Is the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page really ‘right-wing’?

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In an e-mail that came in while I was on vacation, reader Mike Mitchell wrote:

Just curious about something I see you and others mention frequently, especially in light of Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of the Wall Street Journal. The phrase typically invoked is “right-wing editorial page”. I read the WSJ every day – read the editorial page every day. Just curious as to what makes it so right-wing. I certainly wouldn’t object to calling it a pro-business editorial page, or a defender of free markets, but right-wing? Are things like free trade and open borders so reactionary? On many issues, I see a libertarian slant.

Have you read their editorial defending Louisiana congressman William Jefferson? What is so “right-wing” about that?

It just seems to me the description is a crude caricature adopted by the political left that people mindlessly repeat. Yes, it may describe a percentage of what they do, but doesn’t come close to capturing the entire picture.

This was my response:

Have I in fact called the WSJ page “right wing”? I’m not saying I’m sure that I haven’t, but it doesn’t sound like a term I’d use. I do have two main problems with the WSJ page:

1) It went kinda bonkers with crazy conspiracy theories, and seemed at times to be overtly partisan, during the Clinton years. I think that has receded a bit under Gigot (and under a Republican president), but I still often get the feeling that some Journal editorialists see themselves as part of a political movement. And movement propaganda bores me.

2) On some economic and foreign policy issues, its approach is what I would call faith-based. When writing about tax policy in particular, the Journal editorialists seem entirely unaware of most economic theory and empirical evidence on the issue.

In any case the page is definitely not reactionary or consistently conservative. And while I don’t think it’s as thought-provoking as it was when I first began reading it in the early 1990s, I still read it and learn from it.

An editorial page should have a strong point of view, and that for years has been one of the Journal page’s great strengths. Its architect, Robert Bartley, called it “the only editorial page that sells newspapers,” and it wasn’t an idle boast. Apart from when I was an editorial writer at The Birmingham News in the early 1990s and felt obliged to do so, I don’t think I’ve read more than four or five New York Times editorials (I’m not counting columns, or those bylined pieces by editorial writers that they sometimes run) in my life. But for years I have found the Journal‘s editorials compelling or at least infuriating enough to glance at. Although I haven’t been doing that as much lately.

I’ll go with the mixed verdict Jack Shafer delivered in the excellent Bartley obituary/appreciation he wrote for Slate in 2003. On the one hand, he argued:

Journal editorials tend to speed-metal their way past inconvenient facts, topple straw men, and blame societal or political ills on the page’s hobbyhorses.

On the other:

Wherever editorial pages take a genuine stand on an issue instead of pondering the complexity of the world for 600 words before recommending further study, you have Bartley to thank. Wherever editorial pages report a story or break news, wherever editorials read as if they were written by a human instead of an institutional voice, you probably have Bartley to thank, too. And wherever an editorial page serves red meat instead of tapioca, no matter what the page’s politics, its writers should pay royalties to the Bartley estate.