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Wall Street Journal reporters are starting to rebel

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It’s encouraging that the Wall Street Journal’s own writers are demanding that the Murdoch family make “a clearer differentiation” between the newspaper’s news and opinion divisions, since the Journal’s embarrassing support of Trump has cast a shadow over the professional integrity of the reporters who work there.

It’s very sad; the Wall Street Journal has, or had, a well-deserved reputation for outstanding journalism. But, when the Murdochs made the decision to support Trump unconditionally, they flushed that reputation down the toilet. The extreme rightwing narrative peddled by the worst of the Journal’s op-ed columnists, such as Daniel Henninger and Kimberly Strassel, now have resulted in internal blowback unprecedented in the paper’s 131-year history.

More than 280 employees of the Journal sent a letter to management stating something I’ve been saying for years: the editorial page’s “lack of fact-checking and transparency, and its apparent disregard for evidence, undermine our readers’ trust and our ability to gain credibility with sources.” You can say that again. What is a newspaper, after all, if it has lost its readers’ trust? It becomes nothing but a press release for the politician it supports. Why would anyone be interested in paying for a press release for Trump? We can get that for free on Twitter.

There traditionally has been a sharp dividing line between editorial page coverage, or “op-eds,” and news coverage. The former represents the opinion of the writer. The latter is, or should be, based on an objective reporting of facts. Opinionating has no place in news coverage, while op-ed pieces should at least try to stay faithful to facts. Unfortunately, the Wall Street Journal has wandered far afield on both fronts: their news coverage increasingly looks like puff pieces for Trump and hit pieces on Democrats, while the op-ed columns have become completely unhinged from factual reality.

The most egregious example of this—and, in fact, the last straw for the 280 Journal employees—was a Mike Pence opinion piece that denied the existence of a “second wave” of coronavirus in the U.S., and accused “the media” of contriving it. “Such panic is overblown,” the head of the administration’s coronavirus task force declared. It was such an obvious lie, so patently fake a claim, that no reputable newspaper ever should have allowed it to be printed; and yet the Wall Street Journal, which means the Murdoch family, did. It’s as if the paper allowed a flat-earther to declare that claims that the Earth is round are “fake news.”

We need news reporting now more than ever: real reporting, not made-up fantasies designed to protect a rogue, incompetent regime in power. This is why such newspapers as the New York Times and the Washington Post are so important to the survival of our democracy; that is also why Trump hates those two papers more than any others. It’s because they shine a light on his lies and the lies of his accomplices. Can you imagine if the Times and the Post should cease to exist? Who would tell us what’s really happening in the halls of power in Washington? Trump would have access to his big podium, and be able to spew all the fake news he wants, unchallenged by anyone else. It would be like Big Brother in 1984, when all the information available to the citizens was via the telescreens, which were run by the government. Information was tightly controlled and “massaged”; inconvenient facts were “vaporized”; history was rewritten, so that only the official version of reality was left.

That’s what Trump wants. It’s what Mike Pence and Bill Barr and the rest of the Republicans want. It’s what the Murdoch family wants: they’ve made a lot of money off Trump, and they have no intention of changing that. So they’ve sent word out to the entire staff of the Wall Street Journal: we will continue to allow Republican op-ed columnists to lie through their teeth on the editorial page, and we will continue to strongly “encourage” our reporters to ignore or minimize facts favorable to Democrats and puff up things favorable to Republicans. The Murdochs, however, didn’t reckon with one minor detail: the Wall Street Journal’s own reporters, who have had it up to here.

  1. Bob Henry says:

    With Steve’s indulgence, I reproduce below and in my next comment one news article and one unsigned editorial from The Wall Street Journal.

    Since I cannot bold highlight or color code key words for emphasis, I have CAPITALIZED them instead.

    First the news article by staff reporters questioning Trump veracity . . .

    From The Wall Street Journal “U.S. News” Section
    (September 17, 2016, Section “A,” Page Unknown):

    “Trump Backs Off A ‘Birther’ Claim”

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/donald-trump-says-barack-obama-was-born-in-u-s-after-years-of-sowing-doubt-1474041185

    By Reid J. Epstein and Michael C. Bender
    Staff Reporters

    Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump on Friday conceded that President Barack Obama was born in the U.S., standing down from years of FALSE ACCUSATIONS that made the businessman a central figure in the discredited “birther” movement.

    “President Barack Obama was born in the United States, period,” Mr. Trump said at an event with the news media.

    He then falsely assigned blame to Democratic rival Hillary Clinton for igniting the suggestion, back in the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, that Mr. Obama, a Hawaii native, was born overseas. There is NO EVIDENCE that Mrs. Clinton or her 2008 campaign launched the birther movement; Mr. Trump didn’t take questions from reporters before leaving a hotel ballroom.

    Mr. Trump’s statement forces into the 2016 presidential campaign a CONSPIRACY THEORY he fanned for years, though he has largely avoided discussing the issue of late. In early 2011, Mr. Trump galvanized some support among Republicans by repeatedly advocating the CLAIM that Mr. Obama was born in Kenya, as his father was. That campaign to cast doubt on Mr. Obama’s citizenship, and thus his legitimacy to be president, got enough traction that the White House that spring released Mr. Obama’s long-form birth certificate.

    Soon after, Mr. Obama made jokes about Mr. Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Association annual dinner in Washington, as Mr. Trump sat in the audience. At the televised dinner, Mr. Obama said that with his birth certificate now public, Mr. Trump could now focus on the “issues that matter, like did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac?”

    Mrs. Clinton and her surrogates have cast Mr. Trump’s questions about Mr. Obama’s birth as racist. Speaking at a forum for black women Friday in Washington, Mrs. Clinton sought to emphasize the stakes in the election by saying Mr. Trump’s flirtation with a CONSPIRACY THEORY underscores that he is unfit for office.

    “For five years, he has led the birther movement to delegitimize our first black president,” Mrs. Clinton. “His campaign was founded on this outrageous lie. There is no erasing it in history.”

    She continued: “Barack Obama was born in America plain and simple. And Donald Trump owes him and the American people an apology,” she said.

    Injecting the issue of the president’s birthplace into the campaign comes after Mr. Trump has made efforts to win support from African-American voters. The businessman on Wednesday visited a black church in Flint, Mich., and he has made appeals to black citizens by asking, “What do you have to lose?”

    Members of the Congressional Black Caucus on Friday criticized him for not apologizing for questioning the president’s birthplace.

    Rep. Barbara Lee (D., Calif.) said the birthplace question from Mr. Trump “catapulted” his Republican presidential bid by aiming to “de-legitimize” the nation’s first black president. “This is a defining moment for all of those who want to denounce bigotry and racism,” she said.

    Orly Taitz, a California dentist and attorney who was among the leading advocates of the birther cause, said in an interview Friday that “I still have questions” about the president’s citizenship but said she doesn’t hold Mr. Trump’s change of position on the subject against him.

    “He is correct on concentrating on Hillary Clinton instead,” said Dr. Taitz, who is a Trump supporter.

    For his part Mr. Obama said the focus on where he was born is a sideshow at a time when the country faces serious challenges.

    “I was pretty confident about where I was born. I think most people were as well,” Mr. Obama said after meeting with business leaders in the Oval Office to discuss a new trade pact with Asia. “My hope would be that the presidential election reflects more serious issues than that.”

    —Byron Tau and Carol E. Lee contributed to this article.

  2. Bob Henry says:

    And now an unsigned editorial from The Wall Street Journal.

    Once again, since I cannot bold highlight or color code key words for emphasis, I have CAPITALIZED them instead.

    From The Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
    (March 22, 2017, Section “A,” Page Unknown):

    “A President’s Credibility;
    TRUMP’S FALSEHOODS are eroding public trust, at home and abroad.”

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-presidents-credibility-1490138920

    No Signed Byline

    If President Trump announces that North Korea launched a missile that landed within 100 miles of Hawaii, would most Americans believe him? Would the rest of the world? We’re not sure, which speaks to the damage that Mr. Trump is doing to his Presidency with his seemingly endless stream of EXAGGERATIONS, EVIDENCE-FREE ACCUSATIONS, IMPLAUSIBE DENIALS and other FALSEHOODS.

    The latest example is Mr. Trump’s refusal to back off his Saturday morning tweet of three weeks ago that he had “found out that [Barack] Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory” on Election Day. He has offered NO EVIDENCE FOR HIS CLAIM, and a parade of intelligence officials, senior Republicans and Democrats have since said they have seen no such evidence.

    Yet the President clings to his assertion like a drunk to an empty gin bottle, rolling out his press spokesman to make more dubious claims. Sean Spicer — who doesn’t deserve this treatment — was dispatched last week to repeat an assertion by a Fox News commentator that perhaps the Obama Administration had subcontracted the wiretap to British intelligence.
    That bungle led to a public denial from the British Government Communications Headquarters, and British news reports said the U.S. apologized. But then the White House claimed there was no apology. For the sake of GRASPING FOR ANY EVIDENCE to back up his original tweet, and the sin of pride in not admitting error, Mr. Trump had his spokesman repeat an UNCHECKED TV CLAIM that insulted an ally.

    The wiretap tweet is also costing Mr. Trump politically as he hands his opponents a sword. Mr. Trump has a legitimate question about why the U.S. was listening to his former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and who leaked news of his meeting with the Russian ambassador. But that question never gets a hearing because the near-daily repudiation of his FALSE TWEET is a bigger media story.

    FBI director James Comey also took revenge on Monday by joining the queue of those saying the bureau has NO EVIDENCE to back up the wiretap tweet. Mr. Comey even took the unusual step of confirming that the FBI is investigating ties between the Trump election campaign and Russia.

    Mr. Comey said he could make such a public admission only in “unusual circumstances,” but why now? Could the wiretap tweet have made Mr. Comey angry because it implied the FBI was involved in illegal surveillance? Mr. Trump blundered in keeping Mr. Comey in the job after the election, but now the President can’t fire the man leading an investigation into his campaign even if he wants to.

    All of this continues the pattern from the campaign that Mr. Trump is his own worst political enemy. He survived his many FALSE CLAIMS as a candidate because his core supporters treated it as mere hyperbole and his opponent was untrustworthy Hillary Clinton. But now he’s President, and he needs support beyond the Breitbart cheering section that will excuse anything. As he is learning with the health-care bill, Mr. Trump needs partners in his own party to pass his agenda. He also needs friends abroad who are willing to trust him when he asks for support, not least in a crisis.

    This week should be dominated by the smooth political sailing for Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee and the progress of health-care reform on Capitol Hill. These are historic events, and success will show he can deliver on his promises. But instead the week has been dominated by the news that he was repudiated by his own FBI director.

    Two months into his Presidency, Gallup has Mr. Trump’s approval rating at 39%. No doubt Mr. Trump considers that fake news, but IF HE DOESN’T SHOW MORE RESPECT FOR THE TRUTH MOST AMERICANS MAY CONCLUDE HE’S A FAKE PRESIDENT.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Erratum.

    This is not a spelling error on the part of The Journal.

    Rather, my transcription error. Once again (now corrected):

    “We’re not sure, which speaks to the damage that Mr. Trump is doing to his Presidency with his seemingly endless stream of EXAGGERATIONS, EVIDENCE-FREE ACCUSATIONS, IMPLAUSIBLE DENIALS and other FALSEHOODS.”

  4. Bob Henry says:

    Once again with Steve’s indulgence on a long comment . . .

    So how did the Editorial Board of The Wall Street Journal respond to the pushback by its staff reporters and editors regarding fact-checking of the “Opinion” page columnists?

    Thusly:

    “A Note to Readers”

    (Subheadline: “These pages won’t wilt under cancel-culture pressure.”)

    URL: https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-note-to-readers-11595547898

    Text reproduced in full:

    “We’ve been gratified this week by the outpouring of support from readers after some 280 of our Wall Street Journal colleagues signed (and someone leaked) a letter to our publisher criticizing the opinion pages. But the support has often been mixed with concern that perhaps the letter will cause us to change our principles and content. On that point, reassurance is in order.

    “In the spirit of collegiality, we won’t respond in kind to the letter signers. Their anxieties aren’t our responsibility in any case. The signers report to the News editors or other parts of the business, and the News and Opinion departments operate with separate staffs and editors. Both report to Publisher Almar Latour. This separation allows us to pursue stories and inform readers with independent judgment.

    “It was probably inevitable that the wave of progressive cancel culture would arrive at the Journal, as it has at nearly every other cultural, business, academic and journalistic institution. But we are not the New York Times. Most Journal reporters attempt to cover the news fairly and down the middle, and our opinion pages offer an alternative to the uniform progressive views that dominate nearly all of today’s media.

    “As long as our proprietors allow us the privilege to do so, the opinion pages will continue to publish contributors who speak their minds within the tradition of vigorous, reasoned discourse. And these columns will continue to promote the principles of free people and free markets, which are more important than ever in what is a culture of growing progressive conformity and intolerance.”

    And how did the Journal’s readers respond?

    With a daunting (and I quote) “5,787 conversations” (read: comments) to this unsigned editorial.

    Clearly, this subject has resonated with the subscribers and readers.

  5. Bob Henry says:

    I just left this comment (awaiting moderation) at The Wall Street Journal regarding thedir unsigned editorial titled:

    “A Note to Readers”

    (Subheadline: “These pages won’t wilt under cancel-culture pressure.”)

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-note-to-readers-11595547898

    Two Wall Street Journal pieces.

    The first from two staff reporters “calling out” presidential candidate Trump on his veracity.

    The second an Editorial Board piece “calling out” President Trump on his veracity.

    Both deal with fact-checking.

    (Mic drop?)

    From The Wall Street Journal Online
    (September 17, 2016):

    “Donald Trump Says Barack Obama Was Born in U.S. After Years of Sowing Doubt”

    (Subheadline: “GOP candidate also raises discredited theory that Hillary Clinton started ‘birther movement.’)

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/donald-trump-says-barack-obama-was-born-in-u-s-after-years-of-sowing-doubt-1474041185

    By Reid J. Epstein and Michael C. Bender
    Staff Reporters

    — AND —

    From The Wall Street Journal Online
    (March 21, 2017):

    “A President’s Credibility”

    (Subheadline: “Trump’s falsehoods are eroding public trust, at home and abroad.”)

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-presidents-credibility-1490138920

    [An Unsigned Editorial]

  6. Bob Henry says:

    I just left this comment (awaiting moderation) at The Wall Street Journal regarding their unsigned editorial titled:

    “A Note to Readers”

    (Subheadline: “These pages won’t wilt under cancel-culture pressure.”)

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-note-to-readers-11595547898

    Two Wall Street Journal pieces.

    The first from two staff reporters “calling out” presidential candidate Trump on his veracity.

    The second an Editorial Board piece “calling out” President Trump on his veracity.

    Both deal with fact-checking.

    (Mic drop?)

    From The Wall Street Journal Online
    (September 17, 2016):

    “Donald Trump Says Barack Obama Was Born in U.S. After Years of Sowing Doubt”

    (Subheadline: “GOP candidate also raises discredited theory that Hillary Clinton started ‘birther movement.’”)

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/donald-trump-says-barack-obama-was-born-in-u-s-after-years-of-sowing-doubt-1474041185

    By Reid J. Epstein and Michael C. Bender
    Staff Reporters

    — AND —

    From The Wall Street Journal Online
    (March 21, 2017):

    “A President’s Credibility”

    (Subheadline: “Trump’s falsehoods are eroding public trust, at home and abroad.”)

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-presidents-credibility-1490138920

    [An Unsigned Editorial]

  7. Bob Henry says:

    Our President has a shameful track record for being a dissembler.

    The Wall Street Journal won’t come out and call his statements lies.

    Rather, they use the phrases “false accusation” and “no evidence.” Not “lie.”

    Their 2017 editorial on that, reproduced in full . . .

    From The Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section Online
    (January 4, 2017):

    “Trump, ‘Lies’ and Honest Journalism”

    (Subheadline: “Why editors should be careful about making selective moral judgments about false statements.”)

    URL: https://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-lies-and-honest-journalism-1483557700

    By Gerard Baker
    Editor-in-Chief

    “When a politician tells you something in confidence, always ask yourself: ‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?’ ” As a statement of fierce journalistic independence, this advice from Louis Heren, a veteran correspondent of the Times of London, reflects an admirable if slightly jaundiced view of the reporter’s job. As an operating principle of objective, civil and fair-minded journalism it leaves a little to be desired.

    But after a remarkable presidential election campaign, and as we stand on the cusp of the Donald Trump presidency, it captures the posture of many journalists toward the president-elect. Mr. Trump certainly has a penchant for saying things whose truthfulness is, shall we say for now, challengeable. Much of the traditional media have spent the past year grappling with how to treat Mr. Trump’s utterances. It’s an important question and one that has received a fresh burst of energy in recent days, partly, well, because of me.

    In a New Year’s Day broadcast on NBC’s “Meet The Press,” moderator Chuck Todd asked whether I, as the editor in chief of the Journal, would be comfortable characterizing in our journalism something Mr. Trump says as a “lie.”

    Here’s what I said: “I’d be careful about using the word ‘lie.’ ‘Lie’ implies much more than just saying something that’s false. It implies a deliberate intent to mislead.”

    Immediately, my remarks were followed by another fit of Trump-induced pearl-clutching among the journalistic elite. Dan Rather, a former television newsman of some renown, weighed in to call the remarks “deeply disturbing.” I will confess to feeling a little burst of pride at being instructed in reporting ethics by Mr. Rather. It feels a little like being lectured on the virtues of abstinence by Keith Richards.

    But these are serious allegations. I—and The Wall Street Journal—stand accused of imperiling the republic by adopting a craven deference to presidential mendacity. So let me elucidate. A couple of points ought to be obvious but might be worth pointing out at the start.

    Note that I said I’d be “careful” in using the word “lie.” I didn’t ban the word from the Journal’s lexicon. Evidently, this carefulness is widely shared in the newsrooms of America. While some of the fresher news organizations have routinely called out Mr. Trump as a liar in their reporting, as far as I can tell, traditional newsrooms—print, digital, television—have used the term sparingly. Given the number of times Mr. Trump seems to have uttered falsehoods, that looks like prima facie evidence of a widespread reluctance to label him a liar.

    Why the reluctance? For my part, it’s not because I don’t believe that Mr. Trump has said things that are untrue. Nor is it because I believe that when he says things that are untrue we should refrain from pointing it out. This is exactly what the Journal has done.

    Mr. Trump has a record of saying things that are, as far as the available evidence tells us, untruthful: thousands of Muslims celebrating 9/11 on the rooftops of New Jersey, millions of votes cast illegally in the presidential election, President Obama’s supposed foreign birth. We can also point out that the circumstances are such that it’s reasonable to infer that Mr. Trump should know that these statements are untrue.

    The issue is not whether we reporters should test what he, or anyone, says against the known and established facts and offer a fair assessment of its veracity. We do that all the time. We have a duty to our readers to ascertain whether the people we report on are telling the truth. The question is how we present our reporting.

    I believe the right approach is to present our readers with the facts. This does not mean presenting a false equivalence between one person’s inaccurate statement and the observable truth, as though they were of equal epistemic value, but a weighing of a claim against the known facts. When Mr. Trump claimed that millions of votes were cast illegally, we noted, high up in our report, that there was no evidence for such a claim. No fair-minded or intelligent reader was left in any doubt whether this was a truthful statement.

    But I’m not sure the story would have been improved by our telling the reader in categorical terms that Mr. Trump had told a “lie.” In fact I’m confident that the story—and our reputation for trustworthy and factual news reporting—would have been damaged. The word “lie” conveys a moral as well as factual judgment. To accuse someone of lying is to impute a willful, deliberate attempt to deceive. It says he knowingly used a misrepresentation of the facts to mislead for his own purposes.

    Now, I may believe that many of the things Mr. Trump has said in the past year are whoppers of the first order. But there’s a difference between believing that, with reason—my induction from knowledge of the facts—and reporting it as a fact. The latter demands a very high standard of reporting. If we are to use the term “lie” in our reporting, then we have to be confident about the subject’s state of knowledge and his moral intent. I can see circumstances where we might. I’m reluctant to use the term, not implacably against it.

    To refrain from labeling leaders’ statements as lies is to support an unrelenting but not omniscient press, one that trusts readers’ judgments rather than presenting judgments to them. If we routinely make these kinds of judgments, readers would start to see our inevitably selective use of a moral censure as partisanship. We must not only be objective. We must be seen to be objective to continue to earn our readers’ trust.

    What matters is that we report the story and that we find the truth. It’s our job also to point out when candidates, presidents, chief executives, public officials or others in the news say things that are untrue. But I’m content for the most part to leave the judgment about motive — and mendacity — to our readers, who are more than capable of making up their own minds about what constitutes a lie.

  8. Bob Henry says:

    Breaking news . . .

    From The New York Times Online
    (July 31, 2020):

    “James Murdoch Resigns From Board of News Corp Over Editorial ‘Disagreements'”

    (Subheadline: “While his elder brother, Lachlan Murdoch, rises in the family business, James Murdoch has grown more distant from his father’s empire.”)

    URL: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/31/business/media/james-murdoch-resigns-news-corp.html

    Excerpt:

    “James Murdoch resigned on Friday from the board of News Corp, stepping aside from his final formal role within the media empire of his father, Rupert Murdoch.

    “‘My resignation is due to disagreements over certain editorial content published by the Company’s news outlets and certain other strategic decisions,’ Mr. Murdoch, 47, wrote in his resignation letter, which News Corp disclosed in a filing shortly after the close of business on Friday.”

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