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Newspapers usually report on the news, yet the Wall Street Journal’s opinion section recently made some of their own. The newspaper decided to publish a letter ridden with falsehoods authored by former President Donald Trump that promoted the conspiratorial claim that the 2020 presidential election was “rigged.” Broad, rightful backlash swiftly followed.
We find it baffling that the Wall Street Journal published the presidential collection of patently false bullet points. The letter, a response to a WSJ editorial on Pennsylvania’s handling of mail-in ballots, didn’t live up to any reasonable expectation of accuracy or truthfulness, let alone to the rigorous standards we’d expect from one of the most prominent opinion pages in the nation. The former president repeated poorly sourced, disproven claims, including the fiction that 25,000 sinister nursing home ballots helped sway the result.
Trump did so with a microphone courtesy of the very journalistic institution that, in its defense of publishing the letter, acknowledges most of his claims to be “false” and perhaps even “bananas.”
This letter should not have been published, but the principle behind why is important to understanding opinion journalism: There exists an important difference between a contested opinion and a provable falsehood. Opinion sections are specifically for the former, not the latter.
It is always in the interest of the pursuit of truth and journalistic integrity for newspapers to ensure that the opinions they publish stem from facts. Journalistic institutions cannot be in the business of publishing known falsehoods. Trump’s letter with its presentation of falsehoods as fact constitutes an open assault on the truth-seeking ideals journalism ought to embody.
The Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board, responding to criticism, released a statement arguing that readers must be trusted to “make up their own minds”' regarding the claims in Trump’s letter. But there is no making up one’s mind about Trump’s demonstrably false claims. Readers do not fact-check the articles they consume, nor should a newspaper expect them to do so; readers trust us journalists to do that for them. As we have opined in the past, running a false statement and then a true statement does not constitute a net neutral.
That’s not to say Trump’s false claims should never be heard. Newspapers provide a time and place for this coverage, where readers can engage with important events and the actions of prominent figures in an unbiased manner and “make up their own minds”: the news section. The Wall Street Journal’s news team has already done extensive research and reporting on the former president’s claims, often proving them false. If the paper truly wanted to hold Trump accountable for his claims, as its editorial board suggests, they have ample inches to do so through other means.
Publishing them as a standalone piece in the opinion section, uncontested and under the legitimizing WSJ logo, is deeply reckless and dangerous. It encouraged readers to consider the falsehoods on equal grounds with the other fact-checked pieces of the opinion section: High fact-checking standards cannot differ between letters to the editor and op-eds or editorials.
The Wall Street Journal damages not just its own reputation, but that of journalism as a whole by knowingly, farcically legitimizing false claims. The newspapers are vital to a healthy democracy and with this power comes the social responsibility to publish truth.
As an editorial board ourselves, we strive for these ideals and seek to learn from others’ failure to uphold them. We aim, albeit imperfectly, to always prioritize and affirm truth, to opine only on events we have researched and understood in-depth, and to rigorously fact-check every piece we publish. The Wall Street Journal Editorial Board should hold themselves to the same standard.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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