The Wall Street Journal, one of America’s most widely-read national newspapers, is facing criticism after publishing a 600-word letter from former president Donald Trump baselessly claiming that last year’s presidential election was “rigged” in the key swing state of Pennsylvania.
Mr Trump was responding angrily to an editorial printed in the paper’s opinion section on 24 October, which rubbished right-wing claims that 10,000 mail-in ballots arrived too late to meet an Election Day deadline, and therefore should not have been counted, on the grounds that Joe Biden won the Keystone State by 81,660 votes anyway, granting him 20 Electoral College points and, effectively, the key to the Oval Office.
“Well actually, the election was rigged, which you, unfortunately, still haven’t figured out,” Mr Trump huffed, before citing “a few examples of how determinative the voter fraud in Pennsylvania was.”
What followed was a diatribe characterised by The Washington Post as “replete with loosely sourced and largely debunked claims” borrowing talking points from an obscure grassroots campaign group called Audit the Vote PA, whom the disgraced ex-president insisted were “highly-respected”.
The Journal, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch and whose opinion section is known for its conservative leanings, previously came under attack in July 2020 after publishing an anti-lockdown piece by Mr Trump’s estranged vice president Mike Pence at the height of the pandemic under the headline: “There isn’t a coronavirus ‘second wave’.”
The new row raises interesting questions about the judgements taken into consideration when publishing a letter to the editor and granting a private citizen their right to reply, which in this case has, in the opinion of some, amounted to simply giving Mr Trump a much wider audience for his unsubstantiated but face-saving “Big Lie” about last year’s presidential race, which saw him lose the Electoral College to Mr Biden by 306 to 232 and the popular vote by 81.2m ballots to 74.2m
“Most newspapers don’t allow op-ed writers to just make up nonsense lies. Apparently the Wall Street Journal is not among them,” tweeted SV Date, White House correspondent for The Huffington Post.
The Post’s national correspondent Philip Bump accused the Journal of “letting Donald Trump make obviously ludicrous and dishonest claims about fraud without any hesitation”, also writing a 14-point analysis objecting to the publication and mocking Mr Trump for “still railing against his election loss 358 days after it occurred”.
The Philadelphia Inquirer’s national political reporter, Jonathan Tamari, was equally incensed, tweeting that the ex-president’s letter “is full of absolute lies – from the first bullet point down”.
Noah Bookbinder, president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, called the publication “dangerous” and warned: “Trump's false claims already helped incite violence, and this could encourage more.”
Several journalists said the newspaper’s opinion desk had betrayed its own reporters by publishing the letter without context or qualification.
“Their newsroom has fact checked a lot of the claims made in that letter,” tweeted the Post’s Josh Dawsey.
The newspaper’s own reporters have also raised objections, with one telling CNN’s media correspondent Brian Stelter: “I think it’s very disappointing that our opinion section continues to publish misinformation that our news side works so hard to debunk. They should hold themselves to the same standards we do!”
At least one reporter has also taken to expressing their feelings via retweeting critical responses from other outlets.
The Independent has reached out to The Wall Street Journal for comment.
Since leaving the White House in January in the wake of the Capitol riot, Mr Trump has cut an isolated figure, brooding over his defeat in the shadows of his Florida mansion, Mar-a-Lago, surrounded by sycophantic courtiers.
He has struggled to find a megaphone for his brand after being kicked off the major social media platforms in response to the events of 6 January, when a pro-Trump “Stop the Steal” mob stormed the legislative complex in Washington, DC, in a bid to overturn the election result, having been fed a steady diet of untruths by the president and his right-wing media allies suggesting Mr Biden’s victory had only been secured thanks to a vast nationwide Democratic conspiracy to manipulate the outcome.
Mr Trump, a glutton for publicity, has subsequently had to survive on the occasional interview request, flickers of interest in his occasional old-fashioned press releases and a glorified blog that quickly became a laughing stock and was abandoned after less than a month.
He recently announced that his own social network, Truth Social, was in development but whether Mr Trump will be able to attract the same huge following he once enjoyed on Twitter remains to be seen, which will be crucial if he is to capitalise on his ongoing popularity among Republicans and launch a fresh tilt at the presidency in 2024.