The Wall Street Journal’s Trump problem

n 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.

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.

The Journal, a New York-based institution more than a century old, remains one of the nation’s most-read newspapers, with the power to move markets and shape political agendas. Like the Financial Times in London, it’s long been the must-read for the business and financial class – with a business-friendly conservative editorial page to match – known for its deeply-reported stories and calm design.

Dozens of reporters, editors, and copy staff have left the paper in the past year, an exodus attributable to a combination of buyout incentives, poaching and frustration with management at the title which Rupert Murdoch added to his media empire a decade ago.

The talented staff that remain still produce memorable journalism. But when it comes to covering Trump – according to interviews with 18 current and former Journal staffers, some of whom have provided the Guardian with previously unpublished emails from Baker – many say this is no thanks to management.

“The Journal has done a lot of good work in covering the Trump administration, but not nearly as much as it should have,” another recent departee said. “I lay almost all of that at Gerry’s doorstep. Political editors and reporters find themselves either directly stymied by Gerry’s interference or shave the edges off their stories in advance to try to please him (and, by extension, Murdoch).”

Meanwhile longtime observers like Sarah Ellison, a former Journal reporter and author of the book War at the Wall Street Journal about Murdoch’s takeover of the paper, is not entirely surprised to see what has happened to Murdoch’s paper under Trump.

“This is the most access he has had to a sitting president ever – that is something he’s tried to do and has done in other countries particularly with British prime ministers,” Ellison said. “He’s choosing his own personal access over having any journalistic clout.”

Murdoch bought the newspaper in 2007, but initially it was thought to be one of the few outlets in his portfolio impervious to his political influence. In the Trump era, some staff fear that seems to be changing fast.

Murdoch and Trump have known each other for years on the New York scene, but what started out as a reportedly slightly chilly relationship has warmed considerably in recent years. As recently as April, the two were said to be talking “almost every day” (the White House has denied this). Murdoch’s Fox News played a crucial cheerleading role in Trump’s election and before that, Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump were known to go on double-dates with Murdoch and his ex-wife Wendi Deng, the two women remaining close even after Murdoch split with Deng. Throughout the campaign, Ivanka was a trustee of the $300m fortune allocated to Murdoch’s daughters with Deng, stepping down only after the financial connection became public.

With Trump in the White House, he and the Australian-born media mogul have grown closer than ever, with Murdoch topping the New York Times’ list of the president’s outside advisers.

‘Mr Elegant’

Baker, a British columnist who was promoted from the paper’s deputy role in 2012, came onto Trump’s radar early in the 2016 presidential campaign, when he moderated a Fox Business Network GOP primary debate in November 2015.

Trump liked Baker’s handling of the debate, especially compared to that of Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, who had grilled Trump on his treatment of women at an earlier debate in August. During Baker’s debate, the future president largely evaded tough questioning and enjoyed more airtime than anyone else on stage. “He was unbelievably charming afterwards,” Baker said of Trump at the time. “He came up to me and said, ‘That was an extraordinarily elegant debate. You handled it incredibly well.’”

When Trump looked poised to clinch the GOP nomination in spring of 2016, Murdoch, who had cultivated others, warmed to Trump considerably. And around the same time Baker lectured the newsroom on the need to be “fair” to Trump in their reporting, Politico reported.

In October, as the Washington Post and New York Times were publishing groundbreaking coverage on Trump’s taxes and treatment of women, Journal staffers were voicing frustration at how their paper was publishing “too many flattering access stories” on Trump and calling their own coverage of him “neutral to the point of being absurd”.

After Trump’s surprise victory in November, Baker landed Trump’s first post-election interview. And he wrote a column in the Spectator, the conservative British magazine, deriding US publications for pro-Hillary Clinton bias, accusing them of having “lovingly compiled their historic ‘first woman president’ editions.”

In early January 2017, Baker upped the ante, publicly expressing reluctance to accuse Trump of “lying” amid a bout of national media soul-searching over how to cover the incoming president’s false statements, and lashing out at critics in a column mocking a “fit of Trump-induced pearl-clutching among the journalistic elite”.

“If we are to use the term ‘lie’ in our reporting, then we have to be confident about the subject’s state of knowledge and his moral intent,” Baker explained of his approach.

By the end of the month internal discontent with the editor bubbled over into public view when staffers leaked a memo to BuzzFeed in which Baker asked them to stop using the “very loaded” description of countries included in Trump’s travel ban as “majority-Muslim,” and suggested they use wording that hewed closer to White House talking points instead.

By the time of the February town hall meeting in the WSJ newsroom, tensions were running high between Baker and his staff.

And they came to a head again this summer when Politico published a leaked transcript of an Oval Office interview Baker had carried out with Trump, after the Journal had printed a news piece and a partial transcript.

The Journal’s published write-up of the interview was by no means a puff piece, and it included criticism of attorney general Jeff Sessions’s decision to recuse himself from the Russia inquiries that gave fuel to Trump’s critics. But the full transcript revealed a number of lines embarrassing for Trump that the paper had ignored, from Trump’s inquiry about Scottish independence – “What would they do with the British Open if they ever got out? They’d no longer have the British Open” – to his claim that the head of the Boy Scouts had called him to say he had delivered “the greatest speech that was ever made to them” the day before. (The Boy Scouts denied that.) The president referred to his son-in-law and key adviser Jared Kushner as a “good boy” and said of countries with large populations: “You call places like Malaysia, Indonesia, and you say, you know, how many people do you have? And it’s…

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