Facing growing unrest among his staff members, Wall Street Journal editor-in-chief Gerry Baker on Monday offered a spirited defense of the newspaper’s coverage of President Donald Trump, while at the same time telling reporters and editors that they should pursue work elsewhere if they are frustrated.
“We’re not going to be provoked into being a protagonist,” Baker said at a company town hall, according to a Journal reporter.
“There are other news organizations that will do that,” he added. “If you feel more comfortable doing that…then maybe there is a better place for you to be.”
The two-hour town hall meeting Monday came during an anxious period in the Journal newsroom. Staffers have been on edge about both looming cutbacks and recent directives on how to cover the new administration.
Baker told staff members on Monday that 200 employees either accepted a buyout or been laid off in recent months, according to the Journal reporter.
Concerns over the newspaper’s Trump coverage have prompted questions — both internally and outside the newsroom — over whether Baker, who already leaned right personally, has been influenced or directed by Rupert Murdoch, the conservative billionaire who owns the Journal and who has warmed up to Trump after some initial skepticism about the president.
Baker said Monday that Murdoch does not affect his decision making, or inhibit the newspaper’s ability to produce high-caliber journalism.
“[Murdoch’s ownership] hasn’t stopped us from doing very robust reporting,” he said, pointing to the Journal’s coverage of the troubled startup Theranos, in which Murdoch invested $100 million.
The Journal’s political reporters, Baker insisted, can cover the news in a way that may not be to Murdoch’s liking.
But some Journal staff members were irritated by the tenor of the paper’s Trump coverage even before Election Day. Recent comments by Baker have only deepened those concerns.
Baker said last month that he was reluctant to have Journal reporters call Trump’s falsehoods “lies.” Weeks later, Baker sent an email to editors suggesting that they avoid the term “seven majority Muslim countries” when describing Trump’s immigration ban. (Baker later said that despite reports to the contrary there was no prohibition on the term, which has appeared in Journal articles since that email was reported by BuzzFeed.)
On Monday, Baker sought to clarify his previous comments, saying “the word lie is not banned.”
“We have not said we will never use the word lie in our reporting,” Baker said, according to the Journal reporter. “I said we’d be very careful.”
“It implies an intent to deceive and that’s a high bar for reporting — knowing someone’s intent is not easy,” he added.
Steven Severinghaus, a Wall Street Journal spokesman, said Monday’s town hall — which also touched on the newspaper’s efforts to ramp up digital coverage and its falling print advertising revenue — was arranged in part “to have a casual conversation with the newsroom and all of his employees about the events of the last couple months, and how difficult reporting on this new administration is.”
“Nothing was off limits,” Severinghaus said. “Anything anybody wanted to talk to him about, he would take head on.”
The town hall came on the heels of a difficult week at the Journal. Last Friday, Baker’s deputy, Rebecca Blumenstein, left the newspaper for a position at the New York Times. Blumenstein’s departure is said to be unrelated to the paper’s Trump coverage, but she was popular in the newsroom, and her leaving has been a blow to morale, especially coming at a time when there have been tensions over the coverage of Trump.
A pair of stories published last week by the Huffington Post and Politico highlighted misgivings among some Journal staff members toward Baker’s leadership.
On Monday, Baker responded to that unflattering coverage by defending his commitment to honest journalism, the Journal reporter said.
“I don’t really care what media reporters at other organizations think about our reporting,” he said. “I care about whether readers trust our reporting and that our reporting is true.”