At the WSJ, A Question of Trust

The real issue in the Kagan softball dustup: The paper has lost credibility in the Murdoch era

“As News Corp. has consolidated its control of the paper they have increasingly come to demand enterprise journalism that serves the interest and viewpoints of the News Corp. management,” Glenn Simpson said. “The upper ranks are now dominated by conservative and partisan editors who aren’t shy about making their views known.”

Simpson is the respected former Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, and that quote is from former WSJer Sarah Ellison’s new book War at The Wall Street Journal, which is recently out (and which you should go buy!).

We’ll have more on that later, but I bring this up in the context of a bit of a stir the paper created yesterday with its large front-page photo of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan playing softball. You don’t have to be a cynic to think that the Journal chose the two-decade-old picture to imply Kagan is a lesbian.

My wife, hardly a media critic, mentioned it to me unprompted yesterday as she looked at the front page. She was stunned that a paper would do something so obvious and ham-fisted.

Journal editors profess shock that anyone is drawing inferences from the picture. Deputy Managing Editor Alan Murray, a holdover from the Bancroft era, it should be noted, was incredulous on Twitter, responding to a Fast Company editor’s question about what the paper was trying to suggest:

That she played softball?

And Murray told Politico’s Ben Smith “I think your question is absurd.”

It isn’t, of course. First of all, for the old Journal it would be (then again, that Journal would have run a small dot-sketch of her face). Photos are powerful and suggestive precisely because they are wordless. If the Journal is surprised by this, that’s already a problem.

And, of course, there’s a context to all this, starting with rumors, some propagated in the mainstream press and which everyone has heard by now, that Kagan is gay.

As Smith reports, activists saw the photo as implying exactly that:

“It clearly is an allusion to her being gay. It’s just too easy a punch line,” said Cathy Renna, a former spokesperson for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation who is now a consultant. “The question from a journalistic perspective is whether it’s a descriptive representation of who she might be as a judge. Have you ever seen a picture of Clarence Thomas bowling?”

Second, this wouldn’t be the first time the Murdoch Journal has had a laugh with dominant art. Recall that the paper used a picture of New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger to illustrate feminine male faces. Jeff Bercovici subsequently reported that Journal editor and Rupert Murdoch vacation pal Robert Thomson came up with the idea himself:

Thomson acknowledged, to the Observer if not directly to Sulzberger, that it was indeed Sulzberger’s chin and cheeks in the photo mosaic. But what he hasn’t acknowledged publicly is that the very idea of using the illustration to tweak Sulzberger was his from the start — and that it wasn’t a popular one among his Journal subordinates, who aren’t used to seeing their news pages used to carry out Murdoch’s personal feuds (unlike, say, their counterparts at the New York Post).

And, as Ellison reports in War at the Wall Street Journal, editors are picking the front-page photos.

Third, the Journal has certainly been attuned to the issue of Kagan and gay rights, running an early story (April 12), headlined: “Kagan Foes Stress Gay-Rights Stand.”

Finally, this would hardly be the first time the Murdoch Journal has displayed ham-fisted bias in its news pages. Ellison reports on the disturbing political influence that’s become apparent at the Journal. We and others have written about this quite a bit over the last year, but Ellison’s reporting offers the most detail yet. She starts just as a reader:

By the fall of 2009, it no longer took a careful and obsessive reader to notice changes. “Taliban Now Winning” a front-page story in August screamed. Reporters at the paper were aghast, though they noted that the story itself was more nuanced and in many ways contracted the banner headline. “State Death Taxes Now the Latest Worry” announced another in August on the front of the paper’s “Marketplace” section. The loaded “death tax” phrase was used six times in the sttory to describe estate taxes. The headlines grew cruder and more insistent. “Politicians Butt In at Bailed-Out GM” blared a story in October.

Etc. etc for several paragraphs.

And then she offers reporting to show that all of this hasn’t been an accident:

Readers couldn’t see or know that editors were frequently altering stories in subtle ways. Reporters at the paper noticed that quotes criticizing Republicans or praising Obama were cut. Small editing decisions changed the news—as the Journal reported it—every day. Reporters began to sense that top editors were ordering stories to fit a political agenda…

Thomson objected to a story on Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s roles in the housing crisis as “too anti-Republican.” In a news meeting, he once offhandedly commented that the housing crisis was “all the fault of incompetent borrowers.” Political reporters often heard requests for more stories on Republicans. Education reporters were told by their editors to write their stories as if “the most conservative reader in the world” were reading over their shoulder.

I worked at the paper for nearly six years in the pre-Murdoch era. Call me naive, but I never saw a political agenda one way or the other under Paul Steiger, Marcus Brauchli, and Peter Kann. I thought we were the most scrupulously non-partisan paper in the country (for better or for worse). This isn’t to mention the sensationalism that’s now fairly routine in a paper that once was the antithesis of hype.

I don’t know whether Thomson et al. were playing politics with the Kagan photo. Given the backdrop of the is-she-gay? media buzz, the WSJ at best displayed a surprisingly tin ear. But the uncertainty is the problem: you used to be able to take the Journal’s work—good and bad—on good faith.

Now you can’t quite trust The Wall Street Journal like you used to. That’s a damn shame.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.