When I visited the website for Gazeta Wyborcza this morning, I was certain that someone had hacked their servers: staring back at me on my computer screen was the announcement of a cooperative agreement between Poland’s most prominent daily and the Wall Street Journal. Henceforth we would be able to read Polish translations of the main stories from WSJ, and GW subscribers who spoke English could get a special price for access to the paywall-protected American paper.
I was suddenly transported back to the 1980s, when Polish labor activists praised Ronald Reagan even as he was crushing the American union movement. That attitude was based on a combination of unfamiliarity with (or disinterest in) Reagan’s actual policies and a belief in the maxim that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Few truisms are less true. In fact, I would venture to say that this slogan has led humanity down more dark paths than any other cliché. It was what conservatives said in 1933 as they handed power to Hitler; it was what many Western leftists said when they refused to denounce Stalin; it was what mainstream Republicans said in 2016 as they backed Trump.
I want to scream to the staff at Gazeta Wyborcza: the Wall Street Journal is not your friend! For that matter, it isn’t even the enemy of your enemy.
Anyone who thinks that the WSJ is just another major American newspaper, comparable to the New York Times or the Washington Post, has not been paying attention. Let’s remember that this is a paper owned by Rupert Murdoch, whose malevolent role in our media culture (as owner of Fox News) is well known. This is a paper run by Gerard Baker, who has instructed the news staff to downplay negative coverage of Trump, and to use euphemisms to cover up his outrages. This is a paper that has been steadily losing staff this past year, thanks to resignations in protest of the editorial efforts to normalize Trump.
In fairness, the Journal represents the so-called “mainstream” wing of the Republican Party, and there have been moments of tension between the paper and the Trump administration. But the same can be said for Republicans in Congress, who have occasionally expressed their distaste with the more vulgar aspects of the administration while dutifully bowing to Trump’s will on every single significant issue. There are still good journalists at the Journal, and there is still some space between the opinion page (which has long been the domain of the far-right) and the news section. Nonetheless, Murdoch’s ownership and Baker’s editorial direction cannot be simply ignored. In Poland, there is a vast difference between Rydzyk and Gowin, but at this point surely no one would dispute that both have made vital contributions to the devastation that PiS has brought to Poland.
The Wall Street Journal, like the rest of the Republican “establishment,” cannot escape their complicity in creating the ideological landscape out of which Trump emerged. Since November 8, 2016, they have helped legitimize his administration even as they have occasionally disagreed with some of his more outrageous moves.
It might be easy to dismiss what I have written here as the ranting of a lefty who wants to silence voices from the right. It is true that my sympathies are with the left, as any reader of this blog knows already, but I firmly believe that there must be a space for reasonable debate between people of different ideological perspectives. This isn’t about reasonable debate. The Republican Party (and thus by extension the Wall Street Journal) cannot embrace the likes of Donald Trump and then declare that the window of accepted debate has just shifted. Trump, like Kaczyński, Orbán, Putin, Erdogan, and so on, were once considered beyond the pale – and they still are. Gaining power doesn’t mean that we must now treat their ideas as normal, acceptable points of view. Quite the contrary: now more than ever we must be very clear where the bounds of the acceptable end.
Those who collaborate with these regimes have a right to state their views, and I would never support any attempt to censor them. I don’t even agree with those who use a “heckler’s veto” to prevent such people from speaking. But Gazeta Wyborcza has gone a major step further: it has openly entered into a partnership with the Journal, and thus endorsed its views. The announcement linked to in the first paragraph presents the paper as if it were an entirely unproblematic exemplar of journalistic excellence, citing the Pulitzers its reporters have won as evidence. Yes, this very wealthy news organization can afford to hire some excellent reporters, and taken in isolation their work is often quite good. But cherry-picking the occasional investigative piece does not change the overall picture.
I am sincerely dumbfounded by the GW-WSJ alliance. Does it reflect mere ignorance about the position of the Journal in the US? Is it an attempt to find international support among people with strong right-wing bona fides in anticipation of a looming fight with the PiS regime? That second explanation strikes me as more plausible, particularly given what we have heard about the soon-to-be-announced media law. If that’s correct, it seems like a thin branch to cling to. The Journal has done precious little to defend democracy in the US. Can we really expect it to do so in Poland? Anyway, what could it do? International pressure has accomplished nothing so far, regardless of where it came from.
I haven’t cancelled my subscription to Gazeta Wyborcza yet. I’m waiting to see if there is any outcry over this unfortunate decision, because that might lead to a reconsideration. At least I’d like to see a public acknowledgement that this deal was made with full awareness that the Journal represents the polar opposite of everything Gazeta claims to stand for. Then perhaps we can learn how such a deal with the devil can be justified.
Another American paper, the Washington Post, adopted a new slogan for the Trump era: “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Up until now, I was convinced that Gazeta Wyborcza (for all the quibbles I might have about aspects of its coverage) was a source of light for Poland’s democracy. I still want to believe that. But can one ward off the darkness in one country, while embracing its proponents in another?