Politics & Policy

It’s No “Kerfuffle”

The Wall Street Journal's strange performance on the Eason Jordan scandal.

The Wall Street Journal has a very strange editorial this morning regarding the controversy (which it gently labels a “kerfuffle”) that resulted last Friday night in the resignation of CNN’s chief executive, Eason Jordan. The Journal’s editorial page is generally superb and fearless, so one is reluctant to call this “damage control.” Suffice it to say, though, that the analysis is not up to the paper’s gold standard.

Jordan was evidently pushed out at CNN over what appears to have been an unconscionable assertion that the U.S. military targeted journalists for assassination, uttered at the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. “[A]ppears to have been” is used advisedly here. There is no doubt that Jordan made a remark, but there is great dispute about the context–whether he deliberately intended to leave the impression that our troops were murdering journalists, whether he instead meant that journalists had been harmed recklessly in the course of military operations, and how sincerely, artfully or clumsily Jordan was in “clarifying” his comments upon being challenged by a blogger named Rony Abovitz and Congressman Barney Frank, as well, perhaps, as others.

There should be no dispute about all this because, naturally, there is a tape (or, at least, a verbatim transcript). But, notwithstanding a rising tide of calls for its release since last week–detailed with characteristic thoroughness by NRO’s Jim Geraghty and Michelle Malkin (see)–CNN and Jordan have stonewalled.

This is the most puzzling part of the Journal’s take on the story. The editors are evidently upset that Jordan was torpedoed over “what hardly looks like a hanging offense”–a tempest in a teapot obsessively driven by the whirling dervish combination of the blogosphere and talk media, who, so the Journal’s argument goes, can’t tell a “journalistic felony” like Dan Rather’s phony memos from a “dumb” but forgivable faux pas. Yet, the reason we cannot fix the gravity of the offense with certainty is precisely because the “professional journalis[ts]“–by which the Journal, in an unbecoming display of haughtiness, distinguishes itself “from the enthusiasms and vendettas of amateurs” (i.e., the bloggers)–never demanded that the evidence be released so we could all judge for ourselves.

The Journal never mentions, not once, in its editorial the failure of the mainstream media (of which it pronounces itself a proud member) to press for release of the tape. Instead, the paper launches a solipsistic defense of its news judgment that this just wasn’t much of a story, selectively rehashing its initial reporting: a (mostly) opinion piece by the ordinarily excellent Bret Stephens, whose account and assessment, to be blunt, were way off the mark.

The Journal must realize it blew one here. Jordan made his remarks on January 27. The session was not off the record. Stephens was actually there. He heard the top official of an influential international news conglomerate, which often sneers at suggestions that it is anti-American and anti-military, make an outrageous remark that was anti-American and anti-military. That was news. It may not have been the story of the century, but that is very far from saying it was not newsworthy. It manifestly was. Despite being in the rare (for a journalist) position of being able to give an eyewitness account rather than digging for sources, Stephens filed no report for two weeks.

By the time he and the Journal finally got around to saying something about the story on February 10, it was no longer just about what Jordan had said but also about why what he said had not been reported in the mainstream media. The editors are quite right this morning when they reject gossamer claims that Stephens was compromised by a conflict of interest merely because he is one of 2000 WEF fellows and Jordan sits on one of the WEF boards. But there is a raging conflict of interest in this scenario and the Journal regrettably declines to hold that mirror up to itself: The paper has allowed an error in its subjective news judgment to cloud its analysis of something that, objectively, was news.

Plainly, the Journal has decided that the story mustn’t have been much of a story if Bret Stephens didn’t see it that way. It has not demanded the release of a tape that might well be available. This is a curious lapse–when has a first-rate news organization ever thought less information was better?

But of course, if the tape is as bad as Eason Jordan and CNN must think it is, its release would only highlight that the Journal was derelict in not reporting this event when it first happened. On that score, it is worth observing that (a) Stephens’s February 10 report makes not a single reference to the elementary journalistic fact of when Jordan’s remark was made (i.e., two weeks earlier–not exactly “recently,” as Stephens fuzzily put it), and (b) the report apparently fails to credit Abovitz, a blogger (making him for some reason a bane in the Journal estimation), for being the first to challenge Jordan, thus incorrectly suggesting that that distinction belonged to Rep. Frank. The Journal, moreover, is not enough of a “grown-up,” to borrow its own condescending term, to distinguish–even today after Jordan has stepped down–between the newsworthiness of the catapulting event and the paper’s own performance in covering it.

No doubt owing to this, the Journal, usually nonpareil in assessing the media’s Leftist bias, swings and misses three other times this morning. First and foremost, because it cannot seem to sort out the story from its own appraisal of the story, the paper contends that Jordan was forced out by a blogger and talk-radio stampede. But as the Journal well knows from having been part of the stampede on occasion, a torrent of pressure will generally not force an outcome that the underlying facts don’t compel once everyone has weighed in. If Jordan and CNN thought the facts did not warrant ouster despite the background and position of the person making the inflammatory comments (more on that in a second), their course of action was simple: release the tape, take comfort in the defense waged by the Journal and other influential media outlets, and tough it out. They didn’t do that, and the public can only surmise (since folks like the Journal editors still won’t call for the tape) that the facts must be pretty bad.

Second, the Journal acknowledges that Jordan is a hopeless recidivist when it comes to making indefensible statements, yet bizarrely sees this as helping Jordan’s defense on this occasion. It posits that his Davos libeling of the military pales in comparison to some of Jordan’s prior sins (“including a 2003 New York Times op-ed in which he admitted that CNN had remained silent about Saddam’s atrocities in order to maintain its access in Baghdad”). This, however, misses a commonsense point: a repeat offender should be on a tighter leash than someone with a clean record. For what little it may be worth, I don’t agree with the Journal that what Jordan said in Davos was a comparative trifle. What he said was indefensible, and the position he holds coupled with CNN’s grounds for worry about its reputation make it a hanging offense on its own merit. Surely CNN, which has already bled profuse market-share to Fox News and others, was well within its discretion to see this, in context, as one unforgivable gaffe too many.

Finally, the Journal faults the bloggers for failing to perceive the difference between “Easongate” and “Rathergate.” Leaving aside the annoying lack of imagination that impels the media to attach “-gate” to every scandal, the perception problem here belongs to the editors. The CBS debacle was not a threshold. It was the far margin of disgraceful journalism. If the Journal’s new position is that no incident of shameful media performance is a story unless it achieves Rather-like dimension, the rest of the transparently biased mainstream media should rest a lot easier today. Because, notwithstanding Eason Jordan’s fate, this would mean that the formerly fearsome Wall Street Journal is off the case.

Let’s hope that’s not true.

Andrew C. McCarthy, who led the 1995 terrorism prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and eleven others, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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