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Why the Wall Street Journal had nothing to say about Phoenix

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It’s been five days since Trump’s Monday night rant in Phoenix, which, you’ll recall, was so partisan and shrill, so loaded with resentment and bile, that it blew everybody’s mind. And yet, the Wall Street Journal—the leading Republican newspaper in America—has barely mentioned it on the editorial page.


Background: The Journal has struggled with covering Trump all along. The paper, owned by Rupert Murdoch, is fiercely conservative, and its op-ed columnists are often reactionary to the point of fascist. But they’re also intelligent, well-bred New York elites, and Trump’s barbaric manners and fragile relationship with the truth have been personally offensive to many of them. The result has been schizoid coverage of this regime: some solid front-page reporting, babbled defensiveness by the columnists, and incoherence in the editorials.

As much as I expected a lead editorial on Tuesday, the day after, about Phoenix, there was nothing at all. It was as if Phoenix had never happened, which is astonishing, given that it was a major speech by a president who seldom gives policy speeches, and was the number one story of the day, not just in America but across the world. This lacuna might be explained simply by supposing that the paper was still trying to figure out what to say on Monday night, before the Tuesday print edition was “put to bed”, and they didn’t have enough time to get an editorial together. Problem is, it’s not a given that writing late at night is beyond the capacity of a major newspaper. In fact, the history of newspapers is replete with late-nighters in order to report breaking news in the morning.

So I checked the paper again on Wednesday, but again, nothing. Nada. Just some stuff about China, Macron and unions. Not a word about Phoenix, even though the nation was still abuzz.

And again yesterday (Thursday). Nothing on a story that won’t quit, that’s dominating coverage even on Murdoch-owned Fox. Sharp-eyed readers might have caught a mention of the word “Phoenix” in a little editorial, well below the lead editorial bashing Gov. Cuomo, but all this amounted to was a gentle admonition to Trump to be careful about demanding a Mexican wall that no one in Congress wants to pay for. Other than that, the Journal has been silent about Phoenix. It’s like a dinner where some flatulent person emits a malodorous gas. Everybody’s too polite to acknowledge it, but there’s a huge, unmentioned elephant in the room.

Conspicuous silence in the face of errant Trump behavior has been the WSJ’s mode for a long time. And the fish rots from the head: If the editorial writers are forbidden to write about Trump’s embarrassing tantrums, then how are employee-reporters supposed to do it? This is very sad for a newspaper with a proud history, whose talented reporters wish to practice their investigatory craft. The question has been, and remains: Will the Murdochs allow them to do authentic journalism, or insist they be water carriers for Trump?

We got a hint of the answer yesterday, thanks to the New York Times, which reported that the Journal’s editor-in-chief, Gerard Baker, criticized his staff for their news coverage of Phoenix, scant as it’s been. He told them, in a late-night email, it was “commentary dressed up as news reporting.” Then he added, “Could we please just stick to reporting what he said rather than packaging it in exegis and selective criticism?”

Put yourself in the journalists’ shoes. Your boss has just asked a pointed question that isn’t really a question but an edict. Baker has ordered them, in effect, to soft-pedal Trump’s egregious, inflammatory remarks, and instead to become the equivalent of his P.R. image-makers, layering fuzzy gauze over the tantrums, in accordance with the Murdoch family’s wishes. So, if you’re a WSJ reporter, what do you do? You have a moral choice: Quit under protest, or swallow your professional pride and do as the boss says so you can collect your paycheck.

As anti-Trump sentiment mounts in this country, including in the Republican Party, and as Trump’s wantonly destructive behavior continues to engulf his administration and divide the nation, the Wall Street Journal is going to have to make an existential choice. The Murdochs already are looking at serious threats to Fox,  which is under attack for sex scandals and faces possible competition on the right from a new, Bannon-led television network. If the Murdochs hope to retain any credibility at all for the crown jewel of their American media brand, they’re going to have to decide whether to let their reporters do their jobs, or whether to threaten them into craven submission.

  1. More on the conflicts at the WSJ between reporting and editorial:

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