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'Wall Street Journal' Editor Defends Trump Coverage At Staff Meeting

Feb 13, 2017
Originally published on February 14, 2017 3:48 am

A newsroom unsettled by layoffs and buyouts of 200 colleagues. A senior editor decamping for the competition. And above all a lingering question from many reporters: did The Wall Street Journal pull its punches in scrutinizing the man who is now president?

The paper's top editor, Gerard Baker, held a meeting with his staff Monday to give a muscular defense of the paper's coverage of Donald Trump and, by extension, his own leadership.

Despite Trump's casting of the press as a foe, Baker said, the Journal had proved unbiased, yet not adversarial. He read off headlines from a variety of stories that he said demonstrated the paper's tough scrutiny, according to two participants in the meeting.

Other news organizations had embraced a more adversarial posture in response to Trump, Baker said, in remarks that some of the paper's journalists took to be a reference to The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Baker said those staffers who admired that adversarial approach should go join one of those other outlets.

No one, he said, could accuse the Journal of being soft on Trump.

Some reporters and editors at the storied paper tell NPR they believe the Journal had been just that, particularly during the campaign, to please the conservative views held by Baker and the paper's controlling owner, News Corp executive chairman Rupert Murdoch.

Murdoch's Ties to Trump

Baker was elevated by Murdoch to be editor-in-chief in late 2012 and before that was the paper's number-two editor; previously he had been a conservative columnist for Murdoch's Times of London who had championed such political figures as former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

Murdoch has ties to Donald Trump and his relatives and grew increasingly bullish on him as the election neared and as Trump took office. That's perhaps best reflected in the morning and prime-time programs of the Fox News Channel, which Murdoch now personally oversees at 21st Century Fox.

Murdoch, who likes to have close ties to presidents and prime ministers in his native Australia, the U.K. and the U.S., is said to speak to Trump weekly; Trump's daughter Ivanka until recently served as a trustee to the fortunes of his young daughters with his ex-wife Wendi Deng.

This story is based on interviews with six veteran journalists at The Wall Street Journal, as well as two dozen interviews conducted with Journal staffers before and after Baker's promotion in 2012. Baker did not reply to a request for comment for this article about the meeting and the newsroom's concerns.

A Conservative Editor-in-Chief

Baker is not shy about his belief, shared with Murdoch, that the rest of the big legacy news outlets betray a liberal bias daily. That leads to Baker's reflexive distrust of the news judgment that yields the front page of The New York Times each morning.

And it shows.

Flaps that led the nightly news, such as the emergence of a 2005 tape on which Trump boasted that he had grabbed a woman's genitals without her consent, received less attention in the Journal than they did elsewhere. The Washington Post broke the story, which dominated headlines elsewhere for days.

During the campaign, these journalists at the Journal told NPR, the paper did not initially take Trump altogether seriously. Even when his candidacy developed real strength, coverage in the Journal, with some notable exceptions, was not aimed at holding the political neophyte accountable for his actions and policies.

Several reporters and editors said stories that proved unflattering to Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, her foundation and labor union allies, shot to the front page. Analogous stories involving Republicans, Trump or acts by corporate players were slower to post and print.

Several reporters said the Journal was more rigorous after Election Day, during the transition and since Trump took office.

But Baker's emailed admonition to editors to avoid referring to "seven majority-Muslim countries" as the focus of a new restrictive Trump immigration order rubbed many staffers wrong.

Reporters saw that as parroting the administration's position that travelers from those nations represented a security threat to the United States, while failing to note that no one from those countries had committed an act of terror in the U.S. proper.

At an event earlier this month at Harvard University, Baker noted that the policy affected only seven among dozens of Muslim-majority countries in the world.

"We must absolutely use the words majority-Muslim countries, but we must also explain, we must use other words, including that they had been previously identified by the previous administration as — I think the phrase was — countries of concern," Baker said on Feb. 1 at the Nieman Foundation.

"This is very emotive. I understand why people use it. It was initially obviously a phrase that Donald Trump himself used, but he subsequently retreated from that. We do need to be very careful about that language, and we do need to be very precise."

Baker's Vision for the Journal

Baker told reporters Monday there was no good reason to be antagonistic to the Trump administration for the sake of it, or to declare war. Instead, he argued for the marshalling of facts and context. The Journal would alienate its subscribers were its forcefulness to be mistaken for bias, he said.

Baker spoke of the importance of focusing the paper more on business coverage - its original mandate. Murdoch and his top lieutenants had expanded the paper with the intent of making it a general news rival to The New York Times. The recent layoffs and buyouts, Baker said, were part of an effort to strip the paper back down to its roots.

Baker also acknowledged the disappointment that one of his top deputies, Rebecca Blumenstein, was leaving the paper for the Times to take a similar job. She had pre-dated the acquisition of the Journal by News Corp and was seen as a bridge between the paper's owners and the values of the newsroom.

Several Journal reporters and editors say they admire the principles Baker articulated. But they expressed dismay that the Journal, with all its expertise in chronicling and investigating the worlds of business and finance, did not own the story of the first entrepreneur and rookie politician elected president of the United States.

And these journalists questioned whether Baker could be trusted to make the decisions necessary to ensure unbiased coverage.

After Trump's victory, Baker wrote a column for the conservative British Spectator magazine mocking the rest of the U.S. press.

"The shock of Trump's victory was greeted the next morning with a keening that was taken up like the call of the muezzin from the minarets of traditional and social media," he wrote.

(Baker also detoured to call New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman "the blowhard, self-anointed intellectual voice of proper thinking elites.")

Such a column might be more expected from a newspaper editor in the U.K., where a journalist's political beliefs are typically more openly expressed.

Baker was having none of it. The idea that the Journal, or its leadership, had favored Trump, was "fake news," he declared.

David Folkenflik is the author of Murdoch's World: The Last of the Old Media Empires.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

The editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal met with the newspaper's staff today to address concerns in the newsroom. Many journalists there are concerned that the paper has not been sufficiently tough on Donald Trump either as a candidate or as president. NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik has been reporting on this story and joins me now from our studio in New York. David, what was the source of concern of the reporters?

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Well, it particularly dates back to the campaign. I think that reporters at The Journal take pride - and rightly so - in what they do day in and day out. And yet there was a sense that the paper was tempered in how it decided to cover candidate Trump, taking a long time, like many in the media, to decide to take him seriously as a presence on the campaign trail, but then failing to really rigorously scrutinize him, particularly in the way that a business publication should. After all, The Journal is The Wall Street Journal. They should understand how an entrepreneur and businessman operates perhaps better than most. And on a number of occasions they felt that stories were soft-pedaled in The Journal or that stories were broken in other places that they were just simply not able to match.

And I think that was a disappointment for many in the paper. And they felt that there was a reason for that. They felt that Gerard Baker, the-editor-in-chief, and Rupert Murdoch, because of their conservative personal leanings, were perhaps putting their foot on the brake rather than the accelerator.

SIEGEL: Baker has been editor-in-chief there at The Journal for several years. What has he said in response to these concerns?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, he's a very smart and thoughtful guy. Before he was at The Journal, he was a conservative columnist for Rupert Murdoch's Times of London. And what he said here was look, what we have to offer the world is unbiased journalism, and that even if Donald Trump has taken an adversarial stance toward the press that doesn't mean that we have to be a combatant. We must be able to present stuff that can be trusted.

And then he said, you know, there are other news organizations that have approached it differently. And this was felt by the reporters I talked to to be an allusion to places like The Washington Post, places like The New York Times they have done some aggressive stuff. And he said, you know, and if that's what you like then you can go there. You can leave. And so some people took that a little askance. They took that as a bit of a slap. But he said, you know, what we're doing is what we've always done. We're going to continue to do it.

SIEGEL: David, you've reported today that one of the questions from a reporter there focused on the paper's controlling owner, News Corp executive Rupert Murdoch. What did the reporter want to know?

FOLKENFLIK: The reporter wanted to know - read which Rupert Murdoch, who's famous for being not only a businessman, not only a prominent media figure, but somebody who likes to influence elections and have the ear of presidents and prime ministers - the effect to which Murdoch's own conservative predilections and ultimately his embrace of Trump as a Republican candidate for president over Hillary Clinton affects news judgment. And Baker didn't say it has nothing at all. Baker said, you know, Rupert Murdoch and I talk a lot.

And that's fair. Murdoch's essentially the proprietor of that institution. But he said, we talk a lot. We confer. Obviously Rupert Murdoch also talks to Donald Trump a fair amount. And at times he's open about that, at times not so much, as when his presence at an interview done by the Times of London was sort of edited out of photographs and the transcript of the event.

It's a source of concern for reporters who are not clear on what the impetus is for certain kinds of subtle decisions late at night between, say, 5 and 8 or 9 at night in terms of inflections, headlines, ways in which stories are presented, what pages they're picked to appear on in print. They don't know where that's coming from, and that's the source of that question.

SIEGEL: What's your sense of how well Baker's remarks to the journalists were received?

FOLKENFLIK: You know, it's funny - journalists, they actually say what he says is appealing. They like the idea of making sure that people from all political persuasions and stripes will trust what they report. And they are - agree that a lot of the reporting since Trump took office has been quite impressive, indeed in the pages of The Journal. They're not sure they trust Gerry Baker under Rupert Murdoch to make these fine-tuned decisions about what appears and how it's framed. And I think that's the source of a lot of concern and a lot of trepidation within that newsroom.

SIEGEL: That's NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik in New York. David, thanks.

FOLKENFLIK: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.