Home Politics Believing ‘Wall Street Journal’ Op-Eds Can Be Deadly

Believing ‘Wall Street Journal’ Op-Eds Can Be Deadly

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Donald Trump holds up WSJ Opinion section with an editorial titled

Donald Trump holds up The Wall Street Journal as he speaks at the daily coronavirus briefing at the White House on April 19, 2020. (Tasos Katopodis / Getty Images)

In 1981, Ben Bagdikian, a veteran journalist and former dean of the University of California, Berkeley, journalism school, tried to explain why The Wall Street Journal published an opinion section dominated by an almost lunatic fringe. “Executives and stockholders really do want to know the unpleasant truth about corporate life when it affects their careers or incomes. At the same time, however, most of them are true believers in the rhetoric of free enterprise,” he noted. Therefore, by “singing the grand old hymns of unfettered laissez-faire on the editorial pages” while reporting the truth in its news pages, “the Journal has it both ways.”
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This was only moderately problematic when US politics was played on a field with center-left and center-right goalposts, though media critics often amused themselves by suggesting that any number of inaccuracies published on the opinion pages could have been easily avoided if their authors took the trouble to read their own newspaper. Unfortunately, the Journal‘s editorial page helped mess up the game when Republican politicians started taking its arguments seriously. It began with the paper’s campaign for supply-side economics under President Ronald Reagan and ballooned with literally thousands of pages of conspiracy theories printed during Bill Clinton’s presidency. Incrementally, thanks to the massive investments of billionaires like Rupert Murdoch (now the Journal‘s owner), Richard Mellon Scaife, the Koch brothers, and the Mercer family, this sort of nuttiness became holy writ within the conservative punditocracy.

Under the stewardship of Paul Gigot, who took over the Journal‘s op-ed section in 2001, the page has lurched rightward with the rest of the conservative movement—to the point that even fabulists like Bret Stephens and Bari Weiss no longer felt comfortable and decamped to pollute the pages of The New York Times. Unlike the Times, however, the Journal‘s page, with just one centrist exception, often publishes only right-wingers. Opinions may split between those who cheerlead for and those who chide the president. But there is a discernible consistency: a commitment to owning the libs.

Today the threat posed by the Trump administration spreading coronavirus misinformation and violently repressing Black Lives Matter protests has made publishing the president’s most enthusiastic supporters especially dangerous. As the Times‘ Senator Tom Cotton brouhaha demonstrated, journalists have pushed the issue of printing fascistic arguments on one’s op-ed page front and center. Despite the legacy of live and let live across the news and opinion partition, the Journal‘s actual journalists took action in July. About 280 signed a long letter to the paper’s publisher, Almar Latour, complaining that the opinion section’s “lack of fact-checking and transparency, and its apparent disregard for evidence, undermine our readers’ trust and our ability to gain credibility with sources.” The letter had many examples, but a centerpiece was a column titled “There Isn’t a Coronavirus ‘Second Wave’” by Vice President Mike Pence, whose arguments were inconsistent with the government’s own figures when published and were thoroughly debunked by the Journal‘s news pages days later.

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