Breaking Right

The Wall Street Journal’s stubborn conservatism

Last December—about a month after Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election, and a month before rioters staged an insurrection in support of Donald Trump—a firestorm erupted over an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. Written by Joseph Epstein, an eighty-three-year-old former lecturer at Northwestern University, the piece was called “Is There a Doctor in the White House? Not if You Need an M.D.” In it, Epstein noted that Jill Biden holds a doctorate in education—an EdD—and mocked her for using the honorific that comes with the degree, suggesting that she “forget the small thrill of being Dr. Jill” and accept the “larger thrill” of being First Lady. “Madame First Lady—Mrs. Biden—Jill—kiddo: a bit of advice on what may seem like a small but I think is a not unimportant matter,” he began. “Any chance you might drop the ‘Dr.’ before your name? ‘Dr. Jill Biden’ sounds and feels fraudulent, not to say a touch comic.” The piece went viral, generating outraged responses from newspaper columnists and social media users around the world. Many called it misogynistic and patronizing; others identified it as shameless trolling.

For Rupert Murdoch—the owner of the Journal, Fox News, and a phalanx of other media properties—the piece may have represented an appealing opportunity for corporate synergy. Tucker Carlson devoted time to the op-ed, and the uproar, on his show, observing that Biden has “the same degree as Dr. Bill Cosby” and that she is a doctor “in the same sense” as Dr. Pepper. But many reporters at the Journal were upset, having found the piece at once insulting and obstructive; Melissa Korn, who covers higher education, tweeted, “Pieces like that make it harder for me to do my job.” The Journal has long been known for its right-wing editorial page, which is kept separate from the newsroom on the organizational chart. “We’re all used to and accepting of that wall being there,” a staffer told me. Nevertheless, the Epstein column was hard to take. “That one, and a couple of the other ones that they’ve done recently, felt like they really went below the belt.”

The Journal holds a peculiar position in the American press. Murdoch, who acquired the paper along with Dow Jones in 2007 for five billion dollars, is perhaps the most hated executive in media, yet the Journal has managed to maintain a serious news operation, providing a training ground for excellent journalists for decades. The Journal has a distinctly conservative, finance-focused sensibility; it also belongs squarely among the New York media elite. It is not where many reporters aspire to land, however, in large part because its reputation is so tainted by incendiary op-eds. For decades, the Journal newsroom has grumbled about leaps of logic and reckless ideology on the opinion side. During Trump’s presidency, the grumbling grew into a roar.

In July 2020, more than two hundred and eighty newsroom employees signed a letter addressed to Almar Latour, the CEO of Dow Jones & Company and the Journal’s publisher, complaining about a “lack of fact-checking and transparency” on the editorial page, which they believed was undercutting the paper’s credibility and making it difficult to recruit and retain journalists of color. (See, for instance: “There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave,’ ” by Mike Pence.) “Opinion articles often make assertions that are contradicted by WSJ reporting,” newsroom staffers wrote. “Some of us have been told by sources that they won’t talk to us because they don’t trust that the WSJ is independent of the editorial page; many of us have heard sources and readers complain about the paper’s ‘bias’ as a result of what they’ve read in Opinion.” The letter arrived among a flurry of missives sent by Journal reporters to their corporate bosses around the same time: One condemned a racist op-ed headline, “China Is the Real Sick Man of Asia.” Another denounced a column in which Gerard Baker, who previously ran the newsroom, used the killing of Ahmaud Arbery to contort an argument that hate crimes against Black people are less frequent than attacks on whites. A letter sent in the wake of George Floyd’s murder observed that “WSJ’s coverage has focused historically on industries and leadership ranks dominated by white men,” calling for more diversity in the newsroom and demanding that the paper “encourage more muscular reporting about race and social inequities.” When the Jill Biden op-ed made the rounds, the newsroom circulated yet another letter of protest.

“The notorious vetting team of the Wall Street Journal that upholds the standards is so intense—they really question every word—but that same group doesn’t go through the op-eds,” Bradley Hope, an investigative reporter who left recently for a startup, told me. He wasn’t among the newsroom’s vocal dissenters, he said, yet he understood their frustration. “When an author purports to be laying out facts, that’s when it really riles up the staff,” Hope continued. “They’re undergoing this crazy process on one hand, and then there’s this bubble that exists where, in the opinion section, everything can be protected by the fact that it’s ‘an opinion.’ ”

The editorial board’s response to the letters was consistent, and they shared it with readers: “We are not the New York Times,” they wrote, under the headline “These pages won’t wilt under cancel-culture pressure.” The piece declared, “Our opinion pages offer an alternative to the uniform progressive views that dominate nearly all of today’s media.” Matt Murray, the editor of the Journal, told me that dissent over op-eds was outside of his concern: “We keep a firm separation in the Wall Street Journal between news and opinion,” he said. For Murray and for Latour, the conflict was about more than staff morale; the Journal was in the midst of an ambitious push to double its paying customer base, requiring its leaders to pull off an almost impossibly difficult trick in a divided post-Trump America: appeal to new readers without alienating existing ones. The paper’s audience—just over 3.4 million people, many of them in, or retired from, financial professions—is old; according to internal surveys, half of subscribers are over fifty-eight. Roughly 71 percent are men, and at least 70 percent are white. Among the Journal’s dedicated readers, internal surveys suggest, opinion pieces have long been the most reliable draw.

That is not unknown to Journal employees. But recently, as I spoke with about fifty current and former staffers—most on background, fearing retribution—many expressed frustrations that extended beyond the opinion page. Ultimately, what troubles them is the conservatism of the newspaper as a whole, and how that shapes coverage. Editors modulate the tone of political stories, set limits on subject matter, and insist on catering to the Journal’s traditional audience at the expense of growth. Murray—who is fifty-five, with a broad, boyish face—described an allegiance to the formula that the paper has used for generations: cover the news through the lens of business. “I think it’s important that we continue to maintain a type of news reporting that is very definitely rooted in reportable fact and has an objective tone,” he said. Attracting new readers, he believes, can be achieved through service journalism that helps people navigate financial decisions.

At a moment when just about every other news outlet, it seems, is questioning its conventions and seeking to start a new chapter, the Journal has dug in its heels. That has obvious implications beyond the opinion page; adhering to old habits, and devising coverage that suits right-wing readers, is at once a business stance and an editorial one, a reflection of how much the content of a newspaper comes from defining its audience. But if the Journal stubbornly refuses to change, in the long term, its influence may fade alongside its geriatric readership.

Reporters complain that editors modulate the tone of political stories and set limits on subject matter.

 

Founded in 1889 as a four-page afternoon newspaper overflowing with market indexes and stock trends, the Journal was the creation of two young newspapermen—Charles Dow and Edward Jones—who quit their jobs working for a financial-news agency in downtown Manhattan and set up shop behind the soda fountain in the basement of 15 Wall Street. By the time they sold Dow Jones & Company, to Clarence Barron, a bushy-bearded, rotund wire service proprietor in Boston, in 1902, the paper had a circulation of roughly seven thousand; its readers filled the ranks of Wall Street.

In the mid-twentieth century, the paper underwent a reinvention under Barney Kilgore, a product of small-town Indiana who arrived as a cub reporter just before the 1929 market crash and served as editor from 1941 to 1965. Kilgore instructed his reporters to expand their target audience beyond the financial elite to include “the almost infinitely more numerous bank depositors,” according to Richard J. Tofel, a former Journal assistant managing editor and the author of Restless Genius, a Kilgore biography. “Business news embraces everything that relates to making a living,” Kilgore liked to say. “Financial people are nice people and all that, but there aren’t enough of them to make this paper go.” He debuted a feature that boiled down the day’s events to a list of blurbs on the left side of the front page: “What’s News.” (The news summary has remained ever since and is one of the most widely read parts of the paper.) All the while, the Journal maintained a dedication to business reporting and free-market-loving opinion pieces. As an ad campaign put it: “Everywhere, Men Who Get Ahead in Business Read the Wall Street Journal.”

Under Kilgore’s leadership, the Journal increased its circulation from thirty thousand to more than a million. Many of his ideas remained central through the era of Paul Steiger, who ran the newsroom from 1991 to 2007. (Kyle Pope, now editor and publisher of CJR, worked under Steiger for a decade; Matt Murray previously served on CJR’s Board of Overseers.) During that time, the Journal was marketed as the “daily diary of the American dream,” a second read to complement metropolitan papers, with behind-the-curtain looks at boardroom drama, muckraking investigations into corporate crime, and all the financial news readers could handle. The Journal expanded to four sections, launched a Saturday edition, and won sixteen Pulitzer Prizes. But by the end of Steiger’s tenure, the internet had come to the fore; the newspaper industry faced steep circulation declines and plummeting ad revenue. The Bancroft family, which had inherited Dow Jones & Company from Barron, saw that the Journal was no exception. “Most people were just taking the dividend and not really engaging with the business,” Natalie Bancroft, an early advocate of selling the paper, now a member of the News Corp Board of Directors, told me. “At the end of the day, our number one responsibility was to keep the company going and not to have to lay off thousands of people.”

When Murdoch offered himself as a buyer, the Bancrofts were interested, but they knew of his political predilections and were wary that he might infringe upon the paper’s editorial independence. The division between the newsroom and the opinion section had always felt sacrosanct: In the office at the World Financial Center, reporters were relegated to shabby quarters; the opinion staff occupied the rarefied realm of the executive suites. On the page, editorials were consistently libertarian-conservative; reporting aimed to hold the business world accountable. Before the Bancrofts were willing to hand Murdoch control, the family sought to safeguard the integrity of the Journal’s newsgathering through the creation of an independent committee that would meet at least four times a year, operate in strict confidence, stay in touch with the staff, and continue in perpetuity. Most important: committee members would be empowered to go public with concerns on the pages of the Journal at any time.

Murdoch agreed. “What is on the Opinion pages will never be allowed to flow into the news pages,” he promised Steiger in an email. “The two must be kept distinct and while I sometimes find myself nodding in agreement with the comment and commentators, even I occasionally find the views a little too far to the right.”

In a note to staff the day the Murdoch sale was approved, Marcus Brauchli, who had recently been appointed Steiger’s successor, tried to reassure a jittery newsroom: “A change of ownership won’t change our understanding of what’s important; our ability to compellingly explain the world, politics, and business; or our commitment to reporting that is accurate, honest and free of slant,” Brauchli wrote. But within four months, he resigned and went to the Washington Post. He was replaced by Robert Thomson—a jovial, stooped Australian who had served as US editor of the Financial Times before moving to News Corp, where he rose to become the editor of Murdoch’s Times of London. Word leaked that the Bancrofts’ committee had not been properly consulted ahead of Brauchli’s departure. “Under the agreement, we have to be brought in to that process, and we weren’t,” Thomas Bray, a former Journal staffer who serves as the committee’s chair, recalled. The events stirred members to act. “We got some amendments to the agreement that make it crystal clear that they’ve got to consult with us if they plan to change the role of the editor in chief or the editorial page editor,” Bray said. “And we have to agree to that.” It was a small victory—and only the first of many battles to be fought as the newsroom became fully absorbed into the political life of the Murdoch empire.

“We cover race insofar as it’s not a comparison and it won’t offend our white readers.”

 

Under Murdoch and Thomson, the Journal was reengineered. Reporters were told that lengthy analyses and off-the-news features bred “complacency and indulgence,” Sarah Ellison, a former Journal employee, writes in War at the Wall Street Journal (2010), an exhaustive chronicle of the News Corp takeover. Stories in a newspaper were not like those in magazines or books—they had to be “more direct and less complex,” Murdoch advised the staff. “This is true for the New York Times and I’m sure that most of you can see the need for some streamlining at home right here.” He said, too: “We must entice, engage, and excite readers or else we will lose them.” Instead of being a “second read,” the Journal of Murdoch would aim to lead the pack. “The New York Times sets the national agenda and we should,” he declared. He called a meeting to “figure out how to cripple, really cripple the New York Times.”

Thomson staffed up the Washington bureau—it is now more than twice the size it was in the Bancroft days—and began giving politics stories more prominent placement. “There was a desire to make it broader, more comprehensive, to step it up in terms of volume and in terms of ambition,” Gerald Seib—a longtime Washington bureau chief, currently the executive Washington editor—recalled. “It was clearly in service of the idea that the Journal wanted to be a national newspaper, with not just a broader reach geographically, but a broader report every day that essentially put us on a par with the Times and the Post.”

The Journal also widened its coverage of national and foreign affairs, making the front page newsier and more concise. In December 2009, David Carr, who wrote the media column for the Times, took stock of the paper two years after Murdoch’s arrival—when, he wrote, “a chorus of journalism church ladies (I was among them) warned that one of the crown jewels of American journalism now resided in the hands of a roughneck, and predicted that he would use it to his own ends.” Carr praised the Journal for remaining “one of the nation’s premier newspapers” but observed “growing indications” that Murdoch didn’t just want to cover politics; he seemed to want to use the paper to “play them as well.” Carr described reflexively pro-business, anti-government coverage shaped by heavy intervention from the Journal’s leaders; conflict between the Washington bureau and the New York headquarters; and ideology “baked into the coverage through headlines, assignments and editing in a way that had never occurred in the past.”

By this time, a key influence in the paper’s political voice was Gerard Baker, who had been hired that year to serve as Thomson’s number two. An Oxford-educated Brit who had worked at the Financial Times and the Times of London, Baker was known for writing arch neoconservative commentary; he had recently appeared on Fox News narrating a parody montage called “Obama (the Messiah).” In 2012, Thomson was elevated to become the chief executive of News Corp, and Murdoch baptized Baker as the new editor of the Journal, dumping a bottle of champagne on his head and blessing him with the sign of the cross. The bright line between the news and opinion departments suddenly seemed dimmer than ever. As Neil King Jr., a twenty-one-year veteran of the Journal who served as global economics editor and deputy Washington bureau chief, told me, “It was pretty clear that Baker had a kind of visceral loathing for a lot of the political reporters at the paper.” (Baker declined to comment for this story.)

In an email chain, reporters began to exchange complaints about Baker’s editorial interventions—how he policed their language and watered down accountability journalism. When Trump announced his candidacy for president, top editors heavily scrutinized story topics and word choices, treating finished articles like raw copy. King recalled “a quest to find negative stories on the Hillary side to balance what seemed like a profusion of negative Trump stories.” Reporting deemed unflattering to Trump or his followers was sometimes killed or delayed until it had appeared elsewhere. “The Journal wrote a lot of very exculpatory stories, basically, enhancing the Trump cause during the summer and fall of 2016,” King said. “And they wrote a whole lot of Hillary email stories that were pretty silly.”

When Trump won, Baker projected proud defiance. In a memo to reporters a few days after the election, he wrote, “While many other news organizations seem to have largely abandoned any last effort to be fair in their coverage, ours has been conspicuously objective, penetrating, intelligent, and, yes, fair.” From then on, editors existed to “sand down the edges,” to dull copy, Journal reporters told me; pointing out Trump’s lies would get them in trouble. One person compared the editing process in the early days of the Trump administration to a scene in the Robin Williams movie Good Morning, Vietnam in which a military public information officer takes a red pen to any item that might make the US war effort look bad. There were some exceptions: the Journal managed to break news on Jared Kushner’s business dealings, Paul Manafort’s ties to a Russian oligarch, and the Robert Mueller probe. But overall, the Journal’s coverage of Trump veered on fawning.

In the summer of 2017, Baker bigfooted his staff at an Oval Office interview with Trump. Along with Murray, who was then his deputy, he headed to Washington; at a meeting to prepare, he shot down the bureau’s toughest questions. Once the story was published, Baker took the lead byline. Worse: within a week, a full transcript of the interview was leaked to Politico, much to the embarrassment of everybody involved. Readers learned that Trump had thanked the Journal for a positive editorial and fielded genial questions from Baker, who dominated the interview and whom Trump called “Gerard.” At one point Ivanka Trump stopped by to say hello; Baker told her how nice it was to have seen her recently in the Hamptons and recalled a conversation about their daughters, both named Arabella.

As the transcript circulated online, Murray, back in New York, summoned almost two dozen members of the Washington bureau to gather in a conference room; over speakerphone, he upbraided them for the leak—a “breach of trust”—and suggested, according to people present, that he would fire the person at fault. (Murray, through a Journal spokesperson, denied vowing to fire anyone: “No investigation or even a discussion of an investigation into the source of the leak took place.”) On the other end of the line, there was shock and disappointment: instead of reflecting upon what had made the interview problematic, Murray apparently felt the need to threaten his staff. (Later that year, when the bureau scheduled another interview with Trump, the reporters involved went to elaborate lengths to hide the time of the meeting from Baker so he wouldn’t find his way there.)

That August, Baker fired off a series of late-night emails criticizing reporters for, among other things, their coverage of a Trump rally in Phoenix, accusing them of writing “commentary dressed up as news reporting” and instructing them to “stick to reporting what he said rather than packaging it in exegesis and selective criticism”; the messages were soon leaked to rival publications. During a newsroom town hall meeting, he dismissed observations by other outlets that the Journal was soft on Trump as “nonsense” and “fake news,” then suggested that anyone unhappy with the paper’s approach should find a job elsewhere. Many took his advice. In the months that followed, at least nine members of the Washington bureau decamped to the Post; several more left for the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times. King took a buyout. “There was a lot of seething discontent,” he said.

By June 2018, after more revelations—including that he killed a graphic about the 2008 financial crisis because he found it too liberal—Baker stepped down to become an editor at large. The newsroom staffers I spoke with weren’t sure what the last straw had been, but in the months before his tenure ended, a number of them had been contacted by members of the paper’s special committee. When I asked Bray about it, he said only: “We operate more or less behind the scenes.” The consensus among reporters was that the committee likely played a role in deposing Baker.

Murray ascended. Despite his reputation as Baker’s right-hand man, he was a Journal lifer, around since the pre-Murdoch days, who was seen as reasonable and diplomatic. A relative calm came over the newsroom. For the first time in a while, mid-level editors loosened their grip, and reporters felt free to do their jobs. That year, the Wall Street Journal published a series of articles uncovering Trump’s secret payoffs to women and the network of people who helped carry out the transactions during the campaign, including Michael Cohen. The authors’ work triggered criminal inquiries and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

 

In his new role, Murray promised to set a “positive tone” for the newsroom. “We want great work and encourage great work,” he said in a November 2018 interview. “We need to take risks, but we need to be rigorous and push ourselves.” A few months later, he told NBC that he believed the Journal should be exhaustive in its coverage of Trump: “Our distinct mark, I hope, will be writing about the full range of the presidency in as clear and fact-based and unbiased a way as we can.” The newsroom’s emphasis, he said, would be economic reporting, and he remarked that the paper had “dominated” coverage of the Federal Reserve’s rate hikes. (“That’s a classic Wall Street Journal story.”) He highlighted his plans to grow the paper’s audience; to the staff, he announced his intention to hire more journalists of color, including in leadership roles. He was off to a promising start.

But the honeymoon didn’t last. In 2020, an astonishing set of pressures tested journalists across the industry, and the Journal’s newsroom again became agitated. In February, when the “Sick Man of Asia” op-ed was published, Murray told the staff that he agreed with their complaints but said that there was nothing he could do, since the opinion section was outside his purview. Within weeks, however, the piece had direct consequences on the news operation: as part of a larger battle with the United States, China revoked the visas of three Journal reporters and gave them five days to leave the country. Fifty-three reporters and editors, most in the China and Hong Kong bureaus, sent a letter to Journal executives asking that they change the offensive headline and apologize; anything less, they warned, would “cause lasting damage to our brand” and undermine reporters in China. The opinion page never delivered; the newsroom continued to stew. The letter assailing Baker was more effective: his columns were being published in the news pages even as he blasted out incendiary takes, including the one about Arbery, in violation of newsroom rules. Staffers demanded that Baker be expelled from the newsroom; the next day, he was reassigned to opinion.

Still, politics reporters had to contend with a degree of editorial oversight that some found demoralizing. One called the process “insane.” Several groaned that Murray was personally line-editing their stories, far more often and aggressively than anything they’d experienced before. Many staffers focused their criticism on Jason Anders, one of Murray’s deputies, whose adversarial style, they said, made him the subject of widespread resentment. (Anders declined to comment.) In a few cases, reporters said, stories went up online only to be reopened, challenged, and revised by a top editor hours later. In one widely circulated anecdote, a finished piece—on Catholic nuns refusing to sell land that Trump wanted for his border wall—made it all the way up to Murray, who declined to run it because he didn’t want a story about “Trump bullying a bunch of sweet old nuns.” The article was rewritten to focus broadly on “the challenges in building a border wall, even if funding is available.”

Many in the newsroom felt they were being punished for their letters of protest against the opinion section. They found, too, that the level of scrutiny rose after the murder of George Floyd, as leaders at the Journal seemed determined to avoid confronting the realities of white supremacy. “We cover race insofar as it’s not a comparison and it won’t offend our white readers,” a staffer said. “We’ll write a story that says Latinos are buying more homes. But we won’t write a story saying sellers are more willing to sell to white buyers.” Seib, who started at the Journal in 1978, assured me that there has always been tension between the Washington bureau and the bosses in New York, but said the mood feels different lately. “The political climate that we’re in now, in the United States of America, is much more fraught than it ever has been in my life,” he told me. “So the kinds of tensions and suspicions that are always there, to some extent, are probably magnified by the environment that we’re in.”

In the weeks before the 2020 election, the conflict between the newsroom and the opinion section was again put on public display, when the Journal ran two pieces on Hunter Biden that contradicted each other: one by Kimberley Strassel, a columnist, claiming that a new trove of emails and text messages suggested that Joe Biden had been involved in shady business dealings with his son; the other a reported article by Andrew Duehren and James T. Areddy, concluding that the emails indicated no such thing. After the inauguration, the newsroom was instructed to be tougher on the Biden administration. “That’s a one-eighty from the first year of Trump, when they were tying our hands behind our backs,” a reporter told me. In the early days of the Biden presidency, the Journal was the only national newspaper not to cover the reunification of families separated at the US-Mexico border. Editors have since been reluctant to allow White House reporters to garner goodwill with sources in the administration by covering anything seen as too “PR like.”

Murray, for his part, denied any aggressive monitoring of political coverage. He suggested that the impression I’d been getting from reporters might be owed to the strains of working remotely during the pandemic and to an “incredibly polarized election with emotions running very high everywhere.” Editorially, he told me, “we’ve got a very strong culture. We discuss. We debate. We talk about issues of fairness. We talk about issues of balance.” He felt that the Journal’s standards were strong, even as “some other publications have gone too far off the rails,” and said that the newsroom “works pretty well.”

When I reached out to Paul Beckett, the Washington bureau chief, he declined to speak, then sent an email to his team “reminding” them that, before they answered my calls, all interviews would have to be cleared by the corporate communications department. (A reporter who requested permission to speak with me on the record never got an answer; another, in New York, was warned by her editor that if she spoke openly, she would be labeled a troublemaker.) One person from the DC bureau, who talked with me under the condition of anonymity, said that Beckett had been editing all copy—after the White House and Congress editor had gone through it—to approve, or sanitize, the text before it went to New York, where it entered another round of hacking.

In recent months, tensions have only worsened. In April, when the Journal broke news that dozens of CEOs had met on Zoom and prepared a statement opposing state-level legislation that restricted voting rights, an editor initially placed the story on A-1; but when Murray reviewed the page, he pushed the story inside, saying: “We don’t need to give this publicity.” In July, when Trump sued to restore his social media profiles—several months after Facebook, Twitter, and Google banished him from their platforms—the Journal published a report that minimized any connection to his fundraising efforts and the fact that the suit was, as a First Amendment lawyer put it, “irredeemably frivolous.” At meetings with the Washington bureau, Beckett addressed concerns about obtrusive top editing by suggesting that reporters were submitting copy that wasn’t “camera ready.” Some of his staff were so upset that, the following week, he offered a mea culpa. But that wasn’t sufficient. “There’s this culture in the Journal of not being a liberal, not having any slack,” a reporter told me. “Just having rigor about it and not having lefty commentary that masquerades as journalism.” The reporter continued, “There’s an awareness among a significant chunk of reporters that we’re not the New York Times. We’re not going to cover these issues in the way the New York Times does.”

 

Consistent throughout the Murdoch years has been a fixation on the Times: the Journal seeks both to compete with it and not to be anything like it, in equal measure. When, last summer, a team led by Louise Story—a news strategy chief and executive in product and technology who spent more than a decade at the Times—conducted an internal survey that argued the Journal placed too much emphasis on its traditional audience at the expense of attracting new digital subscribers, including people of color, young people, and women, detractors on the masthead dismissed its central conceit. Critics in the newsroom labeled the report a “woke New York Times strategy”; Murray described it to me as “a draft.” Yet that response overlooked pained observations from within the Journal’s newsroom: more than 70 percent of staffers said that they thought coverage of race, gender, and identity did not reflect “the diversity of the general public and changing demographic trends” and that they felt powerless to change anything. Emily Nelson, the US news editor, was quoted as saying “reporters self-censor.” She continued, “There are currently no mandates that assigning editors, for example, think at all about whether they are selecting stories that reflect the diverse population of the country, much less if they’ll be stories that will be of interest to diverse audiences.” The report also described how Ebony Reed, the new-audiences chief at the Journal, met with the National Bar Association, the largest group of Black legal professionals in the country, and followed up by sending story ideas to editors; none was acted upon. Weeks later, similar stories ran in other major news outlets—including the Times.

Story’s team advocated transforming the paper’s coverage and culture. The recommendations were presented as a means of securing the Journal’s financial future. “In the past five years, we have had six quarters where we lost more subscribers than we gained,” the report stated. The bottom line: “If we want to grow to 5.5 million digital subscribers, and if we continue with churn, traffic and digital growth about where they are today—it will take us on the order of 22 years.” Within a few months, the findings were leaked to BuzzFeed. Story did not comment for that article or for this one, but a Journal employee, seeing the audit for the first time, gave BuzzFeed a direct reaction: “Oh fuck, wow,” the employee said. “It seems like the organization is having a come-to-Jesus moment.”

A person who worked on the survey told me, though, that the Journal’s leaders didn’t seem eager to self-reflect. “We were genuinely surprised by the level of hostility we encountered,” the person said. “The recommendation wasn’t to change the focus of the Journal, or to water down content, or to pander. The recommendation was to be more inclusive and representative while telling the same stories we are telling. We had data that shows there are plenty of business reasons to support content that is more reflective of the population of the world. There was no political or social agenda. So to have it labeled as a ‘woke strategy’ was surprising.”

To be sure, other outlets have struggled with matters of editorial judgment, objectivity, and race, and there have been plenty of conflicts between news and opinion departments—including at the Times, where things came to a head last year when reporters took a stand against an inflammatory op-ed and James Bennet, the section’s editor, was forced out. But for the most part, where leaders at those news organizations have engaged with employees (however unsatisfying or incomplete those discussions may have been), the Journal masthead has largely resisted. On a call with staff last summer, Murray told them he found it “inappropriate” to talk about the opinion page and said, “I don’t think my personal views of it or my political opinions are relevant.” When I asked Murray how he steers news coverage, he replied, “I always think of objectivity as being like salvation. It’s always a good thing to strive for, but it’s a hard thing to achieve. So I like words like fairness, balance, a certain sense of neutrality.” He continued, “You’ve got to reflect as accurately as you possibly can the situation as you see it. We’re not to be advocates. We’re not to push our hand or have opinions. I don’t think that’s the role of a news article.”

Emma Moody, the Journal’s editor of standards and ethics, told me that editors are trained in “neutral language” and encouraged to take out “loaded” modifiers. “We want to be impartial,” she said. “Both sides should have their say.” Her team, which consists of seven senior editors, reviews the “most sensitive” stories and is charged with upholding the values of the newsroom, which she described as being rooted in objectivity and fairness. “It’s been a really challenging five years,” she said, with a lot of “hard questions.” Readers, she explained, have served as a guide. “They like to have their point of view reflected, but they also want to be challenged in many ways,” she told me. “Something that we found, just in correspondence from readers, is that they’re really appreciative of what we’re doing because we’re presenting news in a very factual way and not trying to preach and not trying to inject our own opinion.”

As for how bomb-throwing editorial-page pieces might affect readers’ perceptions, Moody said that was not her mandate: “We are out there, willing to ask hard questions of either side,” she said. Besides, things couldn’t be too bad, she argued: the Journal touts that, according to a recent report by the Reuters Institute, it is the most trusted newspaper in America. Murray, too, seemed complacent. “We do have very discerning readers,” he told me. “I think that they understand that there’s a lot of different kinds of content for them in different ways. And they don’t have to read everything that we do. Some people love our markets coverage, some people love the opinion page. We’ll find different ways in.”

Still, it’s hard to deny that audiences often find it hard (online, especially) to distinguish between news and opinion as newspapers define them. When, in 2018, the Pew Research Center provided five thousand American adults with a series of statements and asked them to label which were facts and which were opinions, almost 75 percent failed to identify all the facts; two-thirds were unable to identify the opinions. (The study concluded that the participants’ biases were at fault.)

“Everybody agrees we need labeling,” Murray said. In February, the Journal announced that, as part of a “news literacy initiative,” it would set display copy in distinct colors: blue for news, gold for opinion. The plan was met with skepticism by reporters, however, once they saw that Strassel, the author of the inaccurate Hunter Biden piece and one of opinion’s most partisan columnists, had started appearing on panels to discuss the paper’s news literacy efforts. Several commented on the irony of selecting a person many in the newsroom consider the “queen of disinformation and propaganda” to represent them in educating the public. (Strassel and members of the opinion team declined to comment.)

Renee Hobbs, the director of the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island, is doubtful that the labeling initiative will have much impact. “The idea that you would color-code gold for opinions and blue for news is trivializing the genuine complexity of the interplay between news and opinion,” she said. Howard Schneider, a former editor of Newsday and the current executive director of Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy, agreed: “I don’t think labeling or a different typeface for the headlines on opinion versus news is remotely sufficient to make these things clear.” He added, though, that there is only so much the Journal—or any newspaper—can do. (The Washington Post also color-codes news and opinion.) “The only true way to solve the problem,” he argued, “is to do a better job as educators, getting students to recognize the difference between a factual statement or a statement of opinion.”

Until then, a news environment beset by confusion and distortion seems inevitable. And under Murdoch, the Journal has demonstrated its willingness to reflect a version of reality that its core right-leaning audience wishes to see: according to an internal survey, 85 percent of the paper’s readers say they hold “traditional” or “conservative” economic views, with 69 percent maintaining traditional or conservative social values. (In a statement, the Journal told me those numbers provide an incomplete picture of the current subscriber base.) “If they’re only giving readers on the news side information that they think will reinforce their worldview and not alienate them,” Schneider said, “then I think they’re failing their readers.” Which, as Hobbs pointed out, is something newspapers have done forever: “People in power have always used whatever means they have at their disposal to present their worldview in a persuasive and compelling way, which means it often includes falsehoods and inaccuracies.”

 

To me, at least, Murray projected optimism about the Journal’s future. In March 2019, the paper signed on to the paid subscription service run by Apple News (which the Times, feeling “leery,” declined to join); executives crowed that the partnership would help the Journal reach millions of new readers. (“We’ve got hundreds of thousands of college students now reading us, and people starting out in their careers,” Murray said.) This past February, after a long campaign by Murdoch and Thomson, News Corp inked a three-year deal with Google that promised “significant” payments when Journal stories (and those from other company properties) were featured in Google News. The same month, News Corp announced that Journal subscriptions were up; by August, the total number of subscribers had risen nearly 10 percent, to 3.45 million, with digital subscriptions at 2.72 million. But a newsroom digital leader told me that those numbers were misleading—and unsustainable—because they included “corporate subscriptions and student subscriptions and things done at an institutional level” that offered discounts of as much as 90 percent to inflate readership.

Murray said the Journal’s growth strategy was developed in collaboration with Latour, the publisher, who believes that the mission of Dow Jones should be to help people make decisions in “business, finance, and life.” That philosophy, Murray told me, drove newsroom leaders to “think as broadly and expansively of how we can bring it to more people, and what a decision-maker is.” He continued, “A decision-maker isn’t just a CEO. A decision-maker isn’t just the senior vice president. A decision-maker is: Do I buy a new car or not? Do I buy a house or not? How do I want to move in my career?” Murray is now spearheading more “decision maker” stories—service journalism, explainers, and approachable financial reports, under a coverage area called “Life & Work”—that he expects will expand the paper’s audience. “Everybody’s interested in their job, everybody’s interested in their career, everybody’s interested in money,” he said. “Everybody who understands the world knows that those things drive an awful lot of what happens in the world. And being as aggressive as we can on those things in our coverage, I think, informs our success. So I think we are seeing more women come in. We are seeing younger readers.”

The Story team’s recommendations on tone and coverage have been permanently set aside. In fact, they were dead on arrival: According to someone who contributed to the report, Murray called Story when the survey was almost done and expressed “strong regrets” at having commissioned it; he contemplated killing the project, but allowed her to finish what she’d started. Her team interpreted the message as Murray trying to keep his head down and avoid stirring conflict with Latour—the two have historically had a tense relationship, and the survey seemed like it would be a strain. In the spring, Edmund Lee, of the Times, reported that Murray and Latour “hate each other.” Murray denied that to me; Latour declined to comment. The company told me in a statement: “Almar Latour and Matt Murray have built a strong and productive working relationship that is yielding many dividends.” A person who has worked with both men told me that they have different styles, and have never much liked each other, but “hate” is probably too strong a word. Story left the Journal in July to work on a book about race and money in the United States.

To her former team, Murray and Latour’s “decision maker” plan sounds a bit like code, something for elite readers, or at least those who identify as such. It’s not a given that “Life & Work” stories will exclude certain demographics—“This strategy should feature people of color and young people as decision-makers, of course, and invite people to recognize that they are part of ‘Team Capitalism,’ ” Hobbs told me—but some Journal staffers still feel disappointed that their bosses seem unwilling to evolve as other news outlets have. “People are heartbroken,” the person from Story’s team said. (Besides, “Team Capitalism” isn’t where everyone following the global economy wants to be.)

Even if subscription rates grow, the Journal remains a Murdoch enterprise, and the opinion section has only become bolder in advancing his political agenda. (In June, Baker published another whopper, on “Jeffrey Toobin, the ‘1619 Project’ and the Journalistic Reign of Error,” in which, among other complaints, he bashed the Pulitzer Prizes as “Hero of the Soviet Union–like ribbons for full-time advocacy of approved causes.”) Digital audiences may be too put off by sexist and racist op-eds to pay for the paper’s reporting. “The question is: Will their readers—and will their future readers—understand the division and the separation and be able to live with it?” Schneider wondered to me. “Can they have that split personality?” The combination of news coverage and a Trump-supporting opinion page may have worked fifty years ago, he said. “Is that possible now?” He wasn’t sure.

Hobbs sees Murdoch’s vision manifesting exactly as intended. “He bought the Journal so that he could influence elites, and now he is continuing to push elites into the paradigm that he thinks is going to be the winning play, which is Trump in 2024,” she said. “A lot of people like to see journalists in pain. Some part of this is deliberately baiting journalists by pushing rightward on the editorial side of the house to outrage journalists—it’s like, part of that is a strategy.”

If that’s the case, Murray wasn’t going to say so. But it’s hard to deny that the politics of the Journal have always come down to money. “At this moment in the United States, we are on the cusp of the biggest business boom any of us have seen in our lifetimes,” he said. “It’s also one facing some challenges—like the cost challenge, the inflation risks, wage issues. We’re trying to cover the hell out of all of those things. And we’re seeing readers flock to those stories. So I think that we’re really right smack in the moment of relevancy right now.”

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Adam Piore is a freelance magazine journalist and the author of The Accidental Terrorist and The Body Builders: Inside the Science of the Engineered Human.

TOP IMAGE: Illustration by Roland Sarkany