Wall Street Journal Fights Back Against Claims Rupert Murdoch and Jon Huntsman Fed It a Bullshit Rumor

A Chinese writer is claiming that Rupert Murdoch was behind one of the Wall Street Journal's more embarrassing recent corrections—the paper wrongly claimed that the son of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai, who preached Maoist austerity, once showed up for a date at former Amb. Jon Huntsman's residence in a cherry-red Ferrari—and that the Journal "badgered" and "threatened" a source that refused to back it up on the story. The Journal's China editor tells Gawker that the claims are "utter nonsense."

Journal reporter Jeremy Page's November 2011 story on China's "princelings" portrayed Bo Xilai's son Bo Guagua as a callow rich kid just as his father "was in the midst of a controversial campaign to revive the spirit of Mao Zedong." (Not long after, Bo Xilai tripped into a florid scandal involving accusations that his wife had a business partner murdered.) The story opened with a juicy anecdote about Bo Guagua, a graduate student at Harvard, speeding up to the ambassador's residence in a Ferrari and a tuxedo to pick up one of Huntsman's daughter's for a date. Not very Maoist.

But Page got at least one detail embarrassingly wrong, an error that was gleefully seized upon by rival New York Times last month in a story devoted to tracing how "what began as gossip made the rounds in expatriate circles in Beijing until it became an accepted truth about the Bo family."

According to the Times, Bo Guagua wasn't wearing a tuxedo, wasn't driving a Ferrari, and didn't pick Huntsman's daughter up. The "date" was actually a dinner party at a Beijing restaurant; Bo Guagua met two of Huntsman's daughters there. He was, he told the Times, chauffeured that evening in a black Audi. He was not, according several people at the dinner, wearing a tuxedo. The Journal corrected the detail about dropping by the ambassador's residence, changing the story to say he "had driven with the daughter of the then-U.S. ambassador, Jon Huntsman, from a dinner appointment to [a] bar." The tuxedo and the Ferrari, however, remain in the story.

The most tantalizing detail about the Times' debunking was the clear implication that the Journal's original source for the false rumor was none other than Jon Huntsman himself: "One person who told the version of the story that eventually surfaced was Mr. Huntsman."

But yesterday Chinese fashion writer Hong Huang added another, more explosive name to the mix, claiming in an article in a Chinese-language weekly that Journal owner Rupert Murdoch was the original tipster. From Want China Times, a blog that summarized Hong Huang's piece:

Hong said a friend of hers was hunted down by the Wall Street Journal who wanted her to confirm the truth of the Ferrari story, but her friend said she had not made the claim. The friend was nonetheless deemed to be the "source" to which the Wall Street Journal referred in its piece, though how she came to be cited as such is a somewhat convoluted affair. It is reported that the friend was the matchmaker who introduced Bo Guagua to Huntsman's daughter. Huntsman allegedly mentioned the story to others, including media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. As Murdoch could not act as the source for a story run by one of his own titles, he dispatched his reporters to find other sources which led them in time to Hong's friend. The story finally reached the front page of the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 26 last year....

The New York Times gladly published Bo Guagua's rebuttal of its rival's claims, Hong continued, also saying that the New York Times followed up with an interview with Huntsman's daughter, who said she had been a passenger in Bo Guagua's car but could not remember what make it was or even swear to the color of it.

The denial resulted in Hong's friend being badgered by the Wall Street Journal, which wanted to clear its source on the Ferrari claim to avoid losing face and presumed that she was the one who had made the original allegation. The repeated approaches from the newspaper led the friend to the brink of a nervous breakdown, Hong said, saying that her friend had told her that she was not the source of the Ferrari story because she was the one who transported Huntsman's daughter to a restaurant to dine with Bo Guagua in a dark blue Volkswagen.

The Wall Street Journal then reportedly threatened Hong's friend, suggesting that if they could not reach Bo Guagua through her, they would reveal her identity as the source. Hong comforted her friend and advised her to deny everything, whatever the truth of the matter.

I emailed Page this morning to ask if he had any comment on Hong Huang's claims. Roughly an hour later, I received a call from the Journal's China editor Andrew Browne. "I know Hong Huang personally," he said. "We know her very well. She deliberately chose not to contact us and check facts, and almost every piece of information she puts forward is not true. Let me be categorical: Rupert Murdoch had nothing to do with that story." I pressed Browne on that point, and he crafted as definitive denial as possible: "There was no communication at any point between our bureau and Rupert Murdoch, nor was there any message passed on to us that passed through Rupert Murdoch directly or indirectly. He had nothing to do with it."

As for the allegations that the Journal harassed and threatened a source, Browne went into a lengthy explanation of how Page reported out the initial anecdote. "That unnamed source was a person we contacted ahead of publishing our original story," he said. "She did not respond to our questions. We sent repeated emails to Bo Guagua. He did not reply. We put questions to Jon Huntsman, and his wife. They chose not to reply. We did our due diligence."

Months later, Browne says, this woman—whom he says was not a source for the original story—came to the Journal and claimed that the story was wrong. (This same source was one of the people the Times spoke to for its debunking.) Browne denies harassing the woman. Asked if he threatened to publish her identity, he grew circumspect. "The question of identity is really an issue of honesty," he said. "It's time for people to put their names to statements. I'm saying, 'Let's put names behind allegations.' Is that a threat?"

I'm told by a source familiar with the story that Browne himself contacted the woman in question on more than one occasion, and that she did in fact feel badgered by him.

I'm further told that Huntsman related the bogus Ferrari story to Murdoch as the two men broke bread. Murdoch and his wife attended the Shanghai Film Festival in June of last year; Huntsman remained ambassador until August. You'd think after the New York Post's scoop about Dick Gephardt's vice presidential nod, people would learn.

Corrections: I initially misidentified Jeremy Page as Jeremy Peters. Also, Jon Huntsman left his post in China in April of 2011, not August, which means Murdoch's Shanghai visit took place after Huntsman departed. The two obviously could have dined in the United States.

[Images via Getty]