Wall Street Journal pushes flimsy Obama story, then stonewalls

*Post updated below with a response from a WSJ managing editor.

Just ahead of last week’s election the Wall Street Journal reported that “high-level Democrats” were calling for President Obama “to remake his inner circle or even fire top advisers” in the face of an imminent drubbing at the polls.

But an error report on MediaBugs flagged a conspicuous problem with the story: It contained no evidence supporting the claim in its headline and first paragraph. Not a single one of the eight people quoted in the piece called for Obama “to remake his inner circle” or “fire top advisers.” (Read the story here.)

Over the past week our MediaBugs team contacted the Journal five times seeking a response to the error report. We emailed a reporter, a managing editor and a general address designated for reporting errors to the newsroom. We also called the phone number listed with corrections info in the print edition. We haven’t received any response.

This isn’t the first time we’ve encountered a void when trying to reach the Journal about an error report. And while the previous instance involved a minor mistake, this one is more substantial.

It isn’t just that we think a reasonable error report deserves a response. It’s in the Journal’s best interest to provide one.

Surely more than one Journal reader wondered why there were no quotes to back up the story’s headline and premise. With no explanation from the newsroom, all we can do is speculate. It’s possible that the reporters spoke with “high-level Democrats” who said they wanted Obama to fire top advisers, but who would only say so off the record. (In which case the article might have explained that.) Or it’s possible an editor chose to punch up the opening and add a headline intended to attract maximum eyeballs. Maybe somebody at the Journal was eager to suggest a dramatic loss of confidence in Obama on the eve of a big election — after all, ever since Rupert Murdoch bought the paper, critics have been identifying a rightward slant in its news pages. (See, for example, The Atlantic, the New York Times, and many other sources.)

It’s also possible that the above explanations aren’t remotely accurate. We just don’t know.

Which, of course, is exactly the point. A Wall Street Journal reader raised a legitimate question; by failing to respond, the paper has left a void for its readers to fill with suspicion and surmise. (Journal readers may have noticed that no top advisers have departed the administration since the election; meanwhile, subsequent reports from Politico and NPR indicate that changes at the White House are likely to involve the “reshuffling of a relatively small cast of Obama insiders” and that “nobody expects an inrush of new blood.” Still, even the departure tomorrow of the entire White House staff would not answer the questions raised by the Journal story.)

When MediaBugs reaches out to newsroom managers about an error report, we explain that our aim is to help close the feedback loop, often inadequate, between the public and newsrooms. (Read our newly published national survey of news sites to see just how inadequate that feedback loop typically is.) We don’t tell editors whether they should run a clarification or correction — that remains up to them to decide and to articulate to the public.

In the pre-Internet age, it was easy for a news organization to control a conversation in the public view about its journalistic practices, or simply to ignore it altogether. Today, the conversation about journalism is everywhere; that’s the case whether or not a news organization chooses to engage with it. When it comes to championing accuracy, the best way forward is to be accessible, transparent and engaged with the public.

[Note: This post also appeared today on our MediaBugs blog.]

UPDATED Nov 12: The Wall Street Journal has finally responded, saying that it “fundamentally disagrees” with the error report posted on MediaBugs. You can read the Journal’s full response here. MediaBugs takes no position on specific bug reports; from my vantage as the project’s associate director I’ll say that we are glad to have the Journal’s response — a primary goal of ours is to connect the public with newsrooms on error reports and establish a useful record of the discussion that ensues.

In my personal opinion, as a blogger who sometimes writes about media, I’ll say that I find the Journal’s response totally lacking. It plays like bad kabuki, failing to address the actual problem raised by the bug report and further undermining the Journal’s credibility. I won’t spend time dissecting it here — because my project partner Scott Rosenberg has just done so over at Wordyard. “Like any journalist who’s been working for three decades, I’ve written and edited thousands of headlines on thousands of stories,” he says. “There is no way I would ever sign off on that headline and lead for that story. Our MediaBugs error-report filing called them ‘completely unsupported,’ and I agree.”

Go read Scott’s post for the stark details as to why — they are illuminating. When you run a story that you don’t have, as he puts it, and then defend it with misdirection and a high-handed tone, you only hurt your credibility more.

[In other MediaBugs news today, CJR’s Craig Silverman talks with me about our new report on corrections practices across major U.S. news sites. Whereby I offer a crucial update to Fox News’ “Fair and Balanced” slogan.]

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