Press Box

When the Hed Doesn’t Fit the Story

A Wall Street Journal hedline makes a big promise its story about Obama’s speech doesn’t deliver on.

President Obama in the Oval Office

I rarely study the news for evidence of press bias. For one thing, the folks at Media Matters for America, FAIR, and Media Research Center have that beat covered. For another, press bias doesn’t disturb me as much as it does the average news hound. As long as the biases invigorate the reporting rather than retard it, the article provides useful information that can be confirmed, and the biases are transparent to me, I’m usually unruffled.

But dimly executed examples of press bias annoy me, such as the press bias contained in today’s (June 17) Wall Street Journal story “Obama Address Gets Low Marks: President’s First Oval Office Speech Draws Criticism From Across Political Spectrum.”

The Journal piece is like a lukewarm cup of vending machine coffee. It smells like news, pours down the eye just like news, but leaves your brain thirsty for more. The only reason I’m knocking it instead of one of a thousand other pieces published today is that 1) it’s about his honor, the president of the United States, 2) it fails to deliver on the wild promise of its hugely assertive headline, and 3) the owner of the publication, Rupert Murdoch, as well as his top associates, is well-known for pretzeling the news to suit his political mood.

A case could be made that President Obama’s address bombed so badly that liberals, Tories, fascists, libertarians, Communists, moderates, Green Party members, and philatelists pelted it with bags of decomposing pelicans wherever it was heard. But the Journal doesn’t demonstrate that. In its 850 words, thearticle quotes just one person—Robert Reich, a secretary of labor under President Clinton—knocking the speech. Reich, the Journal reports, calls the speech “vapid” and claims that it put the nation “to sleep.” (Here is the Reich piece from which the Journal quotes.)

The rest of the direct quotations collected by the Journal barely reference the Obama speech—and where there is criticism of the president, it’s pretty gentle. Give a listen:

One of the questions that the speech last night leaves open is how big the administration’s ambitions are going to be.
—Carl Pope, chairman of the Sierra Club.The only way we’re going to get any climate or energy legislation is if we get some Republican support. And we don’t have that now.
—Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Right now, as the Obama administration plots to exploit a crisis made worse by its own failings, oil continues to leak from the well and extend its stranglehold on the lives and livelihoods of the people in the affected areas.
—House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.Talk is cheap, and I’m not optimistic that this will happen.
—Edward Overton, environmental science professor emeritus, speaking about Obama’s promise to fix the Gulf.The important point is that the battle will go on long after the well is capped.
—Elgie Hollstein of the Environmental Defense Fund.If this is effectively and rapidly applied, it is very good news, and I applaud the president. … It is really important to get help to the people along the Gulf whose lives have been impacted.
—Overton speaking about the $20 billion compensation fund.If the objective was to show the president is in charge, spending a lot of time on energy policy may not have been the best approach. … The one criticism I’ve heard repeatedly that strikes me as having some merit is that you need to have one guy who’s the go-to guy and can get answers for you.
—Richard Bryan, former Democratic senator from Nevada

Because reporters rarely write their own hedlines, you can’t automatically blame them for the shortfall between the billing given to their pieces and what their stories actually say. But in this case, the Journal reporters can’t claim mistreatment. Their nut graph reads, “But other aspects of his address were panned by people across the political spectrum—including some supporters of the president.”

Careful, Wall Street Journal. Your readers have grown accustomed to taking you seriously. It would break my heart to see that change.


Don’t blame the copy editors for my abstruse spellings of hed and hedline. Blame me. See this glossary for definitions of hed, dek, lede, TK, and more. How stupid does the Wall Street Journal think its readers are? Send your speculations to Embrace the stupidity of my Twitter feed. (E-mail may be quoted by name in Slate’s readers’ forums; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)

Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a “Press Box” correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word hed in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to

Like  Slate on Facebook. Follow us  on Twitter.