An Old Man against the World

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Financial Times columnist Simon Kuper chose a good week in which to write about a leading skeptic of climate change. “For all the anxiety about fake news on social media,” Kuper wrote last weekend, “disinformation on climate seems to stem disproportionately from one old man using old media.”

He meant Rupert Murdoch, who owns The Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, The Times of London, and half the newspaper industry in Australia. Honored with a lifetime achievement award in January by the Australia Day Foundation, a British organization, Murdoch posted a video:

“For those of us in media, there’s a real challenge to confront: a wave of censorship that seeks to silence conversation, to stifle debate, to ultimately stop individuals and societies from realizing their potential. This rigidly enforced conformity, aided and abetted by so-called social media, is a straitjacket on sensibility. Too many people have fought too hard in too many places for freedom of speech to be suppressed by this awful ‘woke’ orthodoxy.”

There is some truth in that, of course – but not enough to justify the misleading baloney on the cause of crisis in Texas which the editorial pages of the WSJ published last week.

Murdoch is a canny newspaperman, and since acquiring The WSJ in 2007, he has the good sense not to tamper overmuch with its seventy-five year old tradition of sophistication and sobriety in its news pages. He even replaced the man he had put in charge of the paper, Gerard Baker, after staffers complaints that Baker’s thumb was found too frequently on the scale of its coverage of Donald Trump.

Then again, neither has he tinkered with the more controversial traditions of the newspaper’s editorial opinion pages, to which Baker has since been reassigned as a columnist. The story has often been told about how managing editor Barney Kilgore transformed a small circulation financial newspaper competing mainly with the Journal of Commerce in the years before World War II into a nationwide competitor to The New York Times, and worth $5 billion to Murdoch. A major contributor to its success was Vermont Royster, editor of the editorial pages from 1958–71; and an occasional columnist for the paper for another twenty years after that. He was succeeded by Robert Bartley. Royster died in 1996.

In 1982, Royster characterized the beginnings of the change this way: “When I was writing editorials, I was always a little bit conscious of the possibility that I might be wrong. Bartley doesn’t tend to do that so much. He is not conscious of the possibility that he is wrong.”

Royster hadn’t seen anything yet. With every passing year, Bartley became firmer in his opinions. In the 1990s, his editorial pages played a leading role in bringing about the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.  Bartley died in 2002, and was succeeded by Paul Gigot, who has presided over a continuation of the tradition of hyper-confidence. The editorial page enthusiastically supported Donald Trump until the January 6 assault on the Capitol.

Last week the WSJ published four editorials on the situation in Texas.

Tuesday, A Deep Green Freeze: “[A[n Arctic blast has frozen wind turbines. Herein is the paradox of the left’s climate agenda: the less we use fossil fuels, the more we need them.”

Wednesday, Political Making of a Power Outage: “The Problem is Texas’ overreliance on wind power that has left the grid more vulnerable to bad weather than before.”

Thursday, Texas Spins in the Wind: “While millions of Texans remain without power for the third day, the wind industry and its advocates are spinning a fable that gas, coal, and nuclear plants – not their frozen turbines – are to blame.”

Saturday, Biden Rescues Texas with… Oil:  “The Left’s denialism that the failure of wind power played a starring role in Texas catastrophic power outage has been remarkable”

Then on Saturday, the news pages weighed in, flatly contradicting the on-going editorial-page version of events with a thoroughly-reported account of its own, The Texas Freeze: Why State’s Power Grid Failed:  “The core problem: Power providers can reap rewards by supplying electricity to Texas customers, but they aren’t required to do it and face no penalties for failing to deliver during a lengthy emergency.

“That led to the fiasco that led millions of people in the nation’s second-most populous state without power for days.  A severe storm paralyzed almost every energy source, from power plants to wind turbines, because their owners hadn’t made the investments needed to produce electricity in subfreezing temperatures.”

All three major American newspapers are facing major decisions in the coming year:  Amazon’s Jeff Bezos must replace editor Martin Baron at The Washington Post; New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger presumably will name a successor to executive editor Dean Baquet, who will turn 65 in September (66 is retirement age there); and Murdoch will presumably replace Gigot, who will be 66 in May.

The WSJ editorial page could play an important role in American politics going forward by sobering up. But only if Murdoch – or, more likely, his eldest son, Lachlan, who turns 50 this autumn – selects an editor who writes sensibly, conservatively, about dealing with climate change.