An open letter to Mr. Lex Fenwick, Publisher of The Wall Street Journal
Dear Mr. Fenwick,
In the July 5, 2013 edition of the paper WSJ, you placed a half-page ad asking me as your customer to send you an email if I “experience any disruption in receipt of WSJ”. You wrote that my
“satisfaction with service and delivery of The Wall Street Journal is of utmost importance” to you. Please imagine having a dinner in an upscale restaurant, and a restaurant owner stopping at your table, and asking not if the food is good, but if it has been delivered promptly. Timely service is important, but you expect a delicious meal first and foremost. Similarly, prompt delivery of the WSJ is important, but first and foremost I need dependable news and good information. I am under the impression that the quality of what is in your paper is not of your “utmost importance”, or at least you did not ask for my opinion in this matter.
On the delivery issue, in my area there is only one company which delivers all the newspapers that my neighbors or I subscribe to. Hence the quality of your service is exactly the same as that of the delivery of any other paper I might subscribe to. I would not be surprised if similar arrangements are made in many other places. Hence, at least in my case, that half page ad was a waste. But you prompted me to let you know my thoughts about what is in the WSJ. Hence, let me give you my right answer to your wrong question.
The WSJ, similar to most big media organizations, keeps news delivery separate from the editorial side. To give you a sweet taste for a bitter pill that is coming, let me praise you for the high quality of the WSJ news section. I like the variety. I value the great attention put to details. Having some first-hand journalistic experience I can see how much footwork your journalists do before publishing. Lastly, I enjoy occasional tongue-in-cheek titles. In brief, they keep me as your customer.
The editorial writing in the WSJ is as bad as in any other major American publication. For me the purpose of the editorial writings is in serving as the forum for the community to exchange opinions on what matters. I do not find this on the WSJ editorial pages. As an example, let us take the currently hot issue of immigration. Almost every day there is at least one text updating or commenting on the new developments; hence, one could claim that the WSJ keeps me well informed. In fact, a lot of information is made available to me, but it is of no help for a reader trying to comprehend this complex issue. I can state this so firmly as for other reasons I extensively studied this problem, and consider myself an expert. From this perspective, I see how much essential information is left aside, and how unsystematic the editorial page approach is to this issue. Similarly, I put a lot of time and effort to study our health care system; from the point of view of someone much better informed than most Americans, I see how sporadic your coverage of this issue is as well.
Obviously, it is impossible for me, or any of your customers, to study so thoroughly all our major problems. I expect that a major media organization, as the WSJ, would conduct publicly that search for the truth. For example, I believe that it is my duty as a citizen to have a well-informed opinion on global warming or the secret government activities, and the role of WikiLeaks and people such as Edward Snowden. Knowing as accidental the WSJ coverage of issues as immigration or health care is, which I know very well, in forming my opinions on issues I do not know well, I am reluctant to depend on any opinions published in the WSJ editorial section. If I as your customer find the editorial writing in the WSJ insignificant, the question arises, why do you have it to begin with?
What is the purpose of the editorial writings as you see it and as it is seen by the WSJ editorial page editors? From reading your newspaper one can conclude that it is in publishing good texts reflecting political orientation of the editorial board. In doing so they accomplished something hard to imagine, bad editorial writing, despite good texts published. Do not feel bad about it; your competitors do the same or even worse. The New York Times, which I subscribe as well, also publishes good texts reflecting political orientation of its editorial board. So do most of the ambitious other publications. The less ambitious just publish texts that in their opinion their readers would like to read. My local Chicago Tribune could be a good example. In particular, after the purchase by Sam Zell, it went into publishing what could please most of the readers, adjusting the paper’s intellectual level to the lowest common denominator; and thus losing me as a subscriber. In other words, the editorial writing in the WSJ is bad, but you may find consolation that in the U.S. no one else does it better.
My reference point reaches back to my early journalistic experiences in Poland. Exactly 40 years ago, I worked as an intern for then the best Polish political publication, Życie i Nowoczesność (Life and Modernity), a weekly insert to Życie Warszawy (Warsaw’s Life) the main daily Warsaw newspaper. After the original team of ŻiN was dismissed for political reasons, I was fortunate to freelance to other then leading political publications. Operating in the totalitarian system, dealing daily with censors and fearing being banned of publishing anywhere in Poland (so called “wolf’s ticket”), leading journalists tried to maximize their use of scarce freedoms of expression by being as objective as possible, by sticking to the facts and scientific deduction. This way they could avoid accusations of being anti-socialistic. It worked to some degree, as most of those publications were eventually shut down anyway. However, their persistence in this facts and logic based approach made a huge dent in the opinions of the political elites and politically aware citizens. This systematic effort built the foundation for the Solidarity movement and the transition several years later. My recollection from that experience is that despite censorship, we had more thorough political debates than I currently observe in the U.S.
There was no magic in this approach. It was just hard meticulous editorial work. An issue identified as of high importance was presented for the public scrutiny. Editors sought opinions offering better understanding of the problem. Opposite views were presented, then responses, then responses to the responses. Letter from readers, and responses to them were an important part of the process. When a major publication brought up an important subject, it resonated throughout all the press. Polemics, which have more appeal to readers, were much more common than in the American press now. A reader following such debate had a fair chance of finding most of the relevant information; understand interests and motivations of the parties involved, hear their arguments and arguments of their opponents and get a broader historical and geographical content. The complexity of this approach was the key, as this was the way to build and retain the customer’s trust.
One may rebuke my criticism that with the freedom of press in the U.S., an individual can easily find all needed information. The problem is with verifying truthfulness, with identifying the relevant data, with unveiling hidden interests, with disclosing data manipulations, with bringing to light the biases and with understanding the dynamic of economy and politics. It takes an expert to sort it out. An individual has no time and resources to study thoroughly complex issues as immigration, health care, housing crisis, global warming, secret government programs – you name it. This job of verifying data and scrutinizing political views should be done publicly by editorial staff of the major media outlets. None of the listed above issues had been scrutinized on the WSJ editorial pages in the way an engineer or business person would do it, by analyzing the issue, by understanding the process, by identifying the causes of the known problems and then finding solutions arriving from the comprehension of the issue. Namely, the WSJ editorial pages failed us as the fourth branch of government.
If one would make a list of the 100 people mostly responsible for the immigration confusion we experience now and for the worthless bill just voted in by Senate, you as the WSJ publisher top this list, and your chief editors would be in the top 20 on this list. If Mr. Sulzberger, publisher of The New Your Times believes that his paper is better than yours, then he tops this list; if this can make you feel better.
Delivering news is costly; nevertheless the WSJ does it right. Good editorial writing is cheap; the only capital needed is in having well educated editors, with professional integrity and with a high desire to search for the truth. The WSJ can address any issue from every point of view, as you can get almost any political writer you may desire. Even more, occasionally in the weekly Review section the WSJ has humble attempts of presenting dissenting opinions and opposing views. It is a fade shadow of what a good editorial page should be, but it indicates that ideas presented here hover among the WSJ editors as well. Hence, please let me know why you do not do it? Why on the issue such as immigration, you do not ask basic question as why we have the immigration law as we do? Is it good? Is it enforceable? Are there any other options? What should be the purpose of the immigration policy? How did we end up with such high population of illegal immigrants? What is the most cost efficient way to eliminate this problem once and forever? Just by reading readers’ comments to the articles about immigration one can see how many of them disagree with the mantra of the texts published. Even if to the best of the knowledge of the WSJ editors these readers are objectively wrong, don’t they deserve an explanation? They vote, they contact lawmakers; but most of all, they are your customers disappointed with your product. In my opinion we have such a stalemate on immigration because our government does its best trying to do what most Americans want; but what Americans want is as realistic and as easily obtainable as Prohibition was. I might be wrong, but shouldn’t we dissect in public view such hypotheses in times when there is very little chance for consensus on any immigration policy concept?
We have a political gridlock because, ironically, in the era of unprecedented abilities to communicate, we are unable to debate merits of our problems. In the editorial writing of the WSJ the term “communicate” reached its narrow meaning, as “to express” or “propagate.” Exchanging views and understanding opinions of others simply disappeared. It leads to segmentation and polarization of the public in the degree never experienced before; so clearly seen during the last presidential election.
This lack of deliberative democracy is the failure of media as the fourth branch of government. Instead of searching the truth, we have eloquent chatter; promptly delivered, by the way. Do we need the truth? The Wall Street Journal seems to be doing fine without it. Despite this lack of truth in politics, we still do fine as a country. But we do not do as well as before. This lack of truth in politics on all levels has its price; it makes our economy less efficient. To our benefit, most countries around the world are even worse than us, they have even more inefficient political systems, but they are catching up. With the U.S. losing its momentum, our leading gap is narrowing. Our wealth resources, despite that they are tremendous are not limitless either. Eventually, we will be forced to look the truth straight into her eyes, in much more dire economic condition.