Earlier this year, newsroom employees at the New York Times went to war with the paper’s opinion section for publishing an edgy op-ed by a Republican senator. Now the furor over coverage of the Joe Biden October surprise has many worried that a similar civil war between news and editorial is brewing at America’s largest, and arguably most respected, paper, The Wall Street Journal. The stakes are high. If the Journal’s conservative op-ed page is unable to hold out, it may be the death knell of conservative opinion in legacy media.
By the time Americans first heard the name Tony Bobulinski last week, reporters at the Journal had been sitting on a trove of documents from him for 10 days. It was an open secret that a damaging Biden expose was in the works – President Trump tweeted about it – but then it never came.
After days of waiting, Bobulinski, who was partnered with Hunter and Jim Biden in a 2016 prospective business deal with a Chinese conglomerate, started blasting out the documents purporting to support his claim Joe Biden was lying when he said he was unaware of his son and brother’s shady foreign dealings. Not only had Bobulinski met with Joe Biden to discuss these things, he said, he provided texts, emails, voicemails, and other evidence supporting his claims. Hunter Biden purportedly insisted on his father being cut in on the deal in the form of a financial stake that Hunter would secretly hold for him.
Bobulinski gave a remarkable televised press conference detailing these accusations, and then the stories, mostly in the conservative press, started dropping. Perhaps the most notable one on the Bobulinski claims was written by WSJ opinion columnist Kim Strassel. Strassel noted that the allegations looked very bad for Biden, but her story was typically detailed and careful.
A few hours after Bobulinski’s presser and Strassel’s story started making waves, however, the WSJ newsroom made the curious decision to finally publish its story on the matter, well after the exclusive had been squandered. To hear the mainstream media tell it, the WSJ news story on Bobulinski was a triumph of fact-based reporting over blinkered partisan spin.
The headline at Business Insider read, “No evidence for Trump claim that Joe Biden earned money in China, according to the Wall Street Journal, contradicting its editorial section.” Jennifer Epstein, Bloomberg’s political reporter covering the Biden campaign, tweeted, “This article will run in tomorrow’s print WSJ, as will an opinion piece making claims that the article debunks.”
Except the news story in no way contradicted or debunked Strassel’s column. The framing of the news story, however, was odd given the specific nature of the allegations. The subhead to the story read, “Former vice president says he had no involvement; corporate records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show no role for Joe Biden.”
On the first point, Bobulinski had provided both his personal on-the-record testimony and documents contradicting Joe Biden’s claims he wasn’t involved. On the second point, Bobulinski was specifically alleging that Hunter Biden was secretly holding Joe Biden’s stake in the deal so as to shield it from the public. The whole point was that Joe Biden’s name wouldn’t be found on the paperwork.
What the news story did have that Strassel didn’t, was James Gilliar, another businessman involved in the deal, denying knowledge of Joe Biden’s involvement. “I am unaware of any involvement at any time of the former vice president,” he said. “The activity in question never delivered any project revenue.” But Gilliar’s lack of knowledge – one way or the other -- doesn’t preclude Bobulinski having evidence of Joe Biden’s involvement. Further, Gilliar did not respond to a request for comment on an email where Bobulinski references a 10% stake in the deal being “held by H for the big guy,” and whether “the big guy” refers to Joe Biden, as alleged by Bobulinski.
As to whether any of the questionable timing and framing on the WSJ’s news story was intentionally trying to knock the opinion section down a peg, well, that’s hard to say. It’s likely the news reporting was on a separate track than the opinion pages, and the Bobulinski press conference forced the news reporters to dump what they had. Further, as anyone who has done investigative reporting can tell you, getting incriminating comments on record from those implicated in scandal is no easy task.
But there’s a larger context here that doesn’t look innocent. This summer, 300 Wall Street Journal employees signed a letter to the paper’s publisher criticizing the opinion pages for their allegedly sloppy handling of the facts, while proposing that the news side should be able to criticize the opinion side of the paper with impunity. Some of the gripes about the opinion pages were expressly political – the letter objected to an op-ed on “The Myth of Systemic Racism,” for example, as though that topic is beyond debate.
The two authors of the Bobulinski news story at the Journal, Andrew Duehren and James Areddy, were among the signers of that letter. Observers have also noted that Viveca Novak, a top editor at the WSJ with much investigative reporting experience, is married to Bob Lenhard, who is serving as lead counsel to the Biden campaign. However, a WSJ newsroom source, while declining to comment on the specifics of how the Bobulinski story was reported, did confirm that Novak had nothing to do with the story.
Still, the institutional reputations of publications do matter. Even well-meaning editors are going to have a hard time earning reader trust when 300 of their own employees have questioned their own paper’s standards and inadvertently announced their liberal worldview in the process. The Wall Street Journal remains the most widely read paper in the country because in addition to the large and underserved audience for conservative editorial pages, its news section hasn’t become a predictable receptacle of politically correct conventional wisdom and anti-Trump invective, unlike some other national newspapers. Not going out of your way to alienate right-of-center readers is a good value proposition, to say nothing of how it might be a matter of journalism ethics.
In this respect it’s telling that so many journalists sought to highlight the perceived, but ultimately nonexistent, conflict between the WSJ’s news story and Strassel’s column. The Journal opinion pages – to lay my cards on the table, I’m an occasional contributor there – are the most widely read right-leaning news outlet in the country. And make no mistake, the Journal’s opinion pages break all kinds of news that doesn’t make it through the mainstream media’s increasingly tight liberal filter. Any political reporter who thinks Strassel’s Bobulinski column was “debunked” would do well to remember that Strassel’s extensive reporting on Russiagate these last few years ran circles around the traditional media’s embarrassingly credulous reporting on the topic.
It’s hard to deny that if the WSJ opinion pages were neutered, it would be much easier for liberal political reporters to get away with inserting their own opinions into the news, or -- as many media outlets have responded to the Bobulinski story -- not cover politically inconvenient stories altogether. As much as some reporters would like to see the WSJ editorial page go away, that limited platform – it’s not even the whole paper – is one of the few outlets preventing near total political conformity among our elite media. And however much you may despise the opinions of the WSJ editorial page, embracing conformity is antithetical to questioning your own assumptions and doing real journalism.