To understand American journalism

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.

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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. 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.

And on into a long, long, whine about how the Wall Street Journal seems to be treating Trump as the President of the United States rather than the fascist incompetent that he is.

Baker’s influence is often not direct, current and former employees say. Instead, his preferences are internalized by reporters who avoid pitching stories they expect he won’t like or who tone down language in their copy before turning it in.

“The main way he influenced the coverage in a political way was not by saying you can’t write about X subject,” one former staffer said. “It was more that there were certain stories that could get into the paper very easily and other stories you knew would be a fight.”

Some reporters the Guardian spoke with made clear they never felt their stories were compromised and dismissed concerns about Murdoch’s reach and Baker’s meddling, noting that any newsroom includes a healthy back-and-forth between editors and writers.

Others said reporters, in the DC bureau especially, have had to fight to get their harder-hitting Trump stories published, if they get published at all. “Almost everyone in the newsroom has a story about their story or a story of a colleague’s getting killed,” said a reporter. “That happens in all newspapers, but the killings run in one direction.”

Quite true and it’s known as “editorial line.” Try, for example, to get a piece into The Guardian arguing that Fatcher was right in every detail.

At which point to understand American journalism. It leans rather left. The D/R split is about that of academe for example. And the WSJ is on the left side of that compared to other papers as well. Sure, the actual opinion pieces lean both R and right but the bulk of the paper doesn’t. This is rather more cultural than it is about specific areas of expertise. Someone writing about economics is not necessarily going to insist that Elizabeth Warren has a clue. But off their specific silo the same general bien pensant coastal D attitudes are pervasive. Just look at the reactions to Damore’s (entirely true by the way) comments upon the variable distribution of interests across genders – across just about all of the media in fact, except among those who actually know the subject.

Yes, it happens at other nominally conservative, right wing, free market, outlets too.

Quite why this all is I’m not sure but it’s entirely obvious to anyone working within it all. Perhaps it’s because the entry requirement these days is a Masters in Journalism. 5 or 6 years of US college is going to skew mindsets, no?

23 thoughts on “To understand American journalism”

  1. Leftists complaining that their latest unsourced hit piece against Trump has to make way for some other unsourced hit piece.

  2. Let’s leave economics aside. Is there any American paper which argues in favour of the interests of actual Americans, with American heritage?

    I don’t think there’s one in the whole country, let alone a nationally significant one.

  3. I am assuming the left leaning is why you haven’t been posting in Forbes recently. I know that some of your more contentious posts had some really rabid lefty view points raised in the comments.

  4. I should think most journalism is left wing – there’s much more scope for emotion, outrage, blame etc. rather than intellectual analysis.

  5. My take was that all the young journalists were intensely excited about Donald winning. They all thought they were the reincarnation of Bob Woodward and this was going to be the making of their careers. The editor was tired of giving the spiel individually telling them their story idea was not the next watergate so he did it in the meeting.

  6. @HallowedBe

    Exactly- boiled down this story is ‘manager makes unpopular decision; Line monkeys moan’. Has there ever been any other way?

    Snowflakes would also have been an appropriate tag- irrespective of the flack’s actual ages the mindset is the same

  7. Editor of already left biased garbage American newspaper doesn’t want any “Trump ate my Hamster–after grabbing my Pussy” stories because that would make his trashrag look even more stupid than it already does.

    After all there have to be some standards even in lying leftist cockrot.

    Waste of electrons all round.

  8. Someone writing about economics is not necessarily going to insist that Elizabeth Warren has a clue. But off their specific silo the same general bien pensant coastal D attitudes are pervasive.

    Same for the Economist and FT.

  9. “Quite why this all is I’m not sure but it’s entirely obvious to anyone working within it all. Perhaps it’s because the entry requirement these days is a Masters in Journalism. 5 or 6 years of US college is going to skew mindsets, no?”

    Incentives, maybe?

    MSM journalism used to be a good job. Even if you were a reporter at a local paper. So, it would attract ambitious people from working and middle class backgrounds for whom it was a way up. Not saying it was all about the money, but if you had writing/people skills, maybe good at hustling your way into something, you could make a good living from it. So, the sort of people who wanted a job that would bring in a salary that would attract girls would do it. And the ambitious types like that tend to be more on what we call “right” or at least, moderately left.

    You remove the incentives to make money and what do you get? You get less good people, people burning through their trust funds, people looking to “change the world” rather than making a good living. You have Guardian writers, people who should be at the top of the game, complaining about being skint. 75% of journalism enrollment is women. Why aren’t the men doing it? Answer: because it doesn’t pay the rent.

    The “right” either got out and found something that paid better, or moved to places like YouTube and blogging. Why pay London rent and have Kath Viner taking a chunk of your value? What’s she really adding?

  10. Scepticism is now a disqualification. Time was the first question a journalist asked him/herself was “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?” Editors also now favour opinion pieces requiring less research to collating bulletproof facts.

  11. Time was the first question a journalist asked him/herself was “Why is this lying bastard lying to me?”

    Whereas now the first question is “Is this person one of Us?”.

  12. Quite right! ‘Bout time somebody stuck it to that sanctimonious
    stuck-up intellectual Senator Warren who never fails to mention how she raised herself to the heights of Academe despite the personal odds stacked against her.All very well but her so-called argument that rising American real estate values forced both man and wife to go to work to pay the mortgage resulting in more bankruptcies is an affront to all who cherish high property values above all else.

  13. Violet Elizabeth Reed, you really do have a bitter little bee in the bonnet about property prices. Life is unfair, get over it!.

  14. “Quite why this all is I’m not sure” – history, I reckon. Either that, or quantum.

    On the basis of no evidence whatsoever;

    British papers, and for all I know, European ones as well, seem to have two main strands in their heritage; trade reporting (cargos in the Pool of London and all that) and the scandal sheets and pamphleteers. But they also evolved within established nation states. The US papers didn’t, so in the absence of national level politics to kick against, they’re basically reporting trade. Which is all local, and the politics are local as well. That trade heritage means that the writing style is generally somewhat less than colourful, and downright long-winded.

    Seems that somewhere along the line, the local papers became a series of local monopolies (forgotten the research), and as the cities grew, those papers got large readerships, but never got to State level, let alone National.

    Now, bit of a jump, but I’m willing to bet that the US left/liberal political line arises from the much higher population densities that the cities support, which requires a higher level of operating capacity/capability within the municipal government than elsewhere. Seems likely that New York City government has more capacity than New York State. Municipal government capability and responsibility becomes a proxy for the desired state and national capabilities.

    Seems there’s two other things going on; one is that of the various views that get an airing, the various groups holding them are competing for space within that paper, which is pretty much still a local monopoly. Those groups, currently, self identify as Democrat. Second, the structure of US politics; seems that although the only way to get elected to any sort of office is to jump on one of either the Republican or Democrat tickets, the parties themselves are hollow. They have no mechanism to enforce anything approximating party policy or orthodoxy. See : Trump.

    Finally, off the top of my head, I think that in the UK, about a third of the population lives in metropolitan areas, and nearly a third of that is in London. In the US, it’s about a quarter in metro areas, and the political capital is only about 8% of that. It’s dominated by California, and NY/Boston/Chicago.

    To assume that any US paper is the equivalent of the Telegraph, Sun or Mirror is a fairly major cock up. More sort of the Evening Argus in Brighton.

    Still, DtP will probably be along to in a bit to say it’s all bollocks.

  15. I’ll be happy to call it bullshit if you like, but in actuality I think you are essentially correct.

    Other factors to consider:
    (1) Most U.S. newspapers don’t actually have staff in the field covering national politics. Look at just about any major metropolitan newspaper and what you get in the way of national news comes from third-party outlets, so all an editor has to do is select outlets with a liberal bent to get a paper with a liberal bent.
    (2) Many of the reporters and editors working at second tier papers want to get to the ‘prestige’ papers like the NYT or WashPo at some point. They will not get their by being conservative or Republican.
    (3) Most newspapers are owned and managed by people who do not live in the community served by the newspaper. They have little to no idea as to what their clientele needs or wants… So they give them what they think they need, or better yet, they give them what they think will enhance their standing amongst their peers in the newspaper industry. Look at what Jim Rich did to the New York Daily News as an example of an editor not knowing or caring who buys his paper.

    Bottom line: Gerry Baker seems to have a good grasp of what his WSJ readership wants. His punk journalists don’t give a fuck about anyone other than themselves.

  16. John Square: yes… and how ironic that someone managed to successfully pitch the story to the guardian about how their story ideas didn’t get picked up. i suppose the winning formula for the G is Murdoch + Trump + Navels = Story.

  17. Blimey, there’s a thing.

    1). Yeah, most British local papers don’t cover national news at all, unless they can wrangle a local angle, somehow.
    2). Which is fair enough, really. Particularly if the rewards aren’t there at the local level.
    3). That’s interesting. Is that sort of thing a relatively recent development? AFAIK, the research into the editorial line a paper has, compared to it’s owner’s leanings, was done in the US, and showed that editors were pretty damn independent, even through changes of ownership. Don’t kill the cashflow, and all that. The counterexample supposedly, in the UK, would be Murdoch buying the Sun, but that still remained a Labour supporting paper for ten years, until the 1979 election. It was profitable during those years, but AIUI, circulation didn’t take off until after 1982 and the Falklands War.

    Comparisons between the US and UK are tricky, because they really aren’t the same thing at all. F’instance, I’m not aware of a US news organisation with the national reach of the BBC, and the kind of power that it has. Auntie Beeb can cause grief for the papers by omission, by not covering stories on the ten (nine as was) o’clock news. There was a documentary a few years ago, which featured various ex and current editors of national papers, people like Michael White, Piers Morgan, Dacre, Kelvin Mackenzie and Trevor McDonald of ITN news; at one point, they all had the experience of watching the BBC news and realising they had to change the next morning’s lead story PDQ.

    “they give them what they think will enhance their standing amongst their peers” – well, fine, it’s their money, they can piss it up a wall if they want… but cutting back on costs and increasingly picking up on trending stories on social media, it’s just compounding the death spiral.

  18. “they give them what they think will enhance their standing amongst their peers” – well, fine, it’s their money, they can piss it up a wall if they want… but cutting back on costs and increasingly picking up on trending stories on social media, it’s just compounding the death spiral.

    Actually, it isn’t their money that they are pissing away. It’s investor money. That’s part of the problem… The people running newspapers don’t really have skin in the game. And for those who do, many of them (such as Bezos) can rake up horrendous losses that amount to little more than pocket change.

  19. Why is Baker bothering to tell lefty journalists not to write lefty hit-pieces, rather than just firing said lefty journalists?

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