Unpacking WSJ’s ‘watershed’ Trump editorial

The Wall Street Journal, an outlet that has faced criticism including from within its own newsroom for soft news coverage of President Trump, this morning published a scathing editorial questioning Trump’s credibility and comparing his inability to admit error to an alcoholic clinging to an empty bottle.

The piece represents a shift in the paper’s institutional editorial voice, which has generally supported Trump. The newspaper is known for a conservative bent on its editorial pages, but Trump has created rifts among editorial-board members as well as opinion columnists.

The unsigned editorial suggests a rare alignment with the desire of the Journal’s news reporters to aggressively hold Trump and his truth-starved claims to account. You don’t typically see WSJ reporters sharing the paper’s editorials on social media, but several journalists tweeted this one.

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Just as the Trump phenomenon has rewritten the rules of journalism writ large, it’s also drawn attention and in some cases, strain, to the traditional wall between opinion and news operations at many of the nation’s premier media outlets. Over the weekend, BuzzFeed’s Steven Perlberg reported that a “civil war” had broken out between news and opinion within the Times over a piece published last Friday by writer and former UK Member of Parliament Louise Mensch.

The basic battle lines are drawn as follows: Mensch, who gained notoriety for tough parliamentary questioning during the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, reported in November that a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court had issued a warrant allowing the FBI to review communications between members of the Trump campaign and Russian officials. After she was given space in the op-ed pages of the Times to write a piece based on that reporting, journalists from the paper who have been unable to corroborate the issuing of the FISA warrant spoke up. Times National Security Reporter Charlie Savage linked to the op-ed in a tweet, and wrote of Mensch’s column, “Please note that the NYT newsroom disagrees.”

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The battle at the Times highlights a divide between news and editorial sides of newspapers that stretches back more than 150 years but is often misunderstood by casual readers. Since at least the days of Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune and Henry Jarvis Raymond’s New York Daily Times, mass-market newspapers have enforced a distinction between the reported pages of the paper and those given over to opinionating.

In practice, this means that reporters sometimes find their work contradicted or criticized within the pages of their own paper. One recent example, in addition to that of Mensch and the Times, comes from The Washington Post, in which a September editorial argued against a pardon for former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. The Post, of course, shared a 2014 Pulitzer Prize for public service for reporting based directly on leaked information that Snowden had provided. Three days after the Post’s editorial board spoke out against clemency, Media Columnist Margaret Sullivan penned a forceful piece arguing the exact opposite.

The battles at the Times and Post are, in one sense, signs of health, showcasing the independence of both the newsrooms and editorial pages. “I never discuss editorial or op-ed assignments with newsroom editors or reporters,” Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt told CJR in an email. “I report directly to the publisher, as does our executive editor, Marty Baron. We are friendly but I do not discuss my plans with him and he does not discuss his plans with me.”

Like Hiatt, New York Times Editorial Page Editor James Bennet reports directly to the paper’s publisher. But not every newspaper has such a rigid firewall. At the Los Angeles Times, Nicholas Goldberg reports to Davan Maharaj, who holds the dual title of editor-publisher, while at The Philadelphia Inquirer, Editorial Page Editor Harold Jackson reports to the paper’s editor. Jackson says that, though the wall between news and editorial at the Inquirer is not as firm as it once was, “There is nothing any different than how we’ve always operated…In most cases, there is no conversation. The wall remains, but it’s not as rigid as in the past.”

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For readers, however, that divide, no matter how firm, is often viewed as a distinction without a difference. “We have readers who’ve been reading the paper their whole lives and who understand those distinctions very well,” says Goldberg of the LA Times. “But, of course, we have plenty of readers who don’t understand the distinctions we’ve spent years and years trying to make. We get lots of letters from people who say, I read your editorial on such-and-such and it was biased. We have to write back and say, Yeah, this is the part of the paper where we’re allowed to be biased. We’re allowed to not be quite as objective and to draw conclusions.”

The Inquirer’s Jackson, who has served on the editorial boards of three different newspapers, agrees. “Most readers do not [understand the distinction],” he says. “Most readers believe there is collusion between the editorial writers and the news writers and editors, that one reflects the other.”

The conflict between news and commentary isn’t limited to newspapers. Reporters at Fox News were recently forced to disavow on-air statements by legal analyst Judge Andrew Napolitano claiming that a British intelligence service aided then President Obama in wiretapping Trump during the campaign. Shepard Smith’s frustration was evident as he looked into the camera and said, “Fox News knows of no evidence of any kind that the now President of the United States was surveilled at any time in any way, full stop.”

All of the editorial editors CJR spoke with expressed the importance in educating the public about the wall between news and opinion, but increasing media literacy remains a challenge the industry has yet to solve.

In the face of controversies like the one at the Times over Mensch’s column, the Post’s Hiatt sees value in maintaining and making clear the divide between different sections of newspapers. “It’s important to the newsroom to be able to tell sources and readers, truthfully, that they have nothing to do with opinions expressed by the editorial board,” he says. “It’s important to us on the opinion side to be able to assure readers that we operate with total independence—independence from the newsroom as well as from advertising—and that we come to our views based exclusively on the merits of any given issue.”

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Pete Vernon is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.