The Factual Decline of an American Newspaper
The Trump presidency has impacted many American institutions deleteriously, news media being one of the most egregious examples. However, the decline of factual, unbiased reporting has largely proliferated in the dark corners of the web that were formerly only frequented by the political extreme. It is one of the tragic consequences of the information era and the age of social media that these dark corners have been illuminated, even given the spotlight in an increasingly segregated media experience, with people living in their own “bubbles” of reality. Much has been written about the rise of radicalism in American politics; radicalism relies on a twisting of the facts and an abrogation of the rational. Radicalism is most dangerous when that distortion of truth reaches the mainstream, and no single person has succeeded at this more than the President. No single mainstream newspaper has supported this effort more than the Wall Street Journal.
Disinformation has, in the Trump era, been largely a tool of the right-wing. The right-wing has developed an entire online apparatus to create and spread biased, bating, and baseless information that trickles down to the mainstream user, metastasizing like an internet cancer. This phenomenon is not new; the Soviets were the first to successfully use the technique, planting conspiracy in a pro-Soviet Indian paper, where it slowly found its way into the American nightly news. The tool, therefore, is not new. The means of distribution—that is, social media—has been weaponized to create and distribute disinformation on a massive scale that was unfathomable before the Internet. The real travesty, however, is the ability of this “fake news” to slither its way into trusted mainstream media, infecting rational thought with its lie of choice.
The Wall Street Journal is not just a victim of the modern age’s disease of disinformation, but a willing participant. The problem stems from its Editorial Board, which was an early proponent of the Trump presidency. It started at the top, with former Editor in Chief Gerald Baker. A former conservative columnist, Baker took a hands-off approach to the Trump candidacy and presidency, almost avoiding investigative reporting altogether. It was the Opinion section where editor Paul Gigot took a hardline approach to a pro-Trump conformism, expecting strict adherence to narrative that caused an exodus of five columnists in 2017. Gigot’s objective was not merely a pro-Trump groupthink, but an active refusal to publish criticism of the President.
Gigot’s singular pro-Trump agenda would not be without challenge. There are serious difficulties, as many media outlets have realized in recent years, with reporting on a President whose penchant for mendacity is unmatched. Trump himself is an infamous consumer of the “fake news” he purports to fight against; an examination of his Twitter feed on any given day will show a deluge of retweets from the “basket of deplorables” from whom disinformation often originates or gains its first platform of distribution. The spread of Trump’s lies is accelerated by his position as President, along with cable news’s obsession with ratings and Trump’s ability to boost them. Trump is a master of the sensational; if he only knew one thing, it would be how to garner airtime. The opinion columnists at the Wall Street Journal have a curious propensity for appearing on Fox News, particularly Kimberly Strassel. And, as disinformation flows through the dregs of society, through Trump, and is regurgitated on Fox News, it eventually reaches the lower intestine of news flow that the Wall Street Journal Opinion writers occupy. By the time the Editorial Board gets around to writing, a story which under normal circumstances would never have been legitimized by a respected news source has been picked up by Trump and made legitimate by his mere interest.
The culture of perfidy in the Wall Street Journal Opinion section reaches beyond drummed-up stories of culture wars, supposed left-wing radicals, or other typical topics of the web’s dark corners. The culture is so pervasive in the Opinion section that three hundred Wall Street Journal staff members wrote a letter to publisher Almar Latour decrying the section’s “lack of fact-checking and transparency,” saying that “Opinion articles often make assertions that are contradicted by WSJ reporting.” Not only was the pubic nature of this letter highly embarrassing for the esteemed Wall Street Journal, but it is also unprecedented in recent history. Of course, the Editorial Board responded with typical regard for its own self-importance, bizarrely equating the staff request for fact-based argument as an instance of “cancel culture,” saying, “Opinion pages offer an alternative to the uniform progressive views that dominate nearly all of today’s media.” That may be true, but alternative narratives should not include, in the words of Kellyanne Conway “alternative facts.”The Journal’s Editorial Board conflates the two, which, while a common logical error in the Trump era, has only recently become an acceptable mainstream business for the pages of the Wall Street Journal.
It is important to highlight that the three hundred Journal staff protested, most of all, the lack of distinction between news and opinion. This, of course, is by design; the Journal intentionally blurs the line between the two in its activism on behalf of President Trump and whatever flavor of disinformation the wind might blow his way. This is not just an Editorial Board problem, it is very much a holistic issue that would not have persisted under proper management. In the second of unprecedented publicized letters to management, another group of Journal journalists wrote a letter to Matt Murray, who succeeded the problematic Gerald Baker as Editor in Chief, addressing the Paper’s lack of diversity and reporting on issues of social justice. This letter was then seconded just days ago by a leaked internal report that raises the Journal’s struggle with an aging demographic and its blatant disregard of certain audiences and topics; unsurprisingly, race, gender, and identity.
While the most grievous rejections of fact and substance lie in the Wall Street Journal Opinion section, there is a clear issue stemming from management failing to adapt the paper to what have become radically different conditions and standards for journalism in the Trump era. While the Opinion section might mewl and call this “cancel culture,” their continued ignorance of basic reality and logic is the apogee of the dominance of disinformation in American news media. If the Journal refuses to hold the Editorial Board to higher standards, they risk the fate of becoming nothing more than a glorified Breitbart with a mainstream audience.