The Wall Street Journal's failure to disclose that 10 of its op-ed writers are Mitt Romney advisers has drawn criticism from veteran editorial page editors at some of the nation's top newspapers.
In a total of 23 pieces, the op-ed writers attacked President Obama or praised Romney without the paper acknowledging their Romney connections.
Media Matters reached out to several veteran opinion editors who either criticized the Journal directly or noted that their papers handle such disclosures more openly.
“Not disclosing is inexcusable,” declared Stephen Henderson, editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press since 2009. “If you don't know, that is one thing, but if you are hiding it or purposely not disclosing it I am not sure what the rationale would be. We are pretty careful here to disclose any affiliation. There are times we have declined pieces because someone is too close to it. I am pretty shocked by that.”
He added that it's the newspaper's responsibility to discover and report conflicts: "The Journal is publishing this stuff, so the responsibility falls on them. I expect my op ed editor to ask anyone who is writing about a campaign or a ballot issue, 'are you involved with the campaign? Are you being paid by someone to write this?' That is our job."
Nicholas Goldberg, Los Angeles Times editorial page editor since 2009, said that providing transparency for the relationships of op-ed writers is “absolutely essential.”
“Op-ed writers aren't supposed to be objective or to have no stake in the subjects they're writing about,” he explained. “But when a writer does have a particular relationship to his subject that is not immediately apparent to the reader, it is important to disclose that so that the reader can evaluate the argument intelligently.”
But such information is not always provided to readers of the Journal.
This is not the first time the Journal's editorial page has come under fire for lack of transparency. Several of the editorial page editors who spoke with Media Matters had previously criticized the Journal for failing to disclose that weekly columnist Karl Rove is the co-founder of a super PAC, American Crossroads, which raises funds to oppose Democrats. The Journal apparently changed that practice, disclosing Rove's super PAC connection in his latest column published Thursday.
Journal Editorial Page Editor Paul Gigot and a Journal spokesperson did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the paper's failure to disclose the op-ed writers' Romney ties. Media Matters sought comment both before and after the Journal's apparent change in policy to disclose Rove's role with Crossroads.
Media Matters first reported on September 19 that nine op-ed writers' ties to Romney had not been disclosed by the Journal. The op-eds at issue attacked President Obama and his administration or praised Romney on a range of topics including the economy, health care, education and foreign policy.
The initial review found the Journal published 20 pieces from the following Romney advisers without disclosing their campaign ties: John Bolton; Max Boot; Lee A. Casey; Paula Dobriansky; Mary Ann Glendon; Glenn Hubbard; Paul E. Peterson; David B. Rivkin Jr.; and Martin West. In several instances, the Journal failed to disclose an op-ed writer's connection despite its own news section reporting that the writer is advising Romney.
Nonetheless, on September 25, the Journal posted an op-ed by Bush administration Attorney General Michael Mukasey that attacked Obama without acknowledging Mukasey's role as a Romney adviser. Further review turned up two additional op-eds in which Mukasey criticized the Obama administration without the paper noting his role with the campaign.
Current and former editorial page editors at other papers say that the Journal has a responsibility to provide more transparency than these reports indicate.
Max Frankel, a former New York Times executive editor and editorial page editor, called the lack of disclosure “shameless.”
“They ought to put a banner saying Romney has approved of this page,” Frankel said of the Journal. “It looks like The Wall Street Journal editorial and op ed pages have enlisted in the campaign. They should be disclosing that, that makes it outrageous, it is not a mistake or a slip up, it is a matter of policy to be deplored. The page is shameless, not interested in multiple points of view.”
He added that his own paper had established policies to prevent such failures: “We had a standard inquiry of people writing as to whether they had any conflict on this subject or this position that you are taking, we questioned them. If they did, I don't remember publishing pieces with a conflict of this flagrant sort. If you are going to let the campaign speak, you say this is from the campaign.”
Howell Raines, who also served as editorial page editor and later executive editor of The New York Times, agreed.
“As to the number of Romney advocates, it seems to me to be in keeping with the editing standards established by former WSJ editorial page editor Robert Bartley,” Raines said in an email. “He was very open about using his opinion pages for one-sided advocacy rather than balance. Given the demographic profile of WSJ readers, I doubt if their tilt makes much difference in their readers' voting behavior.”
John Diaz, 16-year editorial page editor for the San Francisco Chronicle, said the prominence of the writers should have raised a red flag that they could be Romney advisers.
“By the nature of the piece you get a sense of a potential conflict one way or another,” he said. “I would think that an author high profile enough to be a campaign advisor, that question would come up.”
Harold Jackson, The Philadelphia Inquirer's editorial page editor since 2007, agreed with the Times' Frankel and Raines that the Journal's actions give it an appearance of being more concerned with partisanship than ethics.
“It would suggest that there is an agenda there, certainly their point of view is obvious in terms of the people they support so I don't know why it would be harmful for them to disclose those kinds of connections,” Jackson said. “I think readers would expect it.”
He later added, “We try to be very careful about making all of that information available to our readers if we know it, and certainly at this level, with a presidential campaign, we feel it is important to reveal it to the readers. The most information a reader can have the better and it presents accusations of collusion by us, maybe The Wall Street Journal is not worried about that, but we are.”
Other editorial page editors who would not criticize the Journal directly nonetheless outlined steps they take at their papers to ensure they provide the necessary transparency.
“Occasionally, we publish a writer whose affiliation may not be recognized and we do a little independent research (as well as consult the writer) about how best to identify them in the tagline - with an eye to political disclosure,” said Keven Willey, editorial page editor of The Dallas Morning News and a member of the Pulitzer Prize Board. “If a writer deceives us, it quickly becomes clear and we don't publish them again.”
Added Bruce Dold, editorial page editor of Chicago Tribune:
“If we've got a question about somebody who might be involved in a campaign, we would ask them; that doesn't exclude them, but we would want to know,” he said. “If we have somebody who has been involved in campaigns in the past, we are likely to ask about that.”