Former WSJ Environmental Reporters Criticize Paper's "Embarrassing" Editorial Page

Blog ››› ››› JOE STRUPP

Several former Wall Street Journal environmental reporters -- including a one-time environmental editor at the paper -- criticized the paper's editorial page for its history of skewed coverage of environmental issues. 

The former staffers reacted to last week's lengthy report on the Journal editorial page's poor record on environmental issues posted by Media Matters. The report details the Journal editorial board's long history of distorting facts to downplay concerns about issues ranging from the ozone layer to acid rain.

Notably, the Journal continues to cast doubt on whether human activities are contributing to climate change in the face of a strong scientific consensus driven by abundant evidence. Following the pattern they used in responding to previous environmental threats, the paper has downplayed this consensus, claimed that fixing any potential problem is too expensive, and attacked those seeking to fix the problem as motivated by politics, not science. 

Frank Allen, a Journal staffer from 1979 to 1994 and environmental editor from 1991 to 1993, describes his "revulsion" at the editorial pages.

"I have had such a revulsion to those pages for so long, I didn't like the tone and the spirit of the pages," said Allen.

Citing his effort to cover the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Allen said the editorial page reaction was, "fairly mocking as I recall of the whole enterprise of the Earth Summit, mainly suggesting it wouldn't amount to anything unless George H. W. Bush attended. I can remember them doing something about climate back then with the hockey stick graph trying to shoot it down."

Currently president of the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources in Missoula, MT, Allen recalls having trouble getting approval to cover some major environmental stories that went on to be national news.

"I can remember resistance at the managing editor level to covering the spotted owl controversy," he recalled. "It turned out to be a significant story and the Journal eventually did get into it."

He also cited the 1992 Earth Summit, noting, "I had proposed for months before, six or eight months, that we develop a plan for covering that event, which turned out to be as much a process as an event."

"I couldn't get interest at [former Managing Editor Paul] Steiger's level or [former deputy managing editor Byron] Calame's level to do that planning or presentation untilBusiness Week put Rio on its cover a few weeks before," Allen said. "Then I got a call to get up to New York so I could plan our Earth Week coverage."

Steiger, currently editor-in-chief of ProPublica, said he has no memory of a disagreement with Allen over coverage, but stressed any decision was likely based on news value not editorial board influence.

The Wall Street Journal did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

Allen described his time as environmental editor as lonely due to some of the opposition to stories from some editors and the editorial board's general attitude on environmental issues.

"Being environmental editor was certainly the loneliest job I had at the Journal, I was fairly isolated," Allen stated. "It was great working on the outside, but I once went to the Page One editor with a story list that was about 20 items long, fairly ambitious undertakings." 

He recalled a story proposal to look at how safety had progressed at different companies following the tragic 1984 gas leak at a Union Carbide site in Bhopal, India, that killed hundreds. It was shot down.

"None of my story ideas impressed him, even though I thought they were good," Allen said. "Instead, he said 'why don't you do a story on the litter of New York because I see a lot of litter on the street and that is environmental.'"

Timothy Noah covered the environment and other regulatory issues at the Journal between 1990 and 1996. Now a senior editor at The New Republic, Noah recalls Journal newsroom leaders seeking to distance themselves from the editorial pages as well.

"In those days, news reporters were kind of instructed not to take the editorial page seriously, instructed by bosses on the news side," Noah said. "That was safe to do because it seemed a safe assumption that anything written about the environment or most other matters on the editorial page would be worthless anyway."

Noah went on to describe the editorial page at the time as "completely out of control ... It was embarrassing to be associated with this mouthpiece for fringe, for the right fringe. It also seemed odd to me because as best I could make out, it was out of touch with the predominant opinions among members of the business class."

He later added: "The stuff on the environment I took special care not to read because there was a better chance my sources would ask me about it, I could shrug and say they do their thing I do my thing."

John J. Fialka, a former 25-year Journal reporter who covered energy and environment from 1996 to 2007, now edits ClimateWire, an environmental newsletter.

He found many times that the Journal editorial page was "selective" about its use data to support its arguments.

"I would say there were a lot of things they chose not to acknowledge," he said of the editorial page in general. "Selective use of data. If something agreed with their general line of thought they would pick it up and if it didn't they wouldn't."

"The pattern is there, it is a very pro-business pattern," he added. "A lot of skepticism was voiced and I found it interesting."

Rose Gutfeld, a Journal scribe from 1978 to 1994, covering the environment from 1989 to 1993, said she often had to point out the newsroom's separation from the editorial pages to readers and sources.

"We made such a great point of saying we had nothing to do with the editorial page," she recalled. "I remember covering the Clean Air Act and they didn't want it passed."

Posted In
Environment & Science
Network/Outlet
Wall Street Journal
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