The Wall Street Journal’s Trump problem
On Monday 13 February, just over three weeks after Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Wall Street Journal’s editor-in-chief Gerry Baker held a town-hall style meeting in the paper’s midtown Manhattan newsroom amid mounting concern about the WSJ’s coverage of the new president, which many staffers felt was too soft and too quick to downplay controversies.
Poor morale underscored by two rounds of buyouts since September had been exacerbated by the recent departure of one of the paper’s number-two editors for the arch-rival New York Times BandarQQ. But the meeting meant to reassure the newsroom only heightened tensions.
“Instead of clearing the air about the legitimate concerns of editors and reporters about balanced coverage of Trump, Baker led off with a 20-minute scolding about how we were indeed covering Trump correctly, and anybody who disputed that was wrong and wrong-headed,” a recently departed Journal staffer told the Guardian. “That pretty much took the air out of the room. I and most of my colleagues were disgusted by his performance.”
Concerns about the way in which the paper was covering Trump spilled over into public view earlier this year, when newsroom emails began leaking out showing Baker criticizing his staffers for language he deemed unfair.
The Journal, a New York-based institution more than a century old, remains one of the nation’s most-read newspapers, with the power to move markets and shape political agendas. Like the Financial Times in London, it’s long been the must-read for the business and financial class – with a business-friendly conservative editorial page to match – known for its deeply-reported stories and calm design.
Dozens of reporters, editors, and copy staff have left the paper in the past year, an exodus attributable to a combination of buyout incentives, poaching and frustration with management at the title which Rupert Murdoch added to his media empire a decade ago.
The talented staff that remain still produce memorable journalism. But when it comes to covering Trump – according to interviews with 18 current and former Journal staffers, some of whom have provided the Guardian with previously unpublished emails from Baker – many say this is no thanks to management.
“The Journal has done a lot of good work in covering the Trump administration, but not nearly as much as it should have,” another recent departee said. “I lay almost all of that at Gerry’s doorstep. Political editors and reporters find themselves either directly stymied by Gerry’s interference or shave the edges off their stories in advance to try to please him (and, by extension, Murdoch).”
Meanwhile longtime observers like Sarah Ellison, a former Journal reporter and author of the book War at the Wall Street Journal about Murdoch’s takeover of the paper, is not entirely surprised to see what has happened to Murdoch’s paper under Trump. “This is the most access he has had to a sitting president ever – that is something he’s tried to do and has done in other countries particularly with British prime ministers,” Ellison said. “He’s choosing his own personal access over having any journalistic clout.”