This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The death Friday of Warren Phillips, coming amid a historic crisis of journalism, takes from us one of the greatest exemplars of old school newspapering. He rose from copy editor of the Wall Street Journal to foreign correspondent, managing editor, and then chairman of its parent company, Dow Jones. He led the Journal to its position as America’s most trusted newspaper. He was 92 when he slipped away.
It was our fortune to have joined the Journal when Phillips was on his way up. We didn’t know him intimately, but we did watch, in awe, at the way he guided what, by the time he reached his peak, was not just America’s most trusted newspaper but also boasted the largest circulation. A tall, elegant figure, seemingly diffident despite his enormous power, he called himself a “newspaperman,” the title of his memoir.
Phillips was born to Jewish parents in Brooklyn. He fell early for the idea of journalism (and, like many great newspapermen, issued his own paper as a youngster). When we left the Journal to lead the launch in English of the famed Jewish Forward, Phillips told us how his first vote for president was for the socialist Norman Thomas. He enjoyed the irony.
As foreign correspondent, Phillips emerged as an enthusiast of free markets as well as free minds. It was Phillips who chose the Journal’s star Vietnam war correspondent, Peter Kann, to launch an edition of the Journal in Asia and, eventually, to succeed him as chairman of Dow Jones. He tapped Norman Pearlstine to launch an edition in Europe. They made the Journal a truly global newspaper.
It was also Phillips who elevated Robert Bartley to be editor of the paper, directing its editorial pages. Phillips backed Bartley during much of his 33-year tenure as America’s most controversial — and consequential — editorialist. Sometimes Phillips was challenged on the matter bluntly. That happened, by Phillips’ own account, at a dinner with a committee of Dow Jones’ board.
One director, Phillips recalled in his memoir, suggested that something be done about Bartley’s editorials, which were allegedly affecting business “adversely, and unfairly and unnecessarily.” Phillips replied that he’d hired Bartley and reckoned he was right 98% of the time. “Your quarrel isn’t with Bartley,” Phillips added. “It’s with me. . . So I’m the one you should replace if you want a different editor.”
Phillips oversaw the editorial page with such a light hand that we occasionally wondered what he made of one of Bartley’s most controversial decisions, to defend Israel in the Middle East. Then one day, Mr. Kann invited several of us to join him at a small lunch in his office for Ariel Sharon, who’d been forced out as Israel’s defense minister after massacres perpetrated in Lebanon by phalangist militia.
Mr. Kann and Sharon et al were on dessert when Phillips walked in to express regrets at being unable to attend. He said he stopped in just to have the honor of shaking Sharon’s hand. It was a warm handshake. Phillips then asked Mr. Kann whether he still had a copy of a letter Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn had recently sent a Journal editor preparing for a visit to Soviet Russia.
A Xerox of the letter was produced, and Phillips read it silently. “The main weakness of the contemporary Western world,” Solzhenitsyn had written, “is that it does not believe in the clear division of Good and Evil, and that truth actually exists in the world.” Phillips savored the letter for a moment, then handed it to Sharon. “General,” he said, “take heart.”
Not that Phillips lacked for a commitment to objective news columns. He must have been shocked down to the ground by the decision of the New York Times to issue, in the summer of 2016, a front-page column suggesting it was time to abandon objectivity in the coverage of the Trump campaign. Yet neither would he have countenanced curbing the press, as some are seeking today.
It’s not that Phillips was against the responsible press; he was one of its stewards. He used to say, though, that the First Amendment was not needed to protect the responsible press; it was needed particularly to protect the irresponsible press. That’s what we mean by a newspaperman of the old school. He was a towering example, and newspaperdom will miss him in the decades ahead.