Last week, amid a torrent of bad press, President Trump teased one story as a game-changer. “The Wall Street Journal is working on a very, very important piece, which should be very good,” he said on a campaign call, teasing an explosive story about Joe Biden’s son’s dealings with foreign officials.
That story was published on Thursday, the night of the final presidential debate. But it appeared in an unexpected place: not on the newspaper’s front page but in its Opinion section. The article, written by Kimberly Strassel, was everything the Trump campaign hoped it would be. It alleged that text messages reviewed by Strassel contained evidence that Biden had been cut into a deal involving his son and a Chinese energy conglomerate. “As Biden refuses to answer questions about this case, voters will have to make up their own minds,” Strassel wrote. “But given Hunter’s exploits in China, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and elsewhere, much more is yet to come.”
For months, Trump and his allies had been hunting for a corruption allegation they could pin on Biden—a search that led to, among other things, Trump’s impeachment. Now, at long last, they had it.
It didn’t last long. Not long after Strassel’s column was published online, reporters from the paper’s news division published a story of their own. They had reviewed the same material as Strassel and come to the opposite conclusion. “The venture … never received proposed funds from the Chinese company or completed any deals, according to people familiar with the matter,” Andrew Duehren and James Areddy wrote. “Corporate records reviewed by The Wall Street Journal show no role for Joe Biden.”
It was the latest skirmish in what The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi described as “a civil war” between the Journal’s news and opinion sides that has been playing out in public for months, a reflection of a larger existential crisis at a paper whose rabidly pro-Trump Opinion section is damaging the credibility of its reporting. The controversy points to a larger crisis surrounding conservative media’s allergy to truth and reporting, which has the capability to destroy the legitimacy of mainstream papers like the Journal.
In July, nearly 300 Journal employees wrote a letter to the paper’s owner, Dow Jones, and publisher, Almar Latour, decrying the lack of standards at the paper’s Opinion section. “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 employees wrote. “Many readers already cannot tell the difference between reporting and Opinion. And from those who know of the divide, reporters nonetheless face questions about the Journal’s accuracy and fairness because of errors published in Opinion.”
The Journal’s Opinion section has published a number of propagandistic pieces about the Trump administration, including an op-ed by Vice President Mike Pence that dismissed concerns that the United States was entering a “second wave” of Covid-19 infections as a myth. (In general, when one of your least embarrassing contributors is Peggy Noonan, who spent her Friday column clutching her pearls about Kamala Harris’s dancing, you’re in trouble.)
By the time Strassel published her piece on Thursday, many had concluded that the White House was pushing the Hunter Biden story to credulous (or, in many cases, cynical) journalists as a kind of political Hail Mary. Behind by nine points nationally and trailing in nearly every key swing state, the president and his team were desperate to find 2020’s version of the Hillary Clinton emails story. In Strassel and The Wall Street Journal’s Opinion section, they found eager partners.
On Sunday, The New York Times’ Ben Smith laid out the full-court press made by a White House lawyer, Eric Herschmann, and former deputy White House counsel, Stefan Passantino, to try to turn the story into an election-shaking scandal. The goal, Smith wrote, was straightforward: The Journal’s news division has credibility. Reporting on the entanglements between Hunter and Joe Biden and foreign officials could turn into a major story, as stories about the Clinton Foundation did in 2016. (The “Clinton Cash” stories were published in the Times, in conjunction with right-wing operative Peter Schweizer.)
Then Rudy Giuliani, in a plot twist worthy of a Coen Brothers movie, appeared on the scene. He handed many of the same documents being reviewed by the Journal to the New York Post, which is, like the Journal, owned by Rupert Murdoch. (Many veteran Post reporters refused to touch the Hunter Biden story, as the Times reported last week.) By the time of Thursday’s debate, there was already serious doubt about the credibility of the documents the Post was reporting on and concerns that it was all part of a foreign influence campaign.
Strassel’s column seems, in retrospect, a last-ditch effort to give the story the veneer of respectability it desperately needed. By batting down Strassel’s column, the Journal’s news side was asserting its independence, refusing to play a part in a partisan scheme. Without that dash of credibility, the story fizzled. “If you’d been watching the debate, but hadn’t been obsessively watching Fox News or reading Breitbart, you would have had no idea what Mr. Trump was talking about,” Smith wrote. “The story the Trump team hoped would upend the campaign was fading fast.”
Smith admitted at the end of his piece that he feels a “deep ambivalence” about this reassertion of gatekeeper power, of journalistic institutions taking extraordinary steps to ensure a political attack is not legitimized. He pointed to an article co-written with John Herrman in 2017 in which Smith and Herrman said, “The media’s new and unfamiliar job is to provide a framework for understanding the wild, unvetted, and incredibly intoxicating information that its audience will inevitably see—not to ignore it.” But the media has not ignored the story per se—outlets have, for the most part, approached the Hunter Biden story with skepticism and context, which was rarely the case with Hillary Clinton’s emails.
As for The Wall Street Journal, it is facing a dilemma familiar to many news outlets owned by Murdoch. Call it the Fox News problem—it’s what happens when you try to run a credible news outlet with a viciously partisan opinion side. In the case of the Hunter Biden story, the Journal was able to assert its independence. But the long-term consequences are apparent; columns like Strassel’s suck the credibility away from newsrooms, just as programs like Tucker Carlson Tonight or Hannity do.
A report compiled by the Journal’s news side that was obtained by BuzzFeed on Friday found that the paper was floundering in the current media landscape. The Journal, BuzzFeed wrote, is “struggling mightily in the current digital and cultural age—such as not covering racial issues because reporters are afraid to mention them to editors, playing to the limited interests of its aging core audience, at times losing more subscribers than it takes in, and favoring ‘a print edition that lands in the recycling bin,’” according to the report.
The Wall Street Journal is that rare thing in the media environment: a right-leaning outlet that does actual reporting. But its reporting is being squeezed on two fronts, its lack of pull in the digital world and the paper’s increasingly deranged Opinion section. In the case of the Hunter Biden story, its news side won a battle. But it might be losing the war.