The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Thanks to its Stormy Daniels scoops, the Wall Street Journal gets back in the game

The venerable Wall Street Journal, once criticized for its “soft” coverage of President Trump, is once again producing White House scoops. But newsroom morale remains an issue. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)

A series of scoops about a porn star has gone a long way toward restoring some of the Wall Street Journal’s tarnished luster.

Even before Donald Trump’s election, the nation’s preeminent financial newspaper had been the subject of damaging critiques about how its newsroom had supposedly gone soft on the businessman turned politician. The operating thesis: that the paper was downplaying critical coverage of the president, inciting a rebellion among its reporters. The supposed architect of the Journal’s Trumpification was Executive Editor Gerard “Gerry” Baker, rumored to be doing so at the behest of the paper’s owner, friend-of-Trump Rupert Murdoch.

But that narrative has been scrambled in recent months by the Journal’s pathbreaking reporting about a hush-money payoff to adult-film actress Stormy Daniels. The Journal broke the news in January that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen paid Daniels $130,000 just before the 2016 election to keep quiet about an alleged affair with Trump a decade earlier.

Since then, the paper’s lead reporters on the story, Joe Palazzolo and Michael Rothfeld, have punched out scoop after scoop: that Cohen used pseudonyms and funneled the payment through a private Delaware company he set up; that a bank had flagged Cohen’s payment as suspicious; and that Cohen negotiated a $1.6 million payment to the alleged mistress of GOP fundraiser Elliott Broidy, a revelation that prompted Broidy’s resignation as Republican National Committee deputy fundraising chair.

The impressive run of articles has put the Journal back into the front ranks of news organizations offering no-holds-barred coverage of the White House and its circus of scandals.

Journalists at the paper say they regard the Daniels articles with pride. But they say this coverage has not dissipated concerns about Baker’s management.

“Morale is still pretty bad,” said one New York-based Journal reporter. Senior editors “look at what’s being reported by the [New York] Times and The [Washington] Post [about Trump] and see the Journal as a brake on that. They believe we are framing it as less-hysterical coverage, and that we’re more down the middle. They see ourselves as a correction” on what others are reporting.

It’s not that Baker has killed any would-be scoops about Trump, this reporter said; it’s more that he has set a tone of caution and circumspection that saps the newsroom’s ambition. Several journalists say the paper has been more reactive on the larger story about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russian collusion probe than blazing its own path.

The specific newsroom complaints are small but add up, in the view of some reporters: word changes and headlines that muffle a story’s punch; less-prominent placement of damaging articles on the Journal’s website or in the print edition; shorter story lengths allowed for those articles. Several people said the Journal’s tough coverage of former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn by reporters Christopher S. Stewart and Rob Barry was unfairly downplayed. One reporter — who like others interviewed for this article spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concern for their jobs — was dismayed by Baker’s attitude about Russia coverage, saying “he expressed a level of skepticism about several lines of reporting that went beyond healthy skepticism and sounded a lot like talking points.”

Baker, a feisty former conservative columnist whom Murdoch appointed as the Journal’s editor in 2013, declined through a spokesman to respond to questions for this article.

But the British-born editor has previously pushed back on criticism of his tenure. He said at a staff meeting last year that his desire was to be objective, not “oppositional” in covering the Trump administration; he also acknowledged that Trump had demonstrated an “extraordinary disregard for facts.”

A newsroom skirmish broke out in late March when Baker apparently ordered changes to a graphics-heavy article about the aftereffects of the 2008 financial crisis that had already been published online. While the package was being retooled, editors took down links to it on the Journal’s homepage and downplayed its prominence. Newsroom employees interpreted this as a sign that Baker found the original article “too liberal” and tried to soften its conclusions. They began circulating an anonymous email (“This is censorship”) and a social media campaign to call attention to its suppression by “a senior editor.”

After the Journal came up empty in the Pulitzer Prizes last month, some in the newsroom were chagrined by Baker’s comments in an email to staffers that they thought had the whiff of sour grapes: It is “always a little painful when our outstanding work gets completely ignored for some reason by the small, self-selected group of journalists, academics and literary mavens who sit in judgment of it,” he wrote.

Recent years have seen the departure of some of the paper’s top journalists. Deputy editor in chief Rebecca Blumenstein bolted last year for the New York Times; 10 Journal reporters and editors have been snapped up by The Post since early 2016. Three of them — Beth Reinhard, Devlin Barrett and Adam Entous — contributed to Pulitzer-winning coverage this past year. (Entous recently left The Post for the New Yorker.)

Amid this turbulence, Palaz­zolo’s and Rothfeld’s work has stood out.

In early November 2016, they reported (along with Lukas I. ­Alpert) that the National Enquirer’s parent company, American Media, had agreed to pay $150,000 to a former Playboy model, Karen McDougal, for exclusive rights to her story about an affair she said she had with Trump a decade earlier.

The article noted that the Enquirer never published the story — a classic instance of the tabloid’s “catch and kill” strategy of protecting allies by tying up the rights to unfavorable articles about them.

While investigating other “catch and kill” stories during 2017, the pair kept an eye on Daniels, who had approached but then mysteriously cut off contact with several news organizations in late 2016. Her sudden silence suggested she had been paid to keep quiet, but it was unclear by whom, said a Journal reporter familiar with Palazzolo’s and Rothfeld’s work. (The reporters declined to be interviewed.) At some point last year, they learned that the money had come from Cohen, which led to their Jan. 12 article disclosing his $130,000 payment.

Although the Journal’s work has kept Cohen on the defensive — and Daniels front and center in the news — the paper’s coverage draws only faint praise from Michael Avenatti, Daniels’s media-savvy attorney.

“On balance, I believe [the Journal’s] reporting has been fair,” Avenatti said, adding, “I have had an issue with a number of factual inaccuracies that they have written about our case and my client.”

He declined to say what he found inaccurate. A Journal spokesman, Steve Severinghaus, said no corrections have been issued for its Cohen-Daniels articles and that the paper stands by its coverage.

In any case, it’s likely that Avenatti will be dealing with the Journal for some time. Last week, Palazzolo and Rothfeld broke more news that added an intriguing morsel to the Cohen-Daniels saga — that investigators were looking into $774,000 in cash that Cohen amassed during the 2016 campaign.

It’s unclear what the funds were for or where they went. But it looks like yet another money trail that the Journal and others will be following.