Amid growing newsroom discontent over his perceived resistance to critical coverage of Donald Trump, Wall Street Journal editor in chief Gerry Baker will host a town hall meeting next week where he is expected to address the paper’s reporting on the new administration and answer questions from his staff.
The meeting, announced in a company email on Wednesday and scheduled for Monday, February 13, is billed as a wide-ranging session on the state of the Journal, but Trump coverage is expected to be high on the list of discussion topics.
“I’m eager to talk with all of you about the challenges and opportunities for our journalism,” Baker wrote.
While other major news outlets, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, have covered Trump aggressively throughout the campaign, the transition and the early days of the 45th presidency, repeatedly stoking the ire of Trump and his aides, the Journal has taken an arguably more circumspect, if not softer approach.
Baker has been hesitant to allow Journal reporters to characterize Trump’s false assertions as lies and has suggested that media “elites” are out to get Trump. During the campaign, reporters say, some of his editorial decisions tended to downplay Trump’s transgressions while he urged his staff to be tougher on Hillary Clinton.
The result, some reporters say, has been a decline in morale that has been exacerbated by the just-announced departure of deputy editor-in-chief Rebecca Blumenstein for The New York Times. All in all, there’s palpable concern among the rank and file that Baker, a former columnist, has placed unreasonable restrictions on the Journal’s Trump coverage.
Combined with financial pressures that have led to cuts and belt-tightening, it’s created an air of tension and uncertainty at one of the world’s largest and most august news brands, and at a time when the U.S. media as a whole sees itself as coming under attack from a hostile administration.
The current mood seems a far cry from Baker’s coronation as editor in chief in December 2012, when Rupert Murdoch, who controls the Journal’s parent company, News Corp., memorably poured a bottle of champagne over Baker’s bald dome, blessing him with the sign of the cross to riotous laughter and applause from those assembled in the newsroom.
A former correspondent, commentator and editor for outlets including the FT and Murdoch’s Times of London, the British-born Baker came to the Journal as a columnist in 2009, a couple of years after Murdoch purchased the legendary daily from the Bancroft family. The conservative-leaning media mogul, whose other American holdings include Fox News and the New York Post, vowed at the time of the sale not to meddle with the Journal’s editorial independence, and he set the paper on an ambitious expansion course that created new sections and made it more competitive on general news coverage.
Five years into Baker’s tenure, with Trump in the White House and the Journal confronting what is arguably one of the biggest stories it and other news outlets have ever tackled, the mood is decidedly less sanguine.
Journal staffers are reluctant to air their grievances publicly because they are not authorized to do so and they fear it could imperil their jobs. But foment is brewing behind the scenes.
For several months, reporters have been using a confidential email chain to discuss their concerns, according to people who have participated in the emails but declined to share any because they are private. There have also been several internal meetings where some of the Journal’s most senior editors under Baker have fielded “testy” questions about the paper’s political coverage, according to sources familiar with how the gatherings went down.
During the campaign last fall, while the Post and the Times were churning out highly critical stories about Trump’s tax returns and his inappropriate behavior towards women, Journal staffers told POLITICO that, in the words of one source, “people feel there have been too many flattering access stories… and process stories about the race, who’s up and down, false balance in treating [Trump] just like another nominee”; and, as another put it, that the Journal’s Trump coverage was “neutral to the point of being absurd.”
Lately, the gripes have been getting louder, generally having to do with things like word choice, framing and characterization. There’s no clearer example than last week’s much talked about kerfuffle in which Baker weighed in on a breaking news story related to Trump’s immigration order, writing to editors via email: “Can we stop saying ‘seven majority Muslim countries’? It’s very loaded. The reason they’ve been chosen is not because they’re majority Muslim but because they’re on the list of countRies [sic] Obama identified as countries of concern. Would be less loaded to say ‘seven countries the US has designated as being states that pose significant or elevated risks of terrorism.'”
Journalists throughout the organization bristled at the directive. “For the EIC of a major American paper to go out of his way to whitewash this is unconscionable,” one of them told POLITICO, saying Baker’s email had caused “quite the ruckus among reporters and editors, many of whom were already concerned about our Trump coverage dating back to the campaign. It seems we are bending over backwards to avoid calling his policies what they are and are being asked to uncritically parrot White House statements.”
Baker walked his email back the following day, saying in a subsequent note to staff that he was not banning the use of “seven majority Muslim countries,” but rather providing a reminder to “always be careful that this term is not offered as the only description of the countries covered under the ban.”
There have been other eyebrow-raisers as well, such as what was described to POLITICO in May as a “surreal tangent” during the course of a standard morning news meeting, when Baker spent several minutes driving home the importance of being “fair” to Trump. Not long before the election, according to multiple sources familiar with the matter, he personally reprimanded a reporter over some Trump-related tweets, a wrist-slap that insiders felt should have been handed down through the chain of command as opposed to being delivered by the captain himself via email.
Baker landed the first post-election Trump interview, and around the same time, he published a column about Trump’s win in The Spectator, a conservative U.K. newsmagazine, writing in his signature fancy prose, “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.” The op-ed took the newsroom by surprise, some staff members said.
It was over the course of the 2016 election cycle that Baker, a veteran British newsman and longtime Murdoch consigliere, became a more high profile figure in American media. His co-hosting of a Fox Business Network primary debate became a veritable cable news and online sensation, and after Roger Ailes was ousted from Fox News, rumors swirled that maybe Baker could be one of the people in line to succeed him. He made headlines for a January 1 “Meet the Press” appearance and subsequent Journal op-ed in which he explained and defended his reluctance to use the word “lie” when describing falsehoods uttered by Trump.
“[I]t’s not because I don’t believe that Mr. Trump has said things that are untrue. Nor is it because I believe that when he says things that are untrue we should refrain from pointing it out,” Baker wrote. “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. I can see circumstances where we might. I’m reluctant to use the term, not implacably against it.”
Baker’s neoconservative bona fides were already well established by the time he joined the Journal as a columnist in 2009 from News Corp’s Times of London. His background has perhaps created a perception that he carries water for Murdoch’s conservative agenda (which reportedly includes support for Trump).
Baker declined an interview request. For his part, he has portrayed the Journal’s Trump coverage as cautious where competitors have been breathless; impartial whether others have shown bias. “While many other news organizations seem to have largely abandoned any last effort to be fair in their coverage, ours has been conspicuously objective, penetrating, intelligent, and, yes, fair,” Baker wrote in a newsroom memo a few days after the election.
Indeed, sources agreed that the Journal has had its share of strong Trump stories — most recently, they said, this week’s piece on Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, and some behind-the-scenes accounts of the administration’s early days. The new Washington bureau chief, Paul Beckett, has told his staff he wants them to take on tough stories about the administration, according to a source familiar with the matter. Journalists also have been heartened that Michael Siconolfi, a senior editor who works on investigations, has become increasingly involved in the Journal’s Trump coverage since the election.
Those developments could be cause for optimism. But at the same time, the Journal is losing one of its top lieutenants.
Gasps rang out both in Midtown Manhattan and Washington when a memo from Baker landed late Tuesday afternoon announcing that Blumenstein, a fierce and well-liked editor seen by many as the newsroom’s de facto leader, would be leaving the Journal for a high-ranking newsroom position at The New York Times. Sources described “shock” and “devastation” at the news. “Jaws are dropping across the newsroom,” one insider said. “Total dismay.” If there were reporters and editors who were not yet rattled, there’s a good chance they’re rattled now.
That should make next week’s town hall all the more interesting. For Baker, it will be a chance to address the drama head on, as well as to inspire confidence in his leadership.
“He doesn’t have the support of newsroom,” a Journal editor told POLITICO. “I’ve never worked at a place where the editor in chief didn’t have that.”