’s offer for Dow Jones likely to succeed.

The result is a collective knot in the stomach for the news business.

Objectivity is a seldom-heard term these days, for, as the former Chicago Tribune publisher Jack Fuller has written, “[I]t assumes an independence between the observer and the observed that simply does not exist.”  But that doesn’t mean editors on the best papers have given up their attempt to play it straight — that is, to tell the differing sides of a particular story in terms that parties to it would acknowledge as mostly fair. There are four of these top papers published in English in the United States, the WSJ, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Financial Times.

Each has its own special flavor: this one insider-ish and alert, this one friendly and responsible, this one lively and progressive, this one dispassionate and even-handed. Each is a superlative engine for getting at the truth of matters in general, and each especially good at getting at a certain kind of truth. Seldom are they brought into comparison, so it is impossible to cite here any greater authority than my own when I say that the WSJ is primus inter pares among these when it comes to offering readers an impartial account of the news, overall and over time. (I don’t mean the editorial pages, of course, as I’ll explain in a moment.) 

By now the story is relatively well known (click here for former WSJ reporter Johnnie Roberts’ spiffy version of it): how Clarence Barron bought Dow Jones and its flagship Wall Street Journal from the founders in 1902; his heirs, married into Boston’s Bancroft family, resolved to leave “grandpa’s company” in the hands of its professional managers; how managing editor Barney Kilgore on the eve of World War II invented the formula that transformed the New York financial district daily into a national newspaper in 1950s, emphasizing good humor, “situation stories” about deeper trends and plenty of “spot news;” how a succession of managing editors, surfing a tidal wave of advertising revenues, refined Kilgore’s ideas to produce a newspaper as studiously reader-friendly, down-the-middle and commercially successful as possible.

In the 1970s, it fell to Peter Kann to continue the tradition. A mild-mannered but tough-minded reporter who made his reputation during the Vietnam War (and who then won a Pulitzer Prize during the Indo-Pakistan War in 1971), Kann was recognized from the very beginning of his career as a leader in the Kilgore tradition. In due course he became publisher of the Journal and eventually chief executive of Dow Jones.

Not long after taking over, Kann wrote in the WSJ’s annual “Report to Readers,”  “We believe facts are facts and that they are ascertainable through honest, open-minded and diligent reporting. We thus believe that truth is attainable by laying fact on fact, much like the construction of a cathedral. News, in short, is not merely a matter of views.  And truth is not merely in the eye of the beholder.”

But what about the famously conservative editorial page? Even today the operative principle here is not easily or well understood. Sure, the editorial page often shoots from the hip in what it describes as its radical devotion to “free people and free markets.”  People overlook the role that its My-Mind’s-Made-Up-Don’t-Confuse-Me-With-The-Facts tendency may have had in making the news columns still more honest, disinterested and diligent. By publishing church and state beneath the same banner, sending their often contradictory reports out cheek-by-jowl within the same pages, the WSJ has made each department more conscious of its special privileges and responsibilities.

The result is that when it comes to laying both sides of a story, to choosing which stories to report and which others to leave alone, the WSJ isn’t often beat. This is the result of literally hundreds of reporters jostling with one another over the trajectory of their lifetimes to set a standard for rigorous curiosity — the life and death of Daniel Pearl, the reporter who was abducted and executed by Islamic extremists shortly after Sept. 11, being a particularly instructive example of the intensity of the quest — and of dozens of editors charged with directing their energies, restraining their enthusiasms, and keeping their pay down.

(There are substantial spillovers. The newspaper’s traditions serve as a beacon to the rest of us journalists. Even when we can’t afford the time or money necessary to get to the bottom of an inquiry, many of us frame our efforts in terms of how the WSJ would approach the story, and strive for what its editors would consider a satisfactory explanation. We wince when, inevitably, we fall short.)

The representatives of the Bancroft family are trying to design a special board to protect the newspaper’s independence before they sell, a kind of doomsday machine designed to blow up the newspaper’s reputation if Murdoch moves aggressively to undermine it.  Similar mechanisms exist at Reuters, The Economist and the Financial Times. Such a measure seems highly unlikely to prevent The Wall Street Journal from becoming the flagship of the Murdoch empire.  

In all likelihood, the thing is gone. There are too many Bancrofts, and they are too far removed from the newspaper, to resist the offer price in the name of continued public service. The unique character of the paper under its professional news managers cannot be sustained — one of them compares the experience of the last few weeks to the famous “stages of dying:” denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.  Some of the best men and women will be packing up and moving to other papers. More than a few will stay on the fight a rearguard action against the new regime — that was what the editorial page promised the other day.

Meanwhile, the other two family-controlled newspapers will jockey for position and reputation. For even though the ideals of the WSJ under the Bancroft family may be doomed, the hunger for fair and balanced refereeing of the news remains strong. Before long, the Impartial Spectator will make its headquarters somewhere else.