Did 'Wall Street Journal' Editor Fudge His Role in Sulzberger Photo Prank?


Rupert Murdoch's minions may have thought they were engaging in a bit of harmless fun when they used the face of Arthur Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times, in a photo illustration for a story about some women's preference for men with feminine facial features. But their little prank has resulted in further bad feelings between the Times and The Wall Street Journal -- and in accusations that Robert Thomson, the Journal's managing editor, isn't above bending the truth to avoid personal confrontation.

Last week, Thomson and Sulzberger both described a recent face-to-face encounter to the New York Observer's John Koblin. Thomson said that he and Sulzberger shared "a good giggle" over the visual joke (who's not masculine, again?). Sulzberger, on the other hand, via a spokesman said that Thomson, unprompted, told him that the face in question was not his, and that Thomson said he hadn't been aware of any suggestions to the contrary until he read about it on blogs. (Michael Wolff was the first to notice.) A Times spokesman relayed a detailed account of Sulzberger's conversation to DailyFinance, explaining that upon being told the face wasn't his, Sulzberger suggested to Thomson that the Journal run a clarification since the photo credits seemed to confirm that it was him.

Thomson acknowledged, to the Observer if not directly to Sulzberger, that it was indeed Sulzberger's chin and cheeks in the photo mosaic. But what he hasn't acknowledged publicly is that the very idea of using the illustration to tweak Sulzberger was his from the start -- and that it wasn't a popular one among his Journal subordinates, who aren't used to seeing their news pages used to carry out Murdoch's personal feuds (unlike, say, their counterparts at the New York Post).

Multiple Journal sources supplied both of these details. The reaction, they said, when Thomson ordered a photo of Sulzberger added to the collage ranged from discouragement to horror to sheer bafflement. One source close to the situation stressed that Thomson has a dry, sometimes inscrutable sense of humor that frequently confuses his underlings and leaves them wondering whether or not a suggestion of his was in earnest. That ambiguity could have contributed to misunderstanding in this case: If it's true that the mosaic was meant to represent all sorts of male features, not just effeminate ones, as Thomson told the Observer, then where, exactly, was the humor in including Sulzberger?

Alas, Thomson declined to comment on any of this to DailyFinance. That leaves Sulzberger's account of their conversation to stand more or less unchallenged -- and leaves Thomson looking like he's man enough to call someone else a lady-man behind his back but not quite man enough to say it to his face.

Originally published