The Wall Street Journal’s top editor once again appears to be facing discord from within his newsroom over the newspaper’s coverage of President Trump.
Since the election, some journalists at the Wall Street Journal have expressed frustration with what they say is overly cautious and deferential reporting on Trump, at a time when competitors are aggressively scrutinizing the president.
The most recent sign of discontent emerged Wednesday in emails leaked to the New York Times, along with the draft of a story critiqued by the editor in the emails. While internal emails and memos routinely leak from news organizations, story drafts do not.
According to the Times, Gerard Baker, the editor in chief of the Wall Street Journal, emailed a group of reporters and editors regarding the draft of a Journal article covering Trump’s rally in Phoenix. In his midnight message, Baker asked his staff to tone down language in the story that he characterized as opinionated.
“Sorry. This is commentary dressed up as news reporting,” Baker wrote in one email, according to the Times.
In a subsequent email, he said, “Could we please just stick to reporting what he said rather than packaging it in exegesis and selective criticism?”
The Times also obtained a copy of the draft reviewed by Baker. When comparing it to the final version published in the Journal, the Times found that several phrases were removed.
In one instance, the Journal removed language that described the Charlottesville protests as “reshaping” Trump’s presidency. In another, the newspaper’s staff took out a description of Trump’s Phoenix speech as “an off-script return to campaign form,” in which he “pivoted away from remarks a day earlier in which he had solemnly called for unity.”
The leak of Baker’s emails, and particularly the leak of a story draft — a significant breach for a journalist that could result in dismissal — indicates some renewed dissent in the Journal newsroom, and possible erosion of confidence in its leader.
Bill Grueskin, a former Journal deputy managing editor and a current professor at the Columbia Journalism School tweeted Wednesday: “For anyone who worked @WSJ pre-Murdoch, it’s astonishing to see staff leaking emails from the top editor. Just inconceivable.”
Other journalists reacted to the news on social media Wednesday:
Top editor emails to reporters normally don't get outside building. Classic sign that editor is losing newsroom. https://t.co/IaILDfcBG6
— adam nagourney (@adamnagourney) August 24, 2017
— Justin Miller (@justinjm1) August 23, 2017
— Peter Baker (@peterbakernyt) August 24, 2017
A Journal spokeswoman, contacted by The Washington Post on Wednesday, said in a statement: “The Wall Street Journal has a clear separation between news and opinion. As always, the key priority is to focus reporting on facts and avoid opinion seeping into news coverage.”
The Journal is not the only news organization grappling with how to report on Trump. In newsrooms across the country, conversations are taking place about the tone and language used in coverage of the president.
Baker, who became editor in chief in late 2012, came under fire earlier this month after the Journal refrained from publishing the full transcript of an interview with Trump in the Oval Office. Instead, Politico obtained a transcript and published it online in full, a move that some described as humiliating for the Journal.
As the Columbia Journalism Review noted, “It took the work of reporters from a different outlet … for the public to find out everything that was said.”
Poynter.org, a publication of the Poynter Institute for journalism education, described the interview as a “mutually flattering” back and forth between the president and Baker, in which the two discussed golf and travel. “He didn’t press him as he wandered or got facts wrong,” wrote James Warren. Though other Journal reporters were present in the July 25 interview, Baker dominated the conversation and took the lead byline on the article.
“It was a golden opportunity to reestablish the Journal’s political reporting bonafides and catch up on a story where it has fallen behind its competitors,” the Columbia Journalism Review wrote, adding: “In fact, the very leak of the transcript suggests internal turmoil over the coverage.”
The newspaper has previously faced questions about the relationship between Trump and Rupert Murdoch, who owns the Journal’s parent company, News Corp. While Murdoch has served as a Trump confidant, he has also pushed back against the president, most recently in response to Trump’s reaction to the events in Charlottesville.
Some Journal staffers at the time told CNN they thought Baker was being “deferential” to Trump “in order to maintain access to the White House and proximity to power.”
On NBC’s “Meet the Press” in early January, Baker also spoke of his reluctance to use the word “lie” when referring to false statements made by Trump. Following the appearance, he wrote an opinion article in the Journal responding to the criticism, or as he described “another fit of Trump-induced pearlclutching among the journalistic elite.”
“The word “lie” conveys a moral as well as factual judgment,” Baker wrote. “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.”
That same month, Baker faced criticism for instructing editors to avoid referring to “seven majority-Muslim countries” in coverage of Trump’s immigration order, calling the label “loaded.”
“The reason they’ve been chosen is not because they’re majority-Muslim but because they’re on the list of countries Obama identified as countries of concern,” Baker said, BuzzFeed reported.
The effort seemed to echo a White House statement at the time that attempted to focus media coverage on an Obama administration list, rather than religion.
In a February meeting with his staff, Baker defended the paper’s coverage of Trump, and said the idea that the Journal favored the president was “fake news.” He also said that any employees looking to pursue a more adversarial approach to covering Trump should look for jobs elsewhere, NPR and Politico reported.
As NPR reported, citing interviews with about 30 Journal staffers, Baker told reporters “there was no good reason to be antagonistic to the Trump administration for the sake of it, or to declare war. Instead, he argued for the marshalling of facts and context.”
“Try to cut out some of the noise, some of the panic,” Baker told his staff, Politico reported.
After the election, Baker wrote a column for the Spectator, a British magazine, criticizing U.S. press coverage of Trump’s win.
In the column, Baker described how newsrooms had “lovingly compiled their historic ‘First Woman President’ editions,” on the night of the election.
“Like Brexit, the shock of Trump’s victory was greeted the next morning with a keening that was taken up like the call of the muezzin from the minarets of traditional and social media,” Baker wrote.
Baker later admitted to his staff he probably should have “resisted the temptation,” as The Times put it, to write the piece.
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