James Taranto, the Wall Street Journal’s Limbaugh

I can scarcely believe what I’m reading over at the Wall Street Journal’s Best of the Web column nowadays. Its writer, James Taranto is a vicious satirist, and while he is way smarter than Limbaugh he can be much nastier. And because he’s writing for a respectable entity, he can be much more dangerous.

Every day it’s the same theme: the Dems are naive clowns and the Repubs are true leaders. That’s okay; we can all have our opinions. But when you have to express it through truly nasty insults, there’s cause for alarm. After all, this is the Wall Street Journal he is representing, and his column has become a veritable smear machine.

Today he refers to Jimmy Carter as “the disgraced former president.” Disgraced? What merits this? Then he refers to John Kerry as “the haughty, French-looking Massachusetts Democrat,” the same descriptor he used yesterday, equally repellent each time. Over the past six days I’ve seen him refer to Paul Krugman three separate times as “Former Enron advisor Paul Krugman.” (How loud would he shriek if the media always referred to Bush as “former drunk driver George Bush”? And besides, it’s a gross misrepresentation of who Krugman is.)

This is taking us beyond punditry into a much uglier area. And somehow Taranto and the like have managed to pass it off as legitimate journalism. We all know the WSJ has one of the nastiest editorial pages in the country, but at least it used to have manners. All Taranto does is taunt, like a spoiled little bad boy, delighting in his ability to smear and insult, and even get paid for it.

This is the media talking. Smears have been known to stick, even if utterly untrue. They are dangerous. This guy should be reeled in or fired, but I suspect no one is more titillated by Taranto’s vilifications and slander than the WSJ’s editorial department.

Note: This was written in lunch-hour haste and in my hurrying I typed “Jim Carrey” instead of “John Kerry.” Funny how the human mind works (and doesn’t). The error has been corrected, but not before I was punished for it in the Comments. Enough!

The Discussion: 16 Comments

Jim Carrey is a French-looking Massachusetts Democrat? I thought he was a rubber-faced Canadian movie star.

December 2, 2003 @ 1:02 pm | Comment

I think you mean John Kerry. Though I’d say he looks more Latvian than French.

December 2, 2003 @ 1:11 pm | Comment

Latvian? I’d bet money he’s from Liechtenstein.

December 2, 2003 @ 1:23 pm | Comment

Yes, yes, John Kerry. Corrected. I was writing fast and I was amazed when an emailer pointed out the error. I am so ashamed….

December 2, 2003 @ 2:09 pm | Comment

When Taranto refers to Kerry as “the haughty, French-looking Massachusetts Democrat,” he’s repeating a long-standing joke that isn’t as vicious as you make it out to be.

A few months ago Taranto described a widely-reporteded news story about a survey that asked a random sampling of people to list their impressions of the leading Democratic candidates.

Kerry was described as being “haughty” and “French-looking”, and Taranto has since then turned this into Kerry’s epitaph.

You’re also missing part of Taranto’s litany about Kerry. In his speeches and public addresses, Kerry frequently (read: invariably) alludes to his military record, particularly his stint in Vietnam. Obligingly, Taranto mentions this whenever speaking of Kerry.

Thus, whenever Kerry’s name comes up, it is invariably followed by some variation on “the haughty, French-looking Massachusetts democrat who, by the way, served in Vietnam”.

So basically this is just one of the many inside jokes Taranto has with his long-time readers. Though I make no assertions about the justifiability of this tactic on Taranto’s part, I figured I should fill in the back-story before he’s lynched.

December 3, 2003 @ 5:39 pm | Comment

Er yes… one more thing.

The Best of the Web page is part of OpinionJournal.com, which in turn is an offshoot of the WSJ’s editorial section. As such, it has no obligation to be fair and unbiased and is in fact intended to express the views and opinions of the editors, including Taranto. Taranto et. al. make no claim that their editorializing is “legitimate journalism” and in fact chose a domain name that reflected the nature of their content.

It is common practice in many newspapers to put the news in the news section and the punditry in the editorial or opinion sections and the WSJ have always been meticulous in preserving this distinction. Readers confuse the two portions at their own peril, and there is little the WSJ or any other responsible news source can do to address this.

And, for the record, I’m not a Taranto apologist. My comments should not be construed as an endorsement of Taranto, BotW, the WSJ, Sen. Kerry or the letters H, T, M or C.

December 3, 2003 @ 5:48 pm | Comment

HTMC – I really do appreciate your insights. Living in Asia, it is hard for me to keep up with the campaigns and the buzz going on around them, so what you’re telling me about Kerry is news to me.

Best of the Web does carry the WSJ logo above it. No matter what their intention is, as long as this is the case they are married.

Last thing – it’s not a matter of them being fair and unbiased. (I never said they should be those things.) But insulting and demeaning and outright rude — that’s just creepy, especially for commentary that has the WSJ logo on it. As a marketing person, I can safely say it is bad for the brand.

December 3, 2003 @ 6:31 pm | Comment


Thank you for the kind words. I’m currently in Japan so I share your difficulty in keeping up to date with things happening back home.

I can only dispute your last comment about this kind of behaviour being bad for the brand. The WSJ gets its income from subscriptions, and I would suspect that their subscribers know exactly what they’re getting when they fork out the $60 or whatever per annum. I know several people (who aren’t me, in case you’re wondering) who have subscribed to the Journal in large part because of the tenor and content of their editorials. Their material directly serves a specific and, I would assume, mostly-unchanging niche in the market, and any change would *cost* them market share, not gain it. WSJ readers *like* what Taranto has to say, so associating the WSJ name with Taranto and his writing is a big plus, not a liability.

As for whether it is insulting, demeaning, rude and creepy, well, yes, it is. But it’s also considered fair game in the realm of politics, and such mud-slinging seems to be par for the course, regardless of which side of the fence you find yourself on. It’s truly an unfortunate state of affairs.

And on a personal note, keep up the good work. I’m a new reader of your blog but I like what I’ve seen and I’m happy to say you’ve gotten yourself a new regular. I’m sure you’ll be hearing from me again in the comments.

Until then,

December 3, 2003 @ 9:42 pm | Comment

The basic difference between the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times is that WSJ leaves editorializing to its editorial pages, whereas the NYT editorializes all over its news pages, a la the People’s Daily. Legitimate journalism? You mean muck-raking is now a sainted profession? That’s not immediately apparent from the sleazy innuendos I read all the time in the left-wing media’s (WaPo, NYT) news pages.

December 5, 2003 @ 4:54 am | Comment

I guess it’s all in how you look at it. I find the Times to be generally fair, especially since Raines left. I can’t imagine finding in the Times, either in the op-eds or the news, anything even close to Taranto’s blatant childish smears. If you can find one, please share it with us, but be specific.

December 5, 2003 @ 11:53 am | Comment

I have to admit Zhang Fei has a point. One of the reasons why I stopped reading the NYTimes was because of the infilitration of commentary into their news coverage. I’m afraid I don’t have any specific examples at hand and finding examples is made difficult by the fact that their archives are for-pay only. Taranto has done an excellent job archiving some of the more egregious instances of editorializing in reports or of reporting so sloppy that the errors seem to be deliberate. Pulling examples from his archives would involve sifting through all the back editions of BotW and I don’t really have time for that.

Richard is right, though. There *does* seem to have been a major shift in the philosophy and quality of the Times since Raines left. I’ve recently begun reading the Times again and it’s clear that the editors are making an effort to rebuild trust in their paper. While it’s too soon to say whether the Old Gray Lady has come to her senses, and while it’s unlikely that the Times will suddenly transmogrify into a more conservative news source than the WSJ, the prognosis is good that the she’ll return to some semblance of fair and balanced coverage.

If you want outrageous editorials, though, the NYTimes is definitely the place to go. Maureen Dowd is a especially bad. She frequently quotes President Bush and casually omits key words and phrases. Her deletions (now referred to as “dowdifying” a quotation) significantly alter the intention and meaning of the speaker and has earned her and the paper a great deal of (justified) criticism.

Man am I long-winded.

December 5, 2003 @ 1:38 pm | Comment

I have complained loudly about Dowd, thought there are moments when she is right on. I’ll agree, we can see prejudice on issues all over the NYT and the BBC and maybe most other news media. Where Taranto crosses the line — and this is absolutely key to my point — is in sheer viciousness. Dowd is vicious on Bush, but it’s not like she calls him “Former drunk driver George Bush” every time she refers to him. That’s where Taranto grates on me. Critiize Krugman, criticize Carter or whoever you want. But being the gleeful bully in the sandbox is simply in poor taste. When Dowd does this, I call her on it, too.

December 5, 2003 @ 2:59 pm | Comment

The repudiation of the “haughty, french-looking” Kerry as merely a joke misses an obvious point. It’s not funny, and no joke is funny in MASSIVE repitition. The last 10 of Taranto’s entries have used this reference. The humor has long since died away.

What is left is a negative one-dimensional characteriziation of Kerry. That’s an opinion, but it’s a childish one, and Taranto is far too intelligent to use this technique because he’s childish.

January 31, 2004 @ 4:18 am | Comment

C’mon. Taranto’s shots at Kerry are no different than those of many other editorial and op-ed writers’ shots at GWB. Mean and nasty is the business of pols and editorial writers. Let’s not get our knickers in a twist over a bunch of putzes attacking a bunch of shmucks.
I’d love to hear your take on Mark Steyn and Ann Coulter.

March 6, 2004 @ 1:02 am | Comment

Cjhaz, send me the links to some of these comparable jabs from left-leaning journalists from publications as highly esteemed as the WSJ. Just three. If you find something similar, someone referring to Bush day agfyter day after day along the lines of “the haughty French-looking Democrat….” — I will acknowledge that you are right. Ayt the moment, I maintain you are completely wrong — I have never, ever seen an editorial columnist of a reputable paper create an ongoing smear campaign constantly using the same attack phrases (Taranto has used the Kerry phrase more than 80 times so far) and getting away with it. Just show me. Ball’s in your court.

March 6, 2004 @ 12:21 pm | Comment

I think the prime reason Taranto’s column is “bullying”and whatnot is that it is intended as a sarcastic and satirical take on politics and journalism (thus the “You Don’t Say,” “What Would We Do Without X” or “World’s Smallest Violin” headings).

He is particularly good about clarifying his errors, though under the rather supercilious title “Homer Nods;” he also regularly prints and rebuts readers’ rebuttals.

I read Taranto because he is very funny. Unlike Limbaugh, however, it would be difficult to like him if one did not agree with his opinions.

May 18, 2004 @ 8:30 pm | Comment

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