How many times is the publisher of the Wall Street Journal, one of America's truly great journalistic enterprises, going to allow the right-wing ideologues on the paper's editorial page embarrass the company and diminish the extraordinary work done by the news team? The question's relevant again because editorial page has produced another spectacle. The twist this time is the Journal's own newsroom is on the receiving end of the slime and reporters there want somebody at the Journal to stand up and denounce the reckless behavior of the extreme right editorial page. So far though, the silence emanating from managing editor Paul Steiger's office has ricocheted around the newsroom.
During the `90's the editorial page, led by conspiracy buff Robert Bartley, uncorked a decade's worth of comical 'enterprise' pieces as the kooky staff of ideologue reporters set out to connect the dots, for example, between president Clinton and a drug-running scheme in Mena, Arkansas. The editorial page missives from the Clinton years are nothing short of hysterical; proof of what happens when over-eager right-wingers pretend to be investigative hounds. (Read this for a full flavor of of the nuttiness.) But Journal brass refused to reign in the rogue enterprise. Maybe now it wishes it had.
The latest turmoil began with an unsigned June 30 editorial coming in the wake of the decision by New York Times, as well as the Los Angeles Times and Wall Street Journal, to reveal details about the administration's effort to track bank records of terrorists. Conservative press haters went bonkers, insisting the New York Times was guilty of treasonous behavior. But the activists were strangely silent about the roles played by the Los Angeles Times and the Journal. So in a futile effort to stitch together a coherent argument as to why the New York Times alone should be singled out for criticsm, the Journal's Times-hating editorial page explained that Journal reporter Glenn Simpson--unlike his competitor--was essentially handed his version of the banking story scoop on silver platter by the administration, and that Simpson dutifully wrote a softer version of the same story. The description was supposed to serve as a compliment, but for anybody in journalism who didn't work for the Journal's editorial page, the description representing a shocking insult, portraying Simpson as an administration shill, a stenographer really.
As is their custom, Paul Gigot's crew on the editorial page never tried to confirm its story; not with Simpson or the paper's D.C. bureau chief. In fact, managing editor Steiger didn't know the essay dissecting the Journal's news-gatthering process was running until he saw it in print. The editorial page, signaling its allegience to politics above journalism, played Journal reporters and editors for chumps.
Not surprisingly, staff reporters are pissed. The New York Observer this week collected some telling anonymous quotes:
• "People feel like we're walking around with knives in our backs. We rely on our editors to stick up for us. There's really a feeling we've been left to twist in the wind."
• "They're wrong all the time. They [the editorial page] lack credibility to the point that the emperor has no clothes."
• "To have Paul Gigot as our captain is bullshit. It's not for real."
And then there was this, on the record, from Journal political reporter Jackie Calmes: "I'm unhappy. I know a lot of other people are unhappy. The question is: What do we do about it?"
If that's not a plea for newsroom leadership, I don't know what is. Of course the current unpleasantness could have been avoided if somebody inside the Journal had, during the previous decade, stood up and publicly pointed out the uncomfortable, yet obvious fact that the paper's high-profile editorial page doesn't really practice journalism as defined by any modern professional standard, and that it often dismisses facts and ehtics with shocking ease. (Personal morals remain in question, too.) But nobody had the nerve. And now the entire Wall Street Journal news staff is paying the price for that timidly and lack of newspaper leadership.