Press Box

The Journal’s Shrinking Violets

What’s with the editorial page’s annoying new tic?

No shrinking violets grow in the savage garden that is the Wall Street Journal editorial page. The page is forthright in its views (trial lawyers bad, free markets good, Bill Clinton evil, Michael Milken innocent) and in the two-fisted way it expresses them. At least that’s the way it used to be. In recent months, the page has adopted a rhetorical tic that’s completely inconsistent with its gung-ho conservatism. Here’s the offense: After making a stirring call for action, the editorialists mewl that somebody elsemight want to inform the people in charge about their ideas.

The Journal indulged the tic most recently in Tuesday’s editorial about the farm bill, which it opposes (correctly) as “one of the porkiest farm bills in history.” The editorial ends, “Someonemight want to tell Karl Rove that a Senate victory will be pyrrhic if President Bush manages to alienate his GOP base, voter turnout falls as a result and Republicans lose the House in the process.” [Emphasis added throughout.]

For Christ’s sake, you’re the Wall Street Journal editorial page! You can call thunder and A-10 Warthog gunships down from the skies. Pick up the phone and tell Karl Rove yourself!

An April 17 editorial about (yes) tort abuses offered a variant on the “someone might” shtick, opining, “The next time New Yorkers wonder why their city can’t afford to fix a decaying bridge or hire new firemen, someonemight direct their questions to the penthouse offices of all these city shakedown firms.”

Now is that passive language or just limp?

The Journal’s newfound timidity leaks over into staff op-eds. On April 12, Assistant Features Editor Collin Levey wrote this about “political correctness” at the University of Michigan: “But someonemight point out to the kids that this [checkpoint surveillance] isn’t exactly the kind of stuff that gets you sent to a human rights tribunal.” Robert L. Bartley, the page’s afflatus, contributed this in his Feb. 11 column about Enron: “Someonemight even call it embezzlement, in the broad sense of theft of company assets by those with fiduciary obligations.”

Dow Jones News Retrieval coughs up two additional recent examples of Journal editorial diffidence: “Someonemight want to introduce the ACLU to the judges and jurors who have already had to preside over terror trials,” Nov. 11, 2001; and “So somebodymight explain to the political grandstanders that drug patent rights aren’t a menace to national security; they’re essential to it,” Oct. 25, 2001.

Who is to blame for all this squishiness? Someone might make a case against Paul Gigot, who took over the page in September 2001. The “someone” tic is consistent with Chatterbox’s December finding that Gigot is trying to make the page read “nicer.” Or somebody might attribute it to the migration of staffer Daniel Henninger from editor—where he reliably stiffened most Journal editorials before publication—to writer as the page’s “Wonder Land” columnist. Somebody might make either one of these cases. But not me.