Homer Stirs

Ever since John Dryden turned the Roman poet Horace back on himself with a gentle aside, “Even Homer nods” has been a useful way of observing that the most accomplished story-teller occasionally loses the thread of the narrative.

The old saw came to mind last week when Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. replaced the editor of The Wall Street Journal.

The WSJ, for most of a hundred years, and especially after World War II, served as Homer to the Republican party – in particular the paper’s editorial page. Such was the deliberate and reassuring voice of Vermont Royster, chief editorial writer from 1958 to 1971, that the paper still reprints one of his editorials annually on the eve of Thanksgiving.

Starting with the appointment of Robert Bartley as its editor, in 1972, the editorial page began veering off course. Bartley was a complicated man, a Midwesterner, possessing many good instincts, including enthusiasm for Ronald Reagan. A sense of fair play, however, was not among his gifts. Three decades of increasingly bad sportsmanship began with the election of Bill Clinton, in 1992.

WSJ editorials proceeded in lockstep with Congressman Newt Gingrich throughout the 1990s; after they 2000 espoused the views of the faction led by Vice President Dick Cheney known as the “Vulcans”; and make common cause with the Congressional Freedom Caucus today.

Meanwhile, the news pages remained on the same even keel under Paul  Steiger, managing editor from 1991 to 2007. After Rupert Murdoch bought the paper from the Bancroft family, that began to change. Murdoch replaced managing editor Marcus Brauchli (who had succeeded Steiger a few months before) with Robert Thomson, his fellow Australian, who was generally seen to move the news pages slightly to the right.

Thomson was promoted in 2012 to take charge of a newly-formed publishing unit, some on whose executives had been tainted by Murdoch’s British newspapers’ phone scandal. He was succeeded by Gerard Baker, a conservative columnist for Murdoch’s Times of London.

It’s a commonplace that Fox News underwent a sea change after Donald Trump was elected, becoming something of an echo chamber, with the president tweeting commentary from its morning broadcasts and occasionally phoning in for interviews. Less noticed has been the struggle within the news pages of the WSJ. Several of its top political and investigative reporters have left in the past two years for other newspapers; Baker has been accused of showing excessive deference to the president, even as the Journal took the lead in breaking stories of hush money payments by Trump lawyer Michael Cohen. Meanwhile, the editorial pages led the campaign against the FBI, ultimately devising the counterattack against the Mueller investigation known as “Spygate,” that House Speaker Paul Ryan shrugged off last week.

Murdoch himself had installed Baker by pouring champagne over his head. Now the British-born newsman will host a WSJ-branded television show on Fox Business Network and write a column for a weekend section of the paper.  Presumably the decision to replace him was that of Murdoch’s sons. The promotion of Matt Murray, executive editor and long-time staffer, was announced with much less ceremony. It is  hard to imagine a more poignant exemplar of traditional WSJ values than Murray’s  book, The Father and the Son: My Father’s Journey to the Monastic Life (Harper, 1999).

It was late last month that former House Speaker John Boehner  told a policy conference in Michigan, “There is no Republican Party. There’s a Trump party. The Republican Party is kind of taking a nap somewhere.”

Indeed. And in the length of time between Homer and the present day, forty years of populist agitation from the pulpit of a formerly conservative newspaper is no more than forty winks. Still, it seems like a long time to me. The other big question, of course, is who will replace editorial page editor Paul Gigot, 63, who took over from Bartley in 2001. In the meantime, though, the GOP’s Homer has shown some sign of waking up.

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