It’s okay to criticise the entire WSJ for their climate denying editorials

Economist Jeffrey Sachs wrote in HuffPo last month* that the WSJ isn’t serving its audience because it misinforms them. The WSJ editorial on the outcome of the COP21 climate summit sneered:

“If climate change really does imperil the Earth, and we doubt it does, nothing coming out of a gaggle of governments and the United Nations will save it.”

Heidi Moore was irked by Sachs’ post and pointed out, absolutely correctly, that there is good journalism in the WSJ and that some good people write for it. She argued it’s wrong to boycott a whole publication because of its editorial page, because editorials are not the entire newspaper.

It’s great that Heidi goes into bat for journalists and journalism in general, and if I hadn’t stepped outside of journalism in the past year, I’d probably be in furious agreement with her. Now, after spending some time in the “real world”**, things look different to me. Interacting with business leaders, investors and policymakers in a non-journalism context has shown me that some otherwise smart people are very credulous about what they read in the media — especially media with an apparently prestigious masthead.

Yes, it’s well known that the WSJ leader page is basically a caricature of crazy right-wingery… well-known among finance and economics journalists. The rest of the WSJ’s readers are not necessarily aware of that.

In fact I’d guess that many people — even among the supposedly smart and powerful types who read the WSJ — don’t quite know or care what an “editorial” is. It’s an old concept that only exists in newspapers. They’d be really stuck to remember if any one striking fact or statement was from a news story, an editorial or something else like a contributor op-ed. If they did realise it was from an editorial, that would probably make it more authoritative, not less. That’s the point of editorials, after all: the anonymous, almost omniscient voice of the publication itself.

As a finance journalist, the people you primarily interact with in the “real world” outside of newsrooms are your most intelligent and engaged readers and contacts. Those contacts are usually the ones who read your stories and your competitors’ stories. They’re up to date and they have a view. They can become useful sources. Sometimes they are fun and engaging email correspondents; sometimes they’re good for bouncing ideas off. You have to be mindful of their motives, of course, but that’s part of the job.

After years of this, you begin to assume that everyone you write about and for is as smart as those contacts; or at least, tries hard to be well-informed. But they’re not. Your contacts are the exception. They’re not scared of journalists; they relish sharing and receiving information; they’ll communicate with you directly and authentically — not through the tedious PR gatekeepers.

It’s easy to forget that those contacts are only a sub-set of your universe of people you write for and about.

Most of those people you’re writing for aren’t like your contacts, simply because they don’t have to be. Your typical decision maker, powerful person, whoever, is rewarded for being really good at the particular things they do. Often this means a very narrowly-defined subject area. Sometimes it’s even further limited to the mores, fashions, and machinations of their own industry or organisation. It’s only some — I’d guess a relatively small amount — of them who are also highly engaged consumers of news and other information outside their own subject.

And for the typical reader, the fact that the WSJ *does* have some good journalism alongside the crazy editorials actually makes it MORE likely that they’ll give credence to any ridiculous assertion made on the editorial pages.

And why shouldn’t they?

Heidi states that CEOs have a responsibility to vet ideas — which is true, but also, vetting everything is very time-consuming, especially if you don’t know the subject matter at all. That’s why people read particular news outlets — they assume that their preferred publishers are doing some of the vetting for them.

As journalists, we forget that we are unusually skilled at parsing large amounts of information very quickly. Conscientious journalists tend to be very good at detecting assertions that reek of hyperbole, or are driven by the publication or author’s own biases. They quickly hone in on statements of fact that may need testing — trends being extrapolated from a few random interviews; obviously crappy statistics; inappropriate sources; quotes that sound too cherry-picked.

Most non-journalists don’t spend hours every day parsing lots of information on many subjects from numerous sources. Unsurprisingly, then, they’re not so good at it — especially if it’s something outside their area of expertise. And even more so if it’s a topic that, like climate change, they know to be a) extremely complex, and b) controversial.

Final thought: if you are a good journalist at an outlet that runs what you know to be biased, misleading statements anywhere in its regular output, then maybe it’s worth thinking about working somewhere else, when the opportunity arises. (There aren’t always other opportunities out there, I know, particularly for journalists.)

Maybe you even choose to stay put despite having alternatives, because you want to change the system from within by being one of the good, true voices in the morass of awfulness that is your publication. Fine! Maybe it helps, I don’t know. But don’t be surprised if the entire publication that you work so hard for is occasionally called out for being a nasty dangerous rag, despite all your best efforts. And be aware that your best efforts may actually be lending authority to the nuttier stuff that your employer publishes.

*This should’ve been “last week”. But I can be very slow to hit Publish.