280 Wall Street Journal reporters have sent a letter to publisher Almar Latour, registering their grievances about the paper’s opinion section and its “lack of fact-checking and transparency, and its apparent disregard for evidence” — a problem, they say, which “undermine our readers' trust and our ability to gain credibility with sources.”
However, the letter writers misunderstand the fundamental issue here: The problem is not that The Wall Street Journal’s opinion section undermines the newsroom’s credibility — it’s that in the right-wing media environment, especially under the ownership of the Murdoch empire, the newsroom only exists in order to help confer a patina of credibility on the opinion section as it spreads right-wing falsehoods. And this should become all that much clearer when looking at the opinion section’s responses and its total lack of accountability.
As Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo notes, the newsroom staff’s consternation about the opinion section goes back at least to 2017, and problems have also flared up in recent months.
One of the letter’s proposed remedies even seems to imply that the newsroom remains subservient to the opinion pages in the corporate pecking order — that falsehoods in the opinion pages eclipse any facts in the news sections.
The full text of the letter was posted on Twitter by New York Times media reporter Marc Tracy:
In addition to the opinion section’s serial inaccuracies on matters of economic policy, such as tax rates and proposed changes to retirement plans, the letter notes that the opinion section has posted claims that ran contrary to the newsroom’s own factual reporting. As just one example, the letter cited the opinion section’s publication of a guest piece by Vice President Mike Pence, “There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave,’” which the authors note was contrary to the paper’s own news reporting from just a week prior, “California and Some Other States See Coronavirus Cases Rise.”
In fact, one of the letter writers’ proposed solutions is that “WSJ journalists should not be reprimanded for writing about errors published in Opinion, whether we make those observations in our articles, on social media or elsewhere.”
(Indeed, as we noted this past September, the Journal’s factual reporting on the Trump-Ukraine scandal apparently had zero influence on the opinion section, as it continued to print claims accusing Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden of corruption — which was President Donald Trump’s entire aim in the scandal — but which were diametrically opposed to the newsroom’s steady debunking of those accusations.)
The letter writers also discussed a widely shared commentary piece that the opinion section published in early June, “The Myth of Systemic Police Racism,” written by the prolifically racist author and frequent Fox News guest Heather Mac Donald, which misused and even contradicted the academic studies it claimed to be based upon. When one of the Harvard researchers whose study was cited by Mac Donald submitted a rebuttal piece declaring, “People who invoke our work to argue that systemic police racism is a myth conveniently ignore these statistics,” the version published by the Journal online contained no link back to the very opinion piece that the researcher was complaining about.
“Because no URL linking to the earlier WSJ article was embedded in those words, many readers might not even have realized that the researcher's outrage over the distortion of his findings was directed at the Opinion page itself,” the letter writers say, claiming: “This is opacity and misdirection, not the transparency that WSJ stands for.”
And this kind of dishonesty has real consequences, the letter writers argue, not only for the paper’s credibility with readers and sources, but also for its own internal work environment:
Multiple employees of color publicly spoke out about the pain this Opinion piece caused them during company-held discussions surrounding diversity initiatives. … If the company is serious about better supporting its employees of color, at a bare minimum it should raise Opinion’s standards so that misinformation about racism isn't published.
And on a very troubling note, the newsroom writers also note that the opinion section stood by a contributor whose actions had put a news reporter in physical danger while working abroad:
Opinion’s disregard for the newsroom has also endangered newsroom safety. Not long ago, an Opinion contributor falsely claimed in a tweet that one of our Middle East-based reporters had friends in the Muslim Brotherhood. The safety of our reporter was put at risk by this false claim because she worked frequently in Saudi Arabia, which views the Brotherhood as an enemy. Members of the newsroom were told that the Opinion page agreed to stop using this contributor, but months later he was back writing for the section, suggesting that even endangering a WSJ employee by publishing misinformation isn't a serious infraction.
As its rebuttal, the Journal’s editorial board published a piece Thursday night, “A Note to Readers,” carrying the sub-headline, “These pages won’t wilt under cancel-culture pressure.” The text of the piece continues the defiant tone:
We’ve been gratified this week by the outpouring of support from readers after some 280 of our Wall Street Journal colleagues signed (and someone leaked) a letter to our publisher criticizing the opinion pages. But the support has often been mixed with concern that perhaps the letter will cause us to change our principles and content. On that point, reassurance is in order.
It was probably inevitable that the wave of progressive cancel culture would arrive at the Journal, as it has at nearly every other cultural, business, academic and journalistic institution. But we are not the New York Times. Most Journal reporters attempt to cover the news fairly and down the middle, and our opinion pages offer an alternative to the uniform progressive views that dominate nearly all of today’s media.
The piece also dismissed the letter writers’ concerns, claiming, “Their anxieties aren’t our responsibility in any case” due to the editorial independence of the news and opinion departments. But given that the letter pointed out that the opinion section continued to patronize a contributor who genuinely did put a reporter’s life in danger, those “anxieties” really ought to be the opinion section’s “responsibility.”
This whole statement gives away too much of the game. After all, if the Journal’s reporters are said to provide coverage “fairly and down the middle,” then the “alternative” offered by the opinion page is clearly an unfair pursuit, proudly unmoored from the facts offered by the opinion section’s adversaries in the newsroom. And if calling for fact-checking and an adherence to reality — as well as maintaining concern for colleagues’ physical safety — are now said to constitute “cancel culture,” then the opposing conservative view offered by The Wall Street Journal’s opinion section is a proud affirmation of dishonesty and reckless endangerment as a corporate mission.