The Wall Street Journal's failure to disclose op-ed columnist Karl Rove's ties to political organizations raising hundreds of millions of dollars to defeat President Obama and other Democratic candidates is drawing harsh criticism from editorial page editors at America's top newspapers.
Even as he writes regular columns on the 2012 election for the Journal, Rove serves as what Vanity Fair calls “the defacto leader of the Republican Party.” As the co-founder of the super PAC American Crossroads and its related organization Crossroads GPS, Rove is helping to assemble a massive war chest to run attack ads against Democrats this fall -- an obvious conflict of interest.
While Rove occasionally (but not consistently) discloses his connection to the political organizations in his columns, the description of Rove on the WSJ.com website and with each print column states only that “Mr. Rove is the former senior adviser and deputy chief of staff to President George W. Bush.” The ties are also absent from the 171-word bio of Rove that is occasionally appended to his columns on the Wall Street Journal website.
Howell Raines, a former editorial page editor and executive editor at The New York Times, says that description is woefully inadequate during the current election season. “His role at American Crossroads is, if anything, more relevant to this campaign than his Bush ties, given the importance of PAC commercials in this campaign,” Raines told Media Matters in an email.
According to Raines, who served as the Times' editorial page editor in the mid-1990s, “full disclosure of a contributor's ties and interests is a threshold requirement,” and the Journal's description fails to provide the reader with “information relevant to the issue at hand.”
Rove often appears to use his Journal column to further his efforts to defeat Democratic candidates. In one recent column, Rove suggested that the Romney campaign would be better off running positive ads on their own candidate, writing that attacking Obama is “a job better left (mostly) to outside groups.” Neither Rove nor the Journal disclosed Rove's own role in working to raise at least $240 million before Election Day to fund such ad buys.
Raines is not alone in his critique. More than a dozen current and former editorial page editors at major newspapers told Media Matters that they were uneasy with the Journal's practice. Many stated outright that the Journal should be disclosing Rove's ties and some said they would not publish such columns with or without such disclosure.
The Wall Street Journal and Journal Editorial Page Editor Paul Gigot did not respond to requests for comment.
Two other former New York Times editorial page editors joined Raines in criticizing the Journal.
Asked if the Journal should disclose Rove's conflict, Jack Rosenthal, who won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1982 and served for six years as the Times' editorial page editor in the late 1980s and early 1990s, called doing so “good practice.”
“You and I would certainly regard that as good practice. I would wish to do that just as I would wish any editorial writer, columnist or reporter to disclose conflicts.”
Former Times editorial page and executive editor Max Frankel said the paper should “absolutely” disclose Rove's ties, but went further, suggesting that giving Rove a journalistic platform creates ethical problems that proper identification alone would not solve.
“I wouldn't run” Rove's column said Frankel, who preceded Rosenthal as the Times' editorial page editor. “It is not a question of disclosure it is a question of why do you have him there? What is the purpose? Why not have Obama and Romney and their ghost writers put it there?”
The New York Times alums were joined by three former Los Angeles Times opinion page editors who also weighed in with criticism of the Journal.
“I am not in the business of deciding what's right for another newspaper. But on our pages we try to be as transparent as possible about who people are and why they're writing,” current Los Angeles Times editorial page editor Nicholas Goldberg wrote in an email. “As a political insider, Karl Rove has all sorts of insights he can offer to readers. But he also is a professional political operative with direct ties to the presidential campaign and I think that readers deserve to be reminded of that fact.”
Goldberg added, “Columnists should be opinionated, even partisan. But if they have a particular interest in what they're writing other than pure journalistic curiosity, I think it makes sense to inform readers.”
Jim Newton, whom Goldberg succeeded in 2009, said he never would have allowed such a lack of disclosure at his former shop.
“It has been our approach to, whenever we know of an interest that an author might have in a piece on our pages, we disclose it in the piece or in the tagline,” Newton said in an interview. “I think we ran a piece by Obama and identified him as president of the United States.”
He later said about Rove and the Journal specifically, “What you want on your pages, generally, is for the exchange of interesting, provocative views not necessarily the advancement of one side or the other. Rove is a perfectly appropriate person to have write for the page, but it is proper that people know who he is. I would be careful about letting people know who he is.”
Tom Plate, Los Angeles Times editorial page editor from 1989 to 1995, agreed.
“While I think Karl Rove is a very insightful analyst, I do think the Wall Street Journal is negligent in failing to fully identify this guy,” Plate said. “In the Los Angeles Times of the 90's, there was no way that you would have anything other than a complete identification of Rove and about Rove.”
Newsweek/The Daily Beast provides an instructive counterexample for how a media outlet can properly identify a columnist who also serves as an advisor to a super PAC.
Bruce Dold, editorial page editor of the Chicago Tribune, pointed out Newsweek's practice of disclosing Democratic strategist Paul Begala's position as an advisor to Priorities USA Action, a progressive super PAC, in his columns.
At the conclusion of each of his columns Begala is described as follows: “Paul Begala is a Newsweek/Daily Beast columnist, a CNN contributor, an affiliated professor of public policy at Georgetown, and a senior adviser to Priorities USA Action, a progressive PAC.”
“It would be more helpful to readers to acknowledge that Priorities USA Action is deeply involved in the presidential race on behalf of the president,” Dold said. “But his PAC connection at least is identified.”
Editorial page editors at several other major daily papers also took issue with the Journal's deceptive practice.
John Diaz, editorial page editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, called such disclosures “essential.”
“Certainly, in any kind of situation like that I think disclosure is essential when someone has a connection to a campaign or a financial interest in what they're writing about,” Diaz opined. He later added, “I think we owe it to our readers to let them know if a columnist has either a tie to a campaign or some kind of financial interest in what they are writing about; Especially when it is not readily apparent.”
Peter Canellos, editorial page editor for the past three years at The Boston Globe, said Rove's full disclosure is necessary.
“I think that it's important to disclose conflicts if the person is writing about something there is a direct conflict in,” he said. “You are sort of guarding against personal self-interest.”
Asked about Rove's American Crossroads conflict, Canellos added: “I think that is a reasonable point. If I were the editor involved, it might make me rethink disclosing the PAC as well.”
Harold Jackson, editorial page editor for the past five years at the Philadelphia Inquirer, said referencing Rove's past as a GOP operative is not a sufficient descriptor in this case.
“My personal opinion would be that there should always be full disclosure,” Jackson said. “We in the newspaper business believe the public has to have all of the information. Karl Rove certainly is a recognizable name and they would know he is a Republican, but it is additional information that would be helpful to readers to know that he is participating in that way by financing a PAC or heading a PAC.”
Curtis Hubbard, editorial page editor of The Denver Post for the past year, agreed.
“Our policy here would be that if somebody is involved in a campaign, and I would put forward that overseeing a PAC that is spending money in a campaign is being involved, that we would disclose it,” he said. “We think that the readers need to be equipped with the proper context to know where the writer is coming from.”
Scott Gillespie, editorial page editor of The Star-Tribune in Minneapolis, said he was unaware of Rove's ties to American Crossroads. Asked if the connection needs to be disclosed, he said, “I would say yes, when he is writing about the campaign, it is a pretty active role. I'm not sure readers would be surprised by it, but they should know it. In editorials, we will hit public officials for that very thing, not disclosing the appearance of conflict - it is not just the action, it is the appearance.”
Other current editorial page editors described instances where they had demanded that similar conflicts by opinion writers had to be revealed to readers to ensure transparency.
“We have one of our columnists, former [Maryland] governor Bob Ehrlich, who is the Maryland chairman for the Romney campaign and we disclose that [conflict] weekly," said Andrew A. Green, opinion editor at The Baltimore Sun. “We think it's important for readers to have all of the facts about what could be contributing to Mr. Ehrlich's opinion.”
Myriam Márquez, editorial page editor at The Miami Herald, offered a similar situation that required full disclosure by an Op-Ed columnist.
“I had a case of a school board member who also happens to be a campaign consultant, he wrote something about bringing casinos to South Florida. He was helping one of the casino companies and he had an idea to write something,” she recalled. “He took issue that I wanted to put on there that he was working for this casino company and a school board member. We ran it with all of the qualifiers.”
But even as they call on the Journal to improve its disclosure of Rove's ties, some veteran editorial page editors say that its partisan slant is so great that its credibility has been fatally damaged.
For decades, “the Journal opinion pages have been openly committed to being an instrument of Republican Party advancement,” said the Times' Raines. “The same is true now of Fox, which also regularly presents Karl Rove as an expert without, as I recall, exhaustive labeling or explanation of his background. What I'm saying is that, regrettably, explicit identification may be less essential, as a practical matter of reader service, in news outlets that have already crossed over the line of partisanship. Where content is so propagandistic, the reader or viewer probably knows that not all the cards are showing.”