Whenever I take up a newspaper and read it, I fancy I see ghosts creeping between the lines.
– Henrik Ibsen, Ghosts
The month of July was an interesting month for two newspapers in different parts of the world with, in at least one respect, similar outcomes.
The first was reported in The Guardian on July 24, 2020. On that date it was announced that at Index, the only remaining major independent news outlet in Hungary, the editorial board and dozens of reporters had resigned two days after the editor-in-chief was fired as a result of what was perceived by those who resigned as “political interference” Some of those who left had been with the paper for more than 18 years. According to reports, the resignations were the result of the firing two days earlier of its editor-in-chief, Szabolcs Dull. In announcing their departure, the journalists who left the paper published an open letter on their website in which they said, (according to a translation provided by The Guardian) that: “The editorial board deemed that the conditions for independent operation are no longer in place and have initiated the termination of their employment.” More than 70 members of the editorial staff, including all the desk editors at the paper, left the paper on July 24.
The Index is not the Wall Street Journal. And no WSJ reporters left the paper in a protest. But there were similarities between the two papers during the week of July 19, 2020.
On July 23, 2020, more than 280 reporters, editors, and other employees at the WSJ submitted a letter to Almar Latour, the newspaper’s publisher. The letter writers expressed concern with what was described by them as a “casual relationship with facts which could causes problems with sources” in editorials and articles that appeared in the opinion section of the paper. Unlike the Hungarian newspaper people, they were not referring to the presentation of the news but to the facts as presented in the editorials that regularly appear in the WSJ.
According to a report of the letter in Vanity Fair, the letter says that many opinion pieces published in the WSJ contain factual errors or distortions of the truth. According to the letter, “Opinion’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 also said that fact and opinion should be more closely identified rather than being mingled as, the letter writers allege, often happens on the editorial page side.
When news of the letter became public, Mr. Latour, to whom it had been addressed, said in response that: “We are proud that we separate news and opinion at the Wall Street Journal and remain deeply committed to fact-based and clearly labeled reporting and opinion writing. . . .” His response made it clear that he did not believe the concerns of the 280 letter writers had any merit.
Not content with the Latour response, three days after the letter’s existence became known, and Mr. Latour had responded, an editorial appeared in the WSJ entitled: “A note to readers.” The editorial observed that “In the spirit of collegiality we won’t respond in kind to the letter signers.” That was another way of saying that nothing in the letter was of sufficient importance or merit to require any kind of response from the editorial page side of the paper. and, therefore, no response to the letter was necessary. Instead of addressing the concern expressed by the letter that editorials frequently confuse fact and fiction, the rebuttal editorial, such as it was, suggested that the readers of the paper were better observers of the opinion page than the letters signers. It said it was “gratified this week by the outpouring of support from readers after some 280 of our Wall Street Journal colleagues signed . . . a letter to our publisher criticizing the opinion pages.” The editorial defense concluded saying that the opinion pages: “offer an alternative to the uniform progressive views that dominate nearly all of today’s media,” thus apparently justifying the 280’s concern that fact and fiction often present themselves with equal force in the WSJ editorials.
Although the staff in the newsroom did not leave the paper over its concern with the political slant and fact distortion presented in the opinion columns, at least one prominent person put his money where the newsroom’s mouths had been. He had a different take from the writer of the editorial who relied on an “outpouring of support from readers” to rebut the letter writers.
The week after the stories and editorial appeared James Murdoch, the son of Rupert who had served on the board of News Corp, the entity that owns the WSJ, resigned from the board. In his letter of resignation he mirrored in part what the 280 had said: “My resignation is due to disagreements over certain editorial content published by the Company’s news outlets and certain other strategic decisions.” Whatever influence he may have had over the paper, his departure almost certainly disappoints the 280 as well as many WSJ readers. It will almost certainly have no affect on the editorial page editors.