Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Gerard Baker announced Wednesday that he plans to hold a town hall meeting next week to discuss “a range of topics.” He specifically mentioned one topic that’s been on the minds of Journal staffers: the paper’s reorganization plan known as WSJ 2020. But he didn’t mention another one that’s been the talk of the Journal’s newsroom: coverage of President Donald Trump.
It likely will come up anyway.
Newsroom concerns over whether the paper has been too soft on Trump stretch back to the campaign, according to current and former employees. Some Journal staffers were frustrated during the 2016 election as reporter Monica Langley, who recently left the paper, gained unmatched access to Trump and wrote glowing pieces on the candidate, his family and his inner circle. Others found the paper’s overall touch far too credulous. As rival publications, like the New York Times and Washington Post, pounced on Trump’s untruths and unclear policy positions, one Journal staffer described the paper’s approach as “neutral to the point of being absurd.”
Since Trump’s election, the concern in the newsroom is that the coverage has remained deferential. In late November, the Journal splashed Trump’s bogus “voter fraud” claim across the front page. Last month, the Journal ran a print headline that again failed to characterize Trump’s conspiracy theory about voter fraud as completely false ― or as the New York Times has recently been saying ― a “lie.”
Baker has spoken against describing Trump’s repeated falsehoods as “lies” and has argued the Journal has been more objective covering the election than its competitors.
This posture, to some, is indicative of the Journal’s traditionally more sober coverage and resistance to taking a crusading tone in its news pages (as opposed to the Journal’s unabashedly conservative editorial pages). And staffers point to the Journal’s prescient “Great Unraveling” series during the election and recent investigative stories on Trump as evidence that the paper’s coverage isn’t monolithic or reflexively sympathetic to the president.
But in terms of framing Trump’s dubious claims and policies, some worry that the Rupert Murdoch-owned Journal is pulling punches because a Republican president is now in the White House. Increasingly, they’ve begun questioning if Baker’s own conservative views ― which he expressed as columnist and TV commentator before joining the paper ― have played a role in the paper’s approach.
A veteran British journalist, Baker joined as deputy editor-in-chief after the 2008 election and just over a year after Murdoch’s purchase of it. A Fox News segment featuring Baker mocking the just-elected President Barack Obama made the rounds amid concerns over whether the paper’s news coverage would become more conservative under Baker and then-editor-in-chief Robert Thomson, a close Murdoch confidant and current chief executive of Journal parent News Corp. Soon after, the late New York Times columnist David Carr wrote that the paper was “tilting right,” a description the Journal’s top brass rejected. “I understand the difference between reporting and opinion,” Baker told this reporter in March 2009.
Baker rose to the top newsroom job in 2013 and now oversees a legacy newspaper, which, like others, is reorganizing around a digital future and making difficult decisions in the process. There were layoffs last week in some of the paper’s overseas bureaus, and more cuts are likely to come. On Tuesday came the bombshell departure of deputy editor-in-chief Rebecca Blumenstein, a widely respected newsroom figure over the past two decades who will assume a senior role at the Times.
Beyond financial pressures, the question in the Journal’s newsroom is whether Baker will meet the expectations of staff in tackling a moment of great upheaval in American politics and effectively hold accountable a president who is not only waging war on the press but repeatedly uttering falsehoods and promoting misinformation. Baker has never inspired the kind of widespread reverence in the newsroom that, say, Marty Baron has at the Washington Post. And he’s now facing what some say is especially low morale and concerns whether the paper is blowing the biggest story in recent memory.
The desire to have a dialogue with Baker about Trump coverage stretches beyond reporters in Washington, with concerns apparent in the New York headquarters and domestic and foreign bureaus as well. Journal staffers have been discussing coverage on an internal listserv, according to sources, and some recently requested that Baker hold a town hall-style meeting. Baker did not respond to multiple requests from The Huffington Post over the past week about whether he intended to meet staff over Trump-related concerns.
Karen Pensiero, the Journal’s editor of newsroom standards, acknowledged in an email to HuffPost that Trump coverage is one of the topics she’s discussed with staffers.
“I have an open door and open lines of communication with staffers across the Journal, and I frequently engage in conversations and email about how we and other media companies cover politics and the Trump administration,” she wrote. “It’s one of the things that I love most about my job here, and I imagine similar conversations are happening across many newsrooms. I’m really proud of our journalists and the excellent work they’re doing, as well as the newsroom’s longstanding commitment to thoroughness, fairness and accuracy.”
Some frustrations with Baker’s stewardship recently spilled outside the newsroom when an email he wrote to editors urging them to stop using the term “Muslim-majority” with regard to Trump’s immigration executive order was leaked to a BuzzFeed reporter (who only weeks earlier worked at the Journal).
The term, Baker wrote, was “very loaded” and he suggested the reason the seven countries in the order were chosen wasn’t because of their Muslim populations but because the Obama administration had identified them as countries of concern. Baker seemed to be echoing the administration’s justification rather than giving that claim appropriate scrutiny.
Hours after the BuzzFeed story ran, Baker wrote in a staff memo that there is “no ban” on the phrase “Muslim-majority country.” Still, the paper, he wrote, “should always be careful that this term is not offered as the only description of the countries covered under the ban.”
Some staffers worry the Journal has become excessively cautious in challenging the administration’s spin and misinformation, to the point of even giving legitimacy to blatant Trump falsehoods. The Journal is hardly alone in finding Trump a difficult story to handle. The president has the ability to both question the legitimacy of the press instantly to 20-plus million Twitter followers and inject falsehoods into the public discourse, making it hard for the media to perform its job.
For instance, several major news outlets initially amplified Trump’s baseless claim in a November tweet that “millions” of undocumented immigrants voted in the election and tilted the popular vote to Hillary Clinton. But while others pulled back within hours, the Journal ran Trump’s bogus claim across the top of the next morning’s front page under the headline: “Trump Takes Aim At ‘Millions’ Of Votes.” One liberal columnist described it as propaganda.
Legacy news organizations are also especially hesitant to characterize a claim as a “lie,” an issue that’s already been hotly debated in the Trump era. The Times, which has gotten a lot of attention for using the L-word in response to Trump’s statements, has only done so twice: to label Trump’s claims about Obama’s birthplace and Trump’s case for widespread voter fraud.
Last month, Baker urged caution when it comes to using the word “lie,” telling “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd that doing so “implies a deliberate intent to mislead.” Noting the time Trump insisted that “thousands” of people in Jersey City, New Jersey, cheered the World Trade Center falling ― an event that never happened ― Baker said he thinks “it’s right to investigate that claim, to report what we found, which is that nobody found any evidence of that whatsoever, and to say that.”
“He says things that are challengeable, to put it mildly, that are questionable,” Baker said of Trump. “And I think a lot of reporters feel that ― somehow feel very much that they are part of the ― they’re in the contest really and that it is their job to take him on.”
Inside the Journal, the concern is that the paper is now presenting facts its journalists have gathered alongside a falsehood uttered by Trump and telling the reader to discern for himself. That such an approach comes at a time when competitors adopt a sharper tone in calling out Trump’s untruths, especially those that could have dangerous repercussions for immigrants and Muslims, is all the more demoralizing.
Outside the paper, the criticism of Baker has begun piling up. New York Times columnist David Leonhardt took issue with Baker’s argument on “Meet the Press” that saying a politician “lied” risks appearing no longer objective. “News organizations have to decide whether they place a higher priority on seeming subjective to some readers or on stating the facts,” Leonhardt wrote. And the Journal, he added, “is one of the world’s great newspapers, and I dearly hope that Baker will choose honesty over timidity when the two conflict.”
So far, Baker hasn’t appeared swayed by such responses and he seems to share Murdoch’s running critique of the news media as leaning left. So while the Journal approach to Trump may appear timid to some, Baker would likely argue it’s more balanced.
Just before the election, Baker wrote to staff that “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.” In late December, Baker said in a TV ad that the “Journal covered this election the way we’ve been covering elections for the past 127 years: objectively, and across the whole nation.” And last week, Baker wrote in a staff memo that the Journal has “covered and will cover the Trump administration aggressively.”
He’ll probably say something similar at Monday’s town hall. But staff will now have the opportunity to talk back.