How's this for irony? As the Wall Street Journal received criticism on Tuesday for appearing to parrot a White House talking point related to President Trump's temporary travel ban, editor in chief Gerard Baker tried to reestablish the newspaper's toughness but did so with another argument straight out of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
BuzzFeed was first to report on Tuesday that Baker had emailed a directive to top editors the night before: "Can we stop saying 'seven majority-Muslim countries'? It's very 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's note echoed a White House statement that also attempted to focus media coverage on an Obama administration list, rather than religion. Journalists in and out of the Wall Street Journal newsroom opposed Baker's directive.
Baker then sent a memo to staff on Tuesday afternoon, which began like this: "Given some media reports concerning some editing-related emails I sent last night, let me make a few points about our continuing coverage of President Trump's executive order on travel to the U.S. There is no ban on the phrase 'Muslim-majority country.' "
Baker sounded a lot like White House press secretary Sean Spicer, who insisted at a Tuesday-afternoon news conference that "it's not a travel ban" — even though Trump and his team have repeatedly called the order the president signed on Friday just that. Baker said "there is no ban," despite having asked his staff to "stop saying 'seven majority-Muslim countries.' "
Contradictions aside, there is no ban now. This was the lead sentence in a Journal report in Wednesday's paper: "The Trump administration and its allies on Capitol Hill worked Tuesday to contain the damage from the divisive executive order suspending entry to the U.S. for refugees and travelers from seven Muslim-majority nations, saying that protecting the country from potential terror attacks was worth the rocky start."
The Fix's original post on Baker's decision follows:
The Wall Street Journal will stop referring to the countries subject to President Trump's travel ban as “majority-Muslim” nations after Editor in Chief Gerard Baker said in a staff email that the term, used widely in the media, is “very 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 wrote to top editors, according to BuzzFeed, which obtained the message.
BuzzFeed reported that some journalists at the newspaper are upset by Baker's order, which immediately raised eyebrows outside the Journal's newsroom, too. Baker's rationale aligns closely with a White House talking point, and he recently faced criticism from fellow journalists after he said he would be reluctant to authorize use of the word “lie” to describe false statements made by Trump.
Plus, the Journal is owned by Trump supporter Rupert Murdoch, making it an easy target for accusations that it is too soft on the new president.
In a vacuum, Baker's directive seems consistent with his previously stated view that news outlets generally should not purport to know Trump's — or anyone's — intent. On NBC's “Meet the Press” this month, Baker explained his discomfort with the word “lie” by saying that journalists “start ascribing a moral intent” when they use it. It is often hard to know for sure whether a person who made a false statement intended to be deceptive or was simply wrong, which is why the media have traditionally avoided the L-word.
Although it is factually accurate to describe the countries covered by Trump's travel ban as “majority-Muslim,” the selection of that particular fact does suggest that Trump intended to target Muslims. That is presumably why Baker called the term “loaded.”
Essentially, Baker doesn't like the idea of his reporters trying to guess what is in Trump's head — whether the president intended to deceive or intended to go after Muslims.
However, after his appearance on “Meet the Press,” Baker wrote that “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.”
So, Baker does believe it is sometimes possible to divine Trump's intent. What makes Baker's decision to ban use of the term “majority-Muslim” hard to understand is that this is clearly one of those times.
Trump's original proposal was a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” One of his top surrogates, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, reiterated in an interview on Fox News Channel on Sunday that what Trump wanted was a “Muslim ban” and that he asked a group of advisers to show him “the right way to do it legally.”
The premise of the executive order Trump ultimately signed on Friday is that Muslims — not people from a handful of specific countries identified by the Obama administration — pose a threat to the United States. Narrowing the scope to specific countries was just the “way to do it legally.”
In this case, journalists don't have to guess what is in Trump's head. He told us. Then Giuliani told us again.