Sun, Jul

The Wall Street Journal’s Oslo Two-Step


ZOCALO PUBLIC SQUARE - In the aftermath of the horrifying terrorist attacks in Oslo a day earlier, The Wall Street Journal ran a stirring editorial Saturday (“Terror in Oslo”) explaining that Norwegians had been “made to pay a terrible price” by Islamist jihadists for being “a liberal nation committed to freedom of speech and conscience, equality between the sexes, representative democracy and every other freedom that still defines the West.” “Ich bin Osloite,” if you will.

The analysis of Norway’s virtues and jihadist hatred of Scandinavia was spot-on. The problem, of course, was that the underlying event triggering the analysis – an Islamist attack on Oslo – only took place in the fevered minds of the Journal’s editorial writers.

The newspaper’s front-page account of the carnage in Oslo stated that Norwegian TV was identifying the captured suspect in the attacks as 32-year-old Oslo resident Anders Behring, a man apparently described by his own Facebook page as “Christian” and “conservative.”

The Journal further quoted, still on its front page, a Norwegian police officer saying the incident was “homegrown,” more akin to “Oklahoma City” than “World Trade Center.”

Back on the editorial page – A-12 – the account was much more “World Trade Center,” about why those Islamist radicals hate the West. There was no hedging language such as “While we cannot ascertain for certain who was responsible for the attacks…” or “Although it seems that this may have been an instance of homegrown terrorism, let us tell you why Islamist jihadists could come next.”

Nothing. For the paper’s editorial page, the attacks could only have been the result of Islamist jihadis resentful of Norwegian freedoms.

I have written and edited such unsigned editorials at three different newspapers, and I have never seen such reckless disregard of the facts on the part of an editorial page. Everyone is entitled to his own opinions (especially an editorial page!), but not his own facts, as Daniel Patrick Moynihan used to say.

As editorial page editor of the Los Angeles Times, I was troubled by the traditionally cozy relationship between the editorial page (which at large papers are staffed by opinion writers who operate separately from the more “objective” news staff) and the newsroom, a dynamic then-editor Dean Baquet and I sought to alter.

But the Journal clearly takes the separation of its opinion pages from the rest of the paper to an absurd extreme, to the point where its editorialists are free to ignore the newspaper’s own front-page reporting.

Definitive and immediate assessments can be tricky for editorial pages, especially in the midst of developing news, which is why not long ago editorials providing context would trail a day or two behind news stories, a time lag no longer acceptable in the age of the 24/7 news cycle.

Pundits at print dinosaurs must render their judgments by their evening deadlines, hoping they will still make sense when read at the breakfast table 12 hours later. There is pressure to weigh in before all the facts are in, and excessively hedged and guarded editorials lacking a bottom line (as opposed to inconclusive news stories) can annoy readers.

Among the more mortifying missteps I experienced, at The New York Times, was when we weighed in on the challenges (and promise) facing a post-Chávez Venezuela, in the aftermath of the 2002 attempted coup against President Hugo Chávez. As it turned out, the coup had collapsed by the time most readers would have sat down to read their paper the following day, meaning Chávez was very much still in charge, and the Times appeared to be engaging in wishful thinking.

But we certainly hadn’t invented our facts out of the thin air; the coup had seemed to succeed. Those of us on the editorial board would never have dreamed of being entitled to our own facts. We always hewed our views to the underlying facts reported by the newspaper; there were countless times when the copy desk would call an editorial writer late into the night if new reporting on a story required an editorial to be adjusted.

No such hewing to reality got in the way of the Journal’s “Terror in Oslo” editorial, though it was eventually adjusted online. This isn’t the case of a newspaper taking a position in the absence of all the facts, but of the paper editorializing in direct opposition to the reported facts.

Editorial pages often have earlier deadlines than the front page, but it wasn’t that late on this side of the Atlantic Friday that we all learned the likely subject was an anti-Islamist zealot. What time does the editorial page crew check out, anyways? In time for Happy Hour?

Having to pull back editorials based on unfolding developments (Mike Kinsley probably still has his draft editorial on the meaning of John Kerry’s triumph in his sock drawer), and sub things in late at night or over the weekend, is par for the course for editorial pages that want to anchor their views to reality.

As a Wall Street Journal fan and a former editorialist (a quarter-Norwegian one, for that matter), I feel personally aggrieved by the “Terror in Oslo” blunder.

But the issue here transcends a case study in media practices; the disconnect between the Journal’s front page and its editorial page is representative of the broader breakdown in our nation’s political and civic discourse – a post-Moynihan dystopia in which all factions increasingly feel entitled to their own facts.

Disregard all evidence to the contrary, President Obama was born in whatever overseas locale strikes you as most salacious; healthcare reform contains death panels; a refusal to raise the debt ceiling next week will have no material consequences for our nation’s finances; go ahead, design your parallel universe.

Cable TV, especially Fox News, the Journal’s corporate cousin within Rupert Murdoch’s empire, has accelerated this Balkanized nightmare in which we cannot sensibly talk about shared problems from different viewpoints, because we are no longer operating with the same facts.

The “Terror in Oslo” editorial pitting the Journal’s editorial writers against its reporters suggests this breakdown in our national discourse is now trickling up into the highest-quality media. Rupert Murdoch has a lot on his plate these days, but he might add the WSJ editorial page’s penchant for not allowing the facts to get in the way of a compelling opinion to his list of things that need addressing.

Unless, of course, the media tycoon is himself pressing his editorial writers not to bother reading their own paper.

(Andrés Martinez is Editorial Director of Zócalo Public Square and Director of the Bernard L. Schwartz Fellows Program at the New America Foundation. This column was posted first at zocalopublicsquare.org.)  Photo courtesy of cafemama.   -cw

Vol 9 Issue 59
Pub: July 26, 2011

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