The Wall Street Journal editorial page has in the past been a stern critic of Donald Trump, but in recent days has come under fire for pieces that critics say shift attention away from the president — with many people, including former staffers, left to wonder why.
After having generally avoided Trump’s efforts to de-legitimize democratic institutions, the Journal last week wrote an editorial calling for special counsel Robert Mueller to resign and featured a contributor op-ed [by David Rivkin and Lee Casey] Sunday afternoon that said Trump should issue a blanket pardon in the Russian scandal, including of himself. … The points made in the pieces in the Journal, owned by Rupert Murdoch, not only tracked with White House talking points but were similar to those being hawked on other Murdoch properties, including the New York Post and Fox News.
Meanwhile, CNN reported:
Some employees at Fox News were left embarrassed and humiliated by their network’s coverage of the latest revelations in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling, according to conversations CNN had with several individuals placed throughout the network.
“I’m watching now and screaming,” one Fox News personality said in a text message to CNN as the person watched their network’s coverage. “I want to quit.” It is another blow to journalists at Fox who come in every day wanting to cover the news in a fair and objective way,” one senior Fox News employee told CNN of their outlet’s coverage, adding that there were “many eye rolls” in the newsroom over how the news was covered.
The person said, “Fox feels like an extension of the Trump White House.”
Let’s begin by saying that dismay over Fox, over not just its evening lineup of unhinged Trump sycophants but also its daily schedule that now programs to match President Trump’s “issues” (yes on Hillary Clinton, no on negative Trump story lines), is nothing new. Criticism from the left (with such anti-Trump critics as Media Matters) over the years has been joined by critics from the principled right who have become more and more dismayed that the purported antidote to liberal media bias has become worse than the disease.
As to those employees who are embarrassed by their employer, they have the choice to stay and contribute to Fox, or to leave and go public. Likewise, Rupert Murdoch’s sons, James and Lachlan, already under the gun for the epidemic of sexual harassment, have a choice as well — to contribute to the destruction of civil political dialogue and objective truth, or to raise the bar and return to (or, to some eyes, begin to) embrace “straight news” and fact-based conservative opinion, like when respected conservatives (e.g. Bill Kristol, George Will) were network fixtures. Advertisers and viewers have a choice as well — to contribute to the success of an outlet that at times is eerily in line with not only Trump but also RT, or to look elsewhere in the media universe.
The Wall Street Journal editorial page is a different matter, however. The move from grudging defense of a Trump presidency to full-blown, Fox-like rationalization has been ongoing since Trump won the nomination. This week’s double-hitter was met on social media from liberals and conservatives alike with a mix of horror and sadness. “Just when you think you’ve lost your capacity for shock, you read this [op-ed from Rivkin and Casey] + WSJ unsigned editorial calling for Mueller’s resignation,” tweeted former Journal opinion writer and editor Bari Weiss.
The Journal editorial page was long thought to be the crown jewel of fiscal conservatism — a staunch defender of open markets, legal immigration and economic freedom. Internationally, it was anti-communist and supportive of U.S. leadership in the world.
Jay Rosen of New York University tells me via email, “From my perspective the Oct. 25 editorial was an important event because it combines so effectively with this development, in which the Journal reporters were told to stand out by their greater willingness to give Trump the benefit of the doubt — greater, that is, than the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, Politico, Bloomberg and others in their peer group.” He continues, “The implicit appeal is not to impersonal and timeless standards of veracity but to an ideological position that, according to the newsroom editors, the others guys have taken while the Journal does not.” He argues, “This is an attempt to give intellectual respectability within the news tribe to ‘the enemy of the people’ attacks. The editors were saying to their reporters: Okay, maybe not enemies of the people, but they’re acting like enemies of Trump! We don’t do that.” He sees a cumulative effect at work. “The news staff and the editorial pages do operate more independently than people assume, but it’s the combined effect we should look at,” Rosen says. “The news side gives him the benefit of doubt, the editorial pages endorse an extreme position in which Mueller cannot fairly investigate. The signal to what used to be called establishment Republicans is: There are no institutionalists among us any longer; it’s tribalism all the way down.”
Many conservatives, many of whom have long ago given up on Fox, are pained by this recent change. “As someone who has been writing for the Wall Street editorial page for more than 35 years and who admired and respected the page and its editors since the days of Bob Bartley, I’m genuinely astonished at what that page has now become, an angry mouthpiece for an angry mob led by an angry demagogue,” my colleague Robert Kagan says. “They want to pardon a man who has allegedly been involved in money-laundering millions of dollars. They want to shield a president whose campaign may well have colluded with Putin’s Russia to distort our democratic processes.” He asks, “And why? For tax cuts? As part of some war to the death with liberals and Democrats?” He tells me, “This is not the Journal I once admired. The ground on which they once stood is cut away. They have become citizens of no man’s land.”
Pulitzer Prize winner Bret Stephens, the outspoken Trump critic, decamped from the Journal for the New York Times this year. He declined to comment in any way for this piece. The disconnect, however, between his signed columns bludgeoning Trump for everything from racism to xenophobia to lying and the Journal’s unsigned editorials was unmistakable. Mark Lasswell, another opinion editor, was forced out. Sohrab Ahmari is now at Commentary. In eliminating independent-minded voices, the editorial pages are reduced to undiluted Trump boosterism.
One need not conclude that “Fox is taking over” the Journal or that Murdoch and sons personally are editing opinion columns to recognize that the Journal has changed in the Trump era. The perceived shift in the Journal’s editorial board, not unlike the further decline into journalistic insanity at Fox, is symptomatic of the intellectual rot that has eaten away at the right, and at the Republican Party specifically. On the right, years of bashing liberal media turned from criticism to paranoia and a sense of victimhood. The Clinton bogeyman became so exaggerated that anything Trump did became “not as bad as Hillary.” The rise of a worldwide populist movement suffused with nativism left conventional Republican outlets and politicians racing to catch up to the mob, running to defend Trump and his movement, whatever the cost and whatever intellectual gymnastics were necessary. If House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) is now an unwavering apologist for the president and Heritage Foundation cheers him on, one can hardly expect the Journal’s editorial page to be much different.
Bill Kristol observes, “As political movements go, American conservatism has been relatively principled and idea-driven. That’s served America well. But the survival of such a conservatism — one that would resist authoritarianism, nativism and demagoguery — is now very much in question.” He continues, “For now at least, in the struggle for the soul of conservatism, Trump is, alas, winning. For now.”
Intellectual compromise and self-rationalization come on gradually — often accompanied by a dearth of political adaptability and creativity. At some point, however, the distance from principled conservatism to Trump follow-ship is so vast that the former becomes a distant memory. Perhaps the right will recover its intellectual bearings — if so, it will need former “gatekeepers” (how quaint the term now sounds) to lead the way. In the meantime, the Journal editorial pages of the pre-Trump era will be missed.