Even at the happiest newspapers, the job of top editor demands the skills of a lion tamer. All those clashing newsroom egos to referee, endless publisher temper-tantrums to dowse, fickle readers to pamper. If an editor has an editorial vision—and even the sightless ones do—she must sell and resell that vision daily because (and there is no other way to put it) reporters are wild animals who have their own fixed ideas on where and how to hunt. And they bite.
When face-to-face persuasion, demotions and invitations to leave don’t tame the staff, editors rely on more subtle methods. Wall Street Journal Editor in Chief Gerard Baker, who has resorted to all of the above, took to internal email this week to carve his initials into his paper’s coverage.
“Sorry. This is commentary dressed up as news reporting,” Baker emailed staffers just after midnight Wednesday about the first draft of a Journal story on President Donald Trump’s Phoenix rally. “Could we please just stick to reporting what he said rather than packaging it in exegesis and selective criticism?”
Baker’s emails and the Phoenix draft were promptly leaked to the New York Times, which annotated the changes made to the final, published copy. This wasn’t the first time Baker’s flexing made news. In June 2016, Baker caught fire when POLITICO’s Joe Pompeo reported he had urged editors to be “fair” to Trump. Pompeo wrote, “The [Wall Street Journal] source described Baker’s Trump talk as a ‘surreal tangent’ in a meeting normally reserved for ironing out the logistics of covering the day’s top stories. The source also said the comments were widely discussed among Journal editors and bureau chiefs, some of whom took them as an insult or admonition.”
In January of this year before the inauguration, in a Journal op-ed, Baker defended his reluctance to use the words “lie” and “liar” in assessing Trump’s statements. Conceding Trump’s habit of telling “whoppers of the first order,” Baker wrote that he was reluctant to accuse anyone of lying because that requires a high level of confidence “about the subject’s state of knowledge and his moral intent.” Not my standard, not the New York Times’, and maybe not yours either, but Baker’s stand is defensible. While not banning the use of the word lie, he stated a preference for setting out the facts for readers and allowing them to determine whether a politician was lying or not.
Later that January week, Pompeo reported that “growing newsroom discontent” over Baker’s Trump directives had necessitated a Journal town hall, in which the editor in chief told staffers they could shove off if they thought the paper had been soft on the president. Related to Baker’s views or not, a talent exodus has ensued, with Journal lions like Rebecca Blumenstein, Adam Entous, Devlin Barrett, Tamer El-Ghobashy and others moving to other circuses.
Has the Journal protected Trump? That was David Leonhardt’s interpretation in a February New York Times op-ed. “The headlines often tend toward stenography,” he wrote. “Reporters and editors have become accustomed to the ‘shaving off the edges’ of Trump-related stories, one said, especially in headlines and initial paragraphs.” Baker did the Journal no favor on this score when he ran only parts of his paper’s interview with Trump in July, and a leaker released the warts-and-all full transcript to Politico, which published it.
Complicating any assessment of Baker’s editorial philosophy is, of course, the fact that Rupert Murdoch owns the Journal, supports Trump and, as Times reporter Maggie Haberman tells us, he talks to the president nearly every day. Given Murdoch’s history with phoning his editors almost daily, he must ring Baker daily, too. You don’t have to connect the dots, Baker critics say, the dots connect themselves, and they glow.
As a practiced Murdoch critic, I’m fully aware that the mogul routinely uses his outlets—Fox News Channel, the Times of London, the New York Post, the Australian, The Sun and others—to steer politics in his direction. So I’ve got no quarrel with anyone who wants to build an argument, based on Baker’s editorial stands, that his Journal shills for Trump at Murdoch’s behest. But to fully convince me, you’ll have to show me what is there, as opposed to what is not there in the paper that ends up plumping for Trump. Not calling Trump a liar and snipping news analysis from pieces does not automatically equal shilling. You can call it conservative coverage. You can call it soft. But you can’t call it shilling.
In many ways, Baker’s newsroom fights parallels the one fought by A.M. Rosenthal of the New York Times during his tenure (1969-1986) as the paper’s top editor. Rosenthal treated his newsroom like the enemy, thinking that the only way to keep the news pages “straight” was to discipline it. He fulminated every time reporters imposed their political views on stories. For example, when a 1979 piece about Woodstock’s 10th anniversary called the event a symbol of “national, cultural, and political awakening,” he went bonkers. As Edwin Diamond writes in his 1993 book Behind the Times, Rosenthal called the copy desk to excise what he called the “vacuous politicalization” from the piece. The imposition of such austere standards made Rosenthal unpopular in the newsroom and led to his expulsion.
Baker, on the other hand, need not worry about expulsion. Staff rebellions mean nothing at a Murdoch property as long as the top editor maintains Murdoch’s confidence. I suspect if you held a newsroom vote today, the Journal staff would send Baker packing. But how do you imagine Murdoch responded when he read that Baker admonished his team to be “fair” to Trump, banned the use of the word “lie” and trimmed news analysis out from the Phoenix rally story? He probably issued Baker a bonus each time. If I were a bigger cynic, I’d accuse Baker of self-leaking all of the stories above to shore up his cred with Murdoch.
If our real subject is what’s not in the Journal, there’s no escaping the fact that the Washington Post and the New York Times have fanny-whacked the Murdoch paper on the Trump-Russia story. No matter what your politics or your editorial philosophy, this investigation of Russia and the president must be the biggest story of the year. The Journal has spent more time following the news and less breaking it. If the journalism gods extract a price from newspapers that pursue antiseptic political coverage, perhaps the Journal’s paucity of Trump scoops constitutes payback.
In the newspaper life, you can assuage the journalism gods or Rupert Murdoch. You can pick only one.
I still read the Wall Street Journal every day. How about you? Send replies to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts read the Journal for the A-heds. My Twitter feed reads it for “Pepper … And Salt.” My RSS feed drives real fast while reading Dan Neil’s car column.
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