Politico embarrasses WSJ by publishing Trump transcript

August 1, 2017

The Wall Street Journal got a sit-down interview with the President of the United States on July 25 as he was engaged in a war of words with his attorney general, his party was attempting to rewrite the nation’s health-care laws, and his new communications director was hours from giving an obscenity-laden interview that would blow up the West Wing organizational chart.

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, and indeed the Journal broke standalone stories on several newsy details from the interview. But the Journal published only excerpts of the interview, deciding not follow the precedent set by other news outlets in releasing a full or lightly edited transcript of its own Oval Office interview.

It took the work of reporters from a different outlet—Politico’s Hadas Gold and Josh Dawsey, who on Tuesday published a full transcript of the Journal’s interview with Trump—for the public to find out everything that was said. There was still meat on the proverbial carcass of the interview, including banter that provides new fodder to the newspaper’s critics. In fact, the very leak of the transcript suggests internal turmoil over the coverage. Deputy Editor in Chief Matt Murray*, one of those present for the interview, confirmed to Politico that he had warned Journal staffers not to leak the transcript, saying it would be a breach of trust.

The Journal’s decision to release only excerpts from the interview comes off as aloof. Why its editors made that decision is perhaps less surprising upon reading the full transcript.

Given the criticisms that Editor in Chief Gerard Baker has faced for his paper’s coverage, and at a time when media transparency is more important than ever, the Journal’s decision to release only excerpts from the interview comes off as aloof. Why its editors made that decision is perhaps less surprising upon reading the full transcript, in which Baker talks with Ivanka Trump about parties in the Hamptons and spends part of his time in the Oval Office discussing, with Trump, Jordan Spieth’s final round at the British Open.

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This episode is especially problematic for the Journal because the outlet has faced accusations, some from within its own newsroom, that it has been too timid in its coverage of Trump, both during the campaign and after his election. Baker has appeared defensive and tone-deaf in his response to those criticisms, reportedly telling staffers at a newsroom town hall in February that those unhappy with the Journal’s approach to its Trump coverage should seek employment elsewhere.

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As the The New York Times and Washington Post have engaged in a scoop war fueled by leaks pouring out of DC, the Journal, outside of a few impressive pieces on Trump’s business entanglements, has largely failed to deliver game-changing scoops. Baker’s chumminess with the Trump family, as well as the failure of any journalists in the room to push back against false claims such as Trump’s assertion that “we’re the highest-taxed nation in the world,” will undoubtedly fuel the perception that the Journal isn’t pushing as hard as some of its marquee competitors.

In this case, that perception will also be fed by the Journal’s decision not to release a more complete transcript. Plenty of reporters have declined to challenge Trump on each outrageous claim he makes. Others have shown a willingness to engage in small talk and stroke Trump’s ego. But their outlets have been largely transparent in reproducing those conversations for the record. By failing to follow the precedent set by other newsrooms, the Journal played into the narrative that it has taken a softer approach.

A Journal spokesperson defended the paper’s decision to Politico, saying “We published the noteworthy excerpts from the interview. We saw no reason to publish the crosstalk that inevitably accompanies any conversation.” But the transcript of the conversation shows the Journal left out more than just crosstalk. As we’ve learned from Trump’s past interviews with outlets like Time, The New York Times, and The Associated Press, the president is prone to wander off on tangents and reveal things about the way he thinks.

Trump told his interlocutors, including Deputy Editor in Chief Murray, Washington Bureau Chief Paul Beckett, and White House reporters Michael Bender and Peter Nicholas, that his conversations with foreign leaders often involve a population question. “You call places like Malaysia, Indonesia, and you say, you know, how many people do you have? And it’s pretty amazing how many people they have.” That the president quizzes his counterparts like some fifth-grade geography teacher is certainly newsworthy, and the fact that the editor in chief of the paper has a friendly relationship with the President and his family is something its audience should know, but it took Politico’s publication of a full transcript for the Journal’s readers to learn that.

The Journal can argue that its interview produced several important stories, and that’s true. The paper reported on Trump’s statements about tax reform, his relationship with Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and his thoughts about candidates for Chair of the Federal Reserve. But by releasing only passages from the interview, only to see a full version published in another outlet, the Journal as an institution, and Baker in particular, appear indifferent to their critics’ concerns. Perception matters, and on this issue it’s easily solved: Just publish the transcripts.

*Murray is a member of CJR’s Board of Overseers.

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Pete Vernon is a former CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.