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Journal fever.

U-turns, half-truths, philosophical pirouettes, and shoddy repoiling: Is the Wall Street Journal's editorial page shell shocked or simply out of its mind?

Two weeks and a day after becoming a lame duck, George Bush was flipping through the morning's Wall Street Journal when an editorial caught his eye. Headlined "EPA's Most Wanted," it was about a man named Bill Ellen "who is about to go to prison for violating the federal government's wetlands policy."

Ellen was an engineer working on the Eastern Shore spread of Paul Tudor Jones II, the Wall Street trading whiz. In 1987, Ellen began building a 100-acre "wildlife sanctuary" on Jones' property. Since the sanctuary was to be built on wetlands, Ellen, according to the Journal, "was careful to work with officials from the Soil Conservation Service and the Army Corps of Engineers and secured 38 permits for the work."

"Then, in 1989, the federal government, eager to implement President Bush's pledge of |no net loss' of wetlands, issued a new manual redefining them." Armed with the new definition, the Corps declared Ellen's project a wetland and ordered him to stop work - which he did, according to the Journal, in February 1989. But a couple of days later, he allowed two truckloads of dirt to be dumped in a "duck pond." The feds later indicted Ellen and Jones. Jones pled guilty to filling wetlands, and paid $2 million in fines and restitution; a jury convicted Ellen, and he was sentenced to six months in jail.

"No one is safe from an overzealous government enforcement campaign that treats all things wet as equal," the Journal declared. "At a time when drug dealers and other criminals often escape with no jail time, this Vietnam combat veteran can't understand why he must go to prison over a bureaucrat's interpretation of an ambiguous congressional law." The paper called on Bush to pardon Ellen.

Disturbed by this Kafkaesque tale, Bush asked White House counsel C. Boyden Gray to review Ellen's case to see whether a pardon might be justified.

Weeks passed, but no pardon came down. The Journal published a handful of letters supporting Ellen and expressing outrage at the government's conduct. Apparently there was no space to print rebutting letters from the prosecutor, Maryland U.S. Attorney Breckenridge Willcox, or his successor, Richard Bennett.

On January 15, the Journal revisited the matter in a lead editorial titled "The Ellen Pardon," a guns-blazing broadside against federal wetlands law - all of it. Then Bush went, Clinton came, and Bill Ellen sat in jail.

A miscarriage of justice? Not exactly. What Boyden Gray had quickly discovered was that the Journal's account of Ellen's case, apparently based on conversations with his lawyers, bore only the slightest resemblance to the truth. For starters, the "sanctuary" was a hunting lodge. Ellen hadn't violated some bureaucratic "manual," but the Clean Water Act of 1972. He was convicted of filling some 86 acres of wetlands, including part of a tidal creek, something which has been illegal since the Rivers and Harbors Act of 1898. All told, Ellen had filled or altered close to 1,000 acres, though the prosecution focused on areas that were indisputably wet; the new wetlands definition wasn't even an issue.

Worse, Ellen had ignored three cut-it-out orders from the Army Corps, the first of which came in 1988, not 1989. That convinced a jury, and the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, that he certainly did know he was breaking the law. Furthermore, this was no rogue prosecution, but one that had been approved at the highest levels of Justice.

It's remarkable that the Journal would end the Reagan-Bush years on such an ignominious note. The paper's editorial page had practically set the table for the supply-side feast, and it remained a key forum for Republican policymakers and conservative intellectuals throughout Bush's term. Beginning in the mid-1970s, the Journal's Jude Wanniski published column after column on supply-side theory, transforming Arthur Laffer's odd little curve from a joke of the economics world into official policy - a feat to rival William Randolph Hearst's instigation of the Spanish-American War in 1898. The Journal also midwifed Star Wars, supply-side's military counterpart.

The degree to which the Journal has shaped public policy is even more impressive when you consider that since Hearst's day, the typical editorial page has withered to an impotent nub. Back then, the editorial page embodied and expressed a newspaper's soul. It was the designated free-fire zone where scores were settled and skirmishes provoked in thunderous copy that would traumatize today's fragile sensibilities. Now, it survives as a gangrenous appendage of that dying beast, the daily newspaper. The editorial pages of even the greatest papers in the land are little more than repositories of conventional wisdom, grindstones for dull axes.

By comparison, the Journal is a geyser. As pungently conservative as its peers are blandly liberal, as combative as they are gun-shy, the Journal harks back without shame to the age of a fiercely partisan press. Its energetic scribes, many plucked from conservative college rags like The Dartmouth Review, will leave no sacred liberal cow ungored. Taking full advantage of their anonymity, they regularly drub liberals, errant and otherwise. It's probably the only newspaper in America that would urge a new president to "bomb Congress."

Supervising this Journalistic Delta House is Robert Bartley, who for 21 years has held the title of Editor, editing a page and a half of commentary plus another of arts. When he took the reins in 1972, Bartley transformed the editorial page from a sleepy purveyor of blue-chip conservatism into an aggressive, illustrious neoconservative forum. His own lack of formal economics training did not hinder him from winning a Pulitzer in 1980 for his supply-side commentary.

The page takes intellectual guidance from a board of contributors gleaming with luminaries such as Paul Craig Roberts and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.; its guru and godfather is Irving Kristol. Almost all outside contributors share the basic views of Bartley and his youthful staff; regular liberal columnists Alexander Cockburn, Hodding Carter III, and Michael Kinsley were phased out in 1991. Today the page serves as the right's exclusive bulletin board. If it sometimes seems like a tired reciter of the conservative line - its obsessions with term limits and the capital gains tax are beyond tedious - remember that it helped to redraw that line.

Bartley, who started at the Journal as a bureau reporter, also helped invent a new genre, the reported editorial. Where editorialists at other papers content themselves with gumming over yesterday's headlines, the Journal's eager-beavers actually make phone calls, digging up stories on a range of subjects. Nothing is too trivial or obscure, if it can be properly spun to fit the Journal's worldview. So, to pick a random example, the plight of the Great Circus Bim Bom, a Russian troupe which chose to remain stranded and broke in the U.S. rather than return home, permitted the page to take a dig at Gorbachev (in mid-1990): "We guess this means that even zero dollars are still worth more than perestroika's rubles."

"That's what editorials are," Bartley told a newly hired Jude Wanniski in 1972, according to Sidney Blumenthal in The Rise of the Counter-Establishment. "The ideology finds the news."

Ideo-logic

The ideology seems to fluctuate between free-market libertarianism, the Republican platform, and a kind of neo-victorian prudery (some of the funniest pieces deal with sex). Imagine Ayn Rand as a GOP operative and you get the picture. Bartley's principal innovation is to adopt the techniques of lefty agitprop, which he then trains upon the left, a tactic rather like fighting Amazon tribesmen with curare-tipped darts. What do liberals want to do? Help the downtrodden, especially minorities. So the Journal promotes welfare reform as a way to help blacks out of poverty; it touts NAFTA because free trade will help Mexicans. Welfare fans and NAFTA foes, it implies, are racist.

And rather than red-bait its ideological opponents, the Journal sticks them with leftism's favorite epithets. When Clarence Thomas was named to the federal bench, it dubbed his upcoming confirmation fight "The Next Lynching." Congress became "The Liberal Plantation," where massuhs Ted Kennedy and Joe Biden lash uppity black conservatives. Never mind the energetic whupping the Journal dishes out to black liberals. A variation on this is name-switching. In one of many editorials it ran supporting a school-choice proposal for inner-city Milwaukee children, the page compared the leading voucher opponent, schools superintendent Herbert Grover, to Arkansas segregationist Orval Faubus.

To open the Journal's "Review & Outlook" page is to enter a looking-glass world where everything is reversed: Clarence Thomas is a nimble jurist and William Brennan a dangerous buffoon; Edwin Meese is a pillar of integrity and Lawrence Walsh a lowlife sleaze. The page and its outside contributors were stalwart defenders of Robert Bork, Michael Milken, and the whole herd of Iran-contra defendants - every eighties villain, in fact, except Jim Wright.

History is often rewritten on the editorial page. From the Journal's unique perspective, the murder of abortion doctor David Gunn by a pro-life fanatic was the natural outcome of - get ready - the sixties. Last March, in an amazing screed headlined "No Guardrails," deputy editor Dan Henninger blamed the peace and love decade for Gunn's murder. How? The sixties destroyed traditional notions of decency and rational discourse and reasonable disagreement, according to Henninger. "We think it is possible to identify the date when the U.S., or more precisely when many people within it, began to tip off the emotional tracks," he wrote: August 1968. The Democratic National Convention that month, and its attendant chaos, inaugurated an era of hotheaded political fanaticism of the sort that led Michael Griffin to shoot Dr. Gunn. No doubt '68 was some kind of watershed, but only the Journal could turn that year into a well-spring of 1993's anti-abortion violence.

All of this might be excused as spirited intellectual horseplay, especially by those who hope the page can serve as a tart-tongued voice of opposition to the new administration. On a good day, that's what it does. But to ever greater degrees, the Journal page steps past being obstreperous and into the realm of intellectual dishonesty; it has all but abandoned any pretense to participating in a rational argument. More and more, the page now traffics in unseemly nastiness backed by flimsy reasoning, the "Who is Vincent Foster?" series being only the most notorious example. When the ideologues can't "find the news," the ideologues sometimes make it up, ignoring facts whenever convenient and contradicting past pronouncements whenever necessary.

Take their views - plural - on the subject of polygraphs. In the thick of the Clarence Thomas confirmation battle, Anita Hill took and passed a lie detector test. In the next day's editorial, presciently titled "Credibility Gulch," the Journal quoted prior statements by Ted Kennedy, Howard Metzenbaum, and Paul Simon doubting the validity of polygraphs. The writer added, "Lie detector tests are so unreliable they are rarely allowed as evidence in court."

Barely eight months later, as Lawrence Walsh prepared to indict former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger, the Journal changed its mind (and earned itself a "Dart" from the Columbia Journalism Review). In attacking the prosecution and calling for a presidential pardon, the page repeated Weinberger's defense: "If there was a conspiracy, he wasn't part of it."

How do we know he wasn't part of it? "Mr. Weinberger has taken and passed a lie detector test on the matter," the Journal wrote.

Almost as astonishing was the Journal's recent U-turn on the subject of federal funding for the arts. Since the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) controversy erupted, the paper has repeatedly questioned the need for any art subsidies - whether the subsidized art is "obscene" or not. "Real Artists Don't Take Handouts" proclaimed the headline of a piece by Phillip Kauffman, a non-subsidized novelist. In another, Irving Kristol inveighed against the idea that "taxpayers' money should discover and encourage something called |creativity' in the arts." Kristol added, "Surely this is best left to individual initiative and private financing."

The Journal's editorialists chimed in on February 26, 1992: "Notwithstanding the claque that seems to view endowment funding as a political |right,' we think that a government agency that puts its money on the line has the right to make judgments about a work's value."

Which the NEA did this spring, as it reviewed the grant application of the Hudson Review, a prestigious Manhattan quarterly. When an NEA panel failed to recommend the Review for a grant, the Journal published a scathing op-ed by Roger Kimball, managing editor of The New Criterion and a frequent Journal contributor. "Diversity Quotas at NEA Skewer Magazine," shrieked the June 24 headline. In a confidential letter that the magazine evidently leaked, the NEA informed the editors that its panel felt "writers of color were significantly under-represented in the Hudson Review."

"We do not have to wait for a new director of the NEA to know what direction support for the arts will take in the Clinton administration," Kimball wrote.

Perhaps, but Clinton had nothing to do with this particular PC travesty. The offending panel had been selected by Bush appointees. And the "diversity quotas" - the NEA's standard grant guidelines, which encourage "inclusion of women and writers from racially and culturally diverse backgrounds" - were written and approved by Bushies, too.

The Journal had spent three years condemning the arts-funding-is-a-right "claque," only to turn around and join it. Perhaps real art journals do need handouts, after all; indeed, it turns out that the federal arts subsidizers had been doing their best to help the crusty, fusty Hudson Review uphold Western civilization. Since 1977, its editors have cashed NEA checks totalling $70,437. Within a week after Kimball's piece ran, they were on the phone to the NEA, seeking assistance with next year's grant application.

Also rejected in that round of NEA funding were two equally august publications, Paris Review and Antaeus. The problem was not political correctness but lack of funds. One reason why NEA has less money to disburse to small magazines, ironically, is the political heat brought to bear by the Journal and its allies.

It's just this sort of thing that's coming back to haunt Bartley, now that the '90s Journal regularly commits the very same sins for which the '80s Joumal castigated liberals. Violating its own published rules of engagement, it has even developed a taste for borking.

Fax Checking

No newspaper championed Robert Bork more loudly and more frequently than the Journal. almost daily, during the fall of 1987, the paper countered Bork's often hysterical opposition. So obsessed was it that when the stock market fell 91 points on the October day when Howell Heflin came out against Bork, the Journal's editorialists saw cause and effect, and dubbed it "The Bork Market."

The best of these pieces were written by then-assistant editor Gordon Crovitz, whose thoughtful exegeses of Bork's words and deeds, particularly his civil rights record, parried Ted Kennedy's claim that Bork would "turn back the clock to the days of segregated lunch counters." The Journal saved its sharpest words for the Bork opponents' tactics, which it likened to Joe McCarthy's: their distortions of his record; "extrapolating" his views; quoting him out of context; calling him names. If you'd read its outraged commentary, you might have thought the Journal would be above such intellectual sleaze.

Nonetheless, the borking of Lani Guinier began with an April 30 op-ed by conservative legal activist Clint Bolick, who is practically an adjunct Journal staffer. The page regularly advances his crusades, from the nomination of his close friend Clarence Thomas to pet legal matters, such as the Milwaukee school-voucher case. Although he's as close as die right-wing gets to a Ralph Nader, Bolick is somehow exempted from the page's regular denunciation of hyperactive litigators; editorial writer John Fund is an old friend.

"Clinton's Quota Queens," which ran the day after Clinton nominated Guinier as assistant attorney general for civil rights, is a masterpiece of borking. In the space of a few hundred words, Bolick cobbles together a handful of partial quotes from Guinier's turgid, lengthy law review articles, adding a few of his own broad-brush characterizations, to portray her as a "Quota Queen." It was a catchy label, echoing Reagan's legendary welfare queens, and it stuck.

Bolick's characterization of her writings was about as authentic as Reagan's yarns - or liberals' selective reading of Bork's record. Bolick's snippets from Guinier's 1989 Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review article make her seem like some sort of Black Panther. But her article mostly dwells upon the shoddy, dishonest enforcement of the Voting Rights Act by the Civil Rights Division under Reagan, where Bolick worked during 1986 and 1987. Guinier did suggest judicial-appointment quotas-specifically, that "the Judiciary committee should begin evaluating federal judicial nominations with reference to specific goals for increasing non-white nominees." But as for electoral politics, her voting-rights discussion emphasizes the need to avoid "legislative set-asides, color coded ballots, electoral quotas, or |one black, two votes' remedies which some might argue are also justified."

The Journal's errors and clumsy philosophical pirouettes made it a reliable source of unintended comedy this year, until Vincent Foster had to go and ruin it for everybody. What's odd about June 17's "Who Is Vincent Foster?" in light of subsequent events is that it is not particularly vicious or unbridled. It's a silly display of huffing and puffing, more worthy of a found-on-the-floor college newspaper than a leading national daily.

The piece is not even about Foster, but about the Clinton Wute House's purported "carelessness about following the law." What law, you ask? Why, the Federal Advisory Committee Act (FACA). Not that the Journal had ever gone to bat for FACA in the past; indeed, the page regularly blasts similar laws as niggling congressional intrusions. Nevertheless, FACA had one thing going for it: A federal judge was threatening to use it to pry open Hillary Clinton's health-care task force. In high dudgeon, the Journal tsk-tsked the White House for a "certain lack of seriousness - contempt in its most basic meaning - toward legal rulings."

Foster doesn't appear until almost halfway through the piece, and only then because the anonymous writer drags him in. "We have a similar problem with Vincent Foster," he or she wrote. "Having made Webster Hubbell famous, it occured to us that we might have occasion to repeat the favor for other Rose partners, and requested photographs of Mr. Foster and associate White House counsel William Kennedy."

Their "problem" with Foster, in other words, was simply that he wouldn't cough up a photo for a hatchet job. So the Journal requested Foster's picture under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) - another burdensome bit of congressional activism. "The act requires officials to respond within 10 business days," the Journal primly noted, but believe it or not, a month later the White House still hadn't answered.

What were they trying to hide? And why was Vince Foster debauching those handmaidens of democracy, FOIA and FACA? The Journal rode to the rescue ... by harassing White House staffers about Foster's picture. The rest of the piece recounted the editorial page's negotiations with administration officials, unwittingly illustrating its many Reagan-era complaints about harassment of government officials by the press. Although the White House ultimately faxed Foster's photo the night before the editorial was published, the piece was illustrated by a silhouette with a question mark inside.

The editors later claimed that they hadn't checked the fax machine.

Having caught the Clintonites in three minor legal slips, one of which it engineered by filing a ridiculous FOIA request, the Journal apparently felt it had ascended to the moral mountaintop.

But the editorial, in historical context, was pure sophism. The Journal spent most of the last decade arguing, much more eloquently, for greater executive privilege - and against such laws as FACA and FOIA. Foster was performing the same function for which the Journal lionized Oliver North during the Iran-Contra hearings of 1987: defending his president's penumbra of authority. And the page's reaction to Foster's suicide was equally hypocritical. It called for an investigation of the death by a special counsel within Justice, a close cousin to the independent counsels it once raged against and abhorred.

"Who is Vincent Foster?" was the culmination of a long string of hit jobs on the Journal's perceived ideological foes, dating back even before its infamous 1982 attack on Raymond Bonner. As a New York Times reporter, Bonner was led by guerillas to the site of an apparent massacre at El Mozote, El Salvador, that had been committed by U.S.-trained Salvadoran troops. As soon as Bonner's story appeared, the Journal struck back with a two-column piece, titled "The Media's War," that accused Bonner - along with nearly every other American foreign correspondent since John Reed - of parroting leftist propaganda. It also insinuated that no "massacre" had taken place, and that Bonner had been duped by the Commies.

From their Liberty Street cloister, one wonders, how could the Journal's editors have known one way or the other? Anyway, they were wrong. This spring, an independent investigation confirmed that the El Mozote massacre had taken place, as Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto of the Washington Post reported, and as the Journal - echoing its Reagan State Department sources - had denied. (Parroting the U.S. Embassy, it must be said, is a much deeper tradition among foreign correspondents than leftist propagandizing is.) Once again, as in the case of Bill Ellen, one of the nation's best-selling newspapers - 1.8 million readers a day - had been snookered by a source.

The Journal page uses the same facts-be-damned approach when it comes to political scandal. The basic rule of thumb is simple: defend Republicans, attack Democrats. So it leapt to the defense of Alabama Governor Guy Hunt, under investigation in 1991 for a slew of ethical irregularities - including his rather colorful practice of flying around the South in a state plane collecting monetary "love offerings" at Primitive Baptist revivals. "To remove a sitting governor because he accepted a few hundred dollars on occasion to promote spiritual values strikes us as absurd," harrumphed the Journal. Last May, a jury convicted the good guv'nah of the decidedly nonspiritual crime of converting campaign funds to personal use - such as buying himself a $4,000 riding mower. He was immediately removed from office.

The Journal greeted the news with silence. Meanwhile, it ignored a clear case of prosecutorial overreaching in Alabama: the years-long "investigation" of Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington, a black Democrat, in which the Republican U.S. Attorney failed to unearth a single indictable deed but managed to set back Birmingham race relations 20 years. Normally vigilant against prosecutorial abuse when the target is a white Republican or business figure, the Journal said nothing.

Contrast that silence with the rancor inspired by Democratic Senator Dale Bumpers, who, the Journal charged, was wasting our money: "The U.S. Senate has brazenly voted to have its taxpayer-funded legal counsel represent Sen. Dale Bumpers in a suit to overturn Arkansas' term limit." That wasn't quite true. Bumpers didn't file the case, but was named as a defendant along with several other Arkansas elected officials. The Senate Counsel merely dispatched a two-page reply to die court stating that Bumpers had no interest in the outcome of the case. Cost to taxpayer: one first-class postage stamp. The writer could have checked out the story with a single phone call.

The punchline to all this is found in a November 1992 editorial about the collapse of the October Surprise theory in which the Journal writers piously, and without a hint of irony, warned their colleagues in the press to "be skeptical of convenient partisan accusations."

Paper Cuts

The Journalists no doubt have a lot more at stake in all these fights than other newspapers. Having softened the beaches for the supply-side revolution, Bartley and friends now find themselves defending their historical legacy. They staked their own credibility on the success or failure of Reaganism, and, well, the negative evidence is mounting.

The logical course, once it became clear that the revolution didn't work, would have been to blame the Democrats for screwing things up. After all, Reagan wasn't a dictator; Democrats had controlled the House for four times as long as he occupied the White House. Instead, Bartley and his colleagues undertook to defend die entire mouldering edifice of Reaganism. They continue to insist, for example, that tax cuts do not impair the government's ability to raise revenue. Damage control seems to be the motive behind Bartley's latest book, The Seven Fat Years, in which he eloquently insists that things aren't as bad as they seem, and if they are, it's not Reagan's fault.

The problem is that the Journal and its contributors left themselves no wiggle room for when their political fortunes changed. Their shrill, sweeping attacks on special prosecutors did not admit the possibility that another administration that might deserve such investigations would ever hold power. Their all-out defense of mediocre nominees left them no credible way to attack someone else's mediocre nominees. Their rejection of the very idea of "elitist" art subsidies makes them look silly when a frequent outside contributor uses the page to special-plead for an elite literary magazine.

Many readers, even conservatives, are beginning to think that the Journal's page is good for entertainment only. Even Jude Wanniski, Bartley's protege, thinks it's lost its relevance. "If I read another line-item veto editorial, or another term limits editorial... They've gotten to be hobby horses, and you can fill up space by writing those editorials again and again and again."

Many Journal reporters think of the editorial page as the North Korea of the Dow Jones world: dogmatic, bizarre, and blessedly isolated. But occasionally die relationship between the news and editorial side looks downright combative, particularly when reporters decimate editorial-page heroes. While Bartley's crew lionized Michael Milken as a financial superhero, for example, front-page editor James B. Stewart was proving beyond a reasonable doubt that Milken was a crook. The Clarence Thomas nomination also occasioned an intra-paper contretemps. In a New Yorker book review this year, Journal reporters Jill Abramson and Jane Mayer demolished, fact by fact, David Brock's The Real Anita Hill. Brock's evidence wasn't all new. Many of his central assertions - that Hill had been harassed by another employer, not Thomas; that she had been fired by a Washington law firm; and that her corroborating witnesses were either lying or not telling the whole truth - first saw print on the Journal's editorial page.

"Once the sources are evaluated and the contradictory evidence is considered, Brock's arguments evaporate into an amorphous cloud of ill will," conclude Abramson and Mayer. Ditto, they might have added, for their own paper's editorials.

Given a choice of whom to trust in these fights, many readers seem to prefer the news side. According to one company source, the page's readership has declined from more than 60 percent of the paper's circulation to less than a third. On some level, that's a shame. For liberals, the Journal page is merely the object of horrified fascination. (What will those monsters dream up next?) But now more than ever, the world - especially the conservative world - could use an opposition forum that is both powerful and credible.

What we've got instead is a page that alternates between stupefying, dogmatic pronouncements and borderline paranoia leavened with factual sloppiness. The Journal editorialists would be ignored as a kind of F Troop in the war of ideas if their random, fumbling gun-play wounded less. It's ironic that the folks who brought us "No Guardrails" lack the basic sense of fairness that is required even of partisan scribes: respect for the truth, a willingness to see that every story has two sides, and the ability to admit that one is, on occasion, dead wrong.
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Title Annotation:conservative stance of Wall Street Journal editorial page
Author:Gifford, Bill
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Nov 1, 1993
Words:4646
Previous Article:Good help isn't hard to find.
Next Article:Harold Laski: A Life on the Left.
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