The Trump Trap

Wall Street Journal, its newsroom unsettled, names a new editor” ran the New York Times headline this week. Gerard Baker, a Brit, has been replaced as the editor of the WSJ after apparently going too “easy” on President Trump and allowing reporters and editors to leave the paper for rivals such as the Washington Post and the New York Times. Baker spent five-and-a-half years as the editor-in-chief of the paper and oversaw an increase in circulation. But unrest in the newsroom ultimately cost him his job.

The argument is that in the buildup to the presidential election and since, Baker was uncritical of Donald Trump. He seemed too friendly. Last year, he made small talk with the president in the Oval Office and warmly greeted Ivanka Trump, something that was not missed by the rest of the media. Baker has in the past been critical of former president Barack Obama, giving credence to the theory that he is a friend of Trump. There were emails, leaked by a WSJ staffer, which revealed Baker chastised his reporters for their coverage of a Trump rally. He called it “commentary dressed up as news reporting.” He went on to encourage unhappy employees to look for jobs elsewhere, prompting the departure of more than a dozen talented reporters and editors to the Washington Post, the New York Times and other rival papers. Baker continued to say that other media outlets were overly negative in their coverage of Trump. Every step of the way, he defended his paper’s position as “objective” and “fair.”

It’s important to know that Baker hasn’t exactly been supportive of Trump. The WSJ was one of the first major news outlets to report on the president’s alleged payments of women who say they had sex with him, for example. It has been far from soft on Michael Cohen, the president’s lawyer. Baker has even admitted, while defending the WSJ’s refusal to use the words “lie” or “liar” when discussing Trump, that the president has a habit of telling “whoppers of the first order.” He has said he prefers to set out the facts for his readers and allow them to determine whether a politician is lying or not, which most people would agree is a valid position to take.

The situation isn’t as cut-and-dried as Baker’s critics might like. It’s true that there are other arguments to be made about Baker’s coverage of Trump (David Leonhardt of the New York Times points to vague WSJ headlines and the burying of hard-hitting information in the later paragraphs of articles) but nonetheless the news of his firing made me uncomfortable. I am no Trump fan—far from it. But the failure of the mainstream media to treat Trump as a genuine presidential candidate is one of the reasons he took the White House. Peter Thiel, the billionaire PayPal cofounder and venture capitalist, famously said the media took the president “literally, but not seriously.” Trump supporters did the reverse. The media jeered and sneered, and the disillusioned voters desperate for an antiestablishment candidate only became more determined to see Trump in the Oval Office. The Nation said the media has a “Trump addiction”; as anyone in reputation management or PR knows, people who feel familiar with a brand have a more favorable impression of that brand. In short, mockery, ridicule and strident criticism of Trump in the mainstream media did the liberal case no favors.

And that’s why the firing of Gerard Baker is a problem for journalism. He was never sensational in his coverage of Trump, and his attempts at objectivity—even if they sometimes missed the mark—reduced Trump to what he really was: a real estate mogul, a former reality TV star and just another presidential candidate. At the same time, his competitors were busy ignoring policy detail and transforming the current president into a larger-than-life movie character or denigrating his supporters. Often it was both. Baker’s newsroom may not have liked his approach, but during his tenure circulation was healthy and rising. There are many ordinary people outside of journalism who liked the way Baker stuck “to reporting what [Trump] said rather than packaging it in exegesis and selective criticism,” as he instructed WSJ reporters to do in an email.

Baker is certainly a conservative. He might even be pro-Trump. And he made some mistakes. His inability to inspire his newsroom and his failure to give his team a reason to stay at the paper were certainly faults. But overall he was a good editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal, and the paper’s circulation bears that out. He tried to be fair and objective and sometimes missed the mark. But he tried. In a highly politically polarized atmosphere, Baker’s commitment to allowing his readers to make up their own minds was admirable. The Columbia Journalism Review, analyzing the reasons for Trump’s election, concluded that there was a “broad failure of mainstream journalism to inform audiences of the very real and consequential issues at stake” and that “the press in general made the mistake of assuming a Clinton victory was inevitable.” The headline? “Don’t blame the election on fake news. Blame it on the media.” It is to Baker’s credit that he never fell into this trap. He treated Trump seriously. If the rest of the mainstream media had also done so, maybe there would be a different president.

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