Justice Alito and the Wall Street Journal

While much of liberal ire with some of the decisions of the US Supreme.Court has focused on justice Clarence Thomas’s opinions, I have long felt that justice Samuel Alito is the most reactionary member of the court, the one most likely to offer tortured reasoning to justify what seems like pre-ordained conclusions based on his extremely conservative ideology.

Both Thomas and Alito have been the targets of investigative reports by ProPublica about the gifts and lavish vacations that they have been given, including travel on private jets, by wealthy individuals who, directly or indirectly, have had cases before the court. They did not disclose these trips and the private jet travel in their financial disclosure forms.

In the case of Alito, though, he went one step further than Thomas. As is customary with good journalistic outfits, prior to publishing their story, ProPublica informed Alito that they were preparing a story and sent him a list of questions to make sure they were being fair and accurate. What was unusual was that Alito used that to publish a ‘prebuttal’ in the opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal the day before the ProPublica piece even appeared.

ProPublica explains what happened.

Around midday on Friday, June 16, ProPublica reporters Justin Elliott and Josh Kaplan sent an email to Patricia McCabe, the Supreme Court’s spokesperson, with questions for Justice Samuel Alito about a forthcoming story on his fishing trip to Alaska with a hedge fund billionaire.

We set a deadline of the following Tuesday at noon for a response.

Fifteen minutes later, McCabe called the reporters. It was an unusual moment in our dealings with the high court’s press office, the first time any of its public information officers had spoken directly with the ProPublica journalists in the many months we have spent looking into the justices’ ethics and conduct. When we sent detailed questions to the court for our stories on Justice Clarence Thomas, McCabe responded with an email that said they had been passed on to the justice. There was no further word from her before those stories appeared, not even a statement that Thomas would have no comment.

The conversation about Alito was brisk and professional. McCabe said she had noticed a formatting issue with an email, and the reporters agreed to resend the 18 questions in a Word document. Kaplan and Elliott told McCabe they understood that this was a busy time at the court and that they were willing to extend the deadline if Alito needed more time.

Monday was a federal holiday, Juneteenth. On Tuesday, McCabe called the reporters to tell them Alito would not respond to our requests for comment but said we should not write that he declined to comment. (In the story, we wrote that she told us he “would not be commenting.”)
She asked when the story was likely to be published. Certainly not today, the reporters replied. Perhaps as soon as Wednesday.

Six hours later, The Wall Street Journal editorial page posted an essay by Alito in which he used our questions to guess at the points in our unpublished story and rebut them in advance. His piece, headlined “Justice Samuel Alito: ProPublica Misleads Readers,” was hard to follow for anyone outside ProPublica since it shot down allegations (notably the purported consumption of expensive wine) that had not yet been made.

This kind of behavior is extraordinary and does not reflect well on Alito or the editorial pages editors of the Wall Street Journal. In his article, Alito made all manner of assertions that ProPublica challenged. As they say:

It does not appear that the editors at the Journal made much of an effort to fact-check Alito’s assertions.

The Journal’s editorial page is entirely separate from its newsroom. Journalists were nonetheless sharply critical of the decision to help the subject of another news organization’s investigation “pre-but” the findings.

“This is a terrible look for @WSJ,” tweeted John Carreyrou, a former investigative reporter at the Journal whose award-winning articles on Theranos lead to the indictment and criminal conviction of its founder, Elizabeth Holmes. “Let’s see how it feels when another news organization front runs a sensitive story it’s working on with a preemptive comment from the story subject.”

Bill Grueskin, a former senior editor at the Journal and a professor of journalism at Columbia, told the Times that “Justice Alito could have issued this as a statement on the SCOTUS website. But the fact that he chose The Journal — and that the editorial page was willing to serve as his loyal factotum — says a great deal about the relationship between the two parties.”

Even Fox News got in the game. “Alito must be congratulating himself on his preemptive strike, but given that the nonprofit news agency sent him questions last week, was that really fair? And should the Journal, which has criticized ProPublica as a left-wing outfit, have played along with this? The paper included an editor’s note that ProPublica had sent the justice the questions, but did not mention that its story had not yet run,” the cable news outfit’s media watcher Howard Kurtz wrote.

There are lessons for ProPublica in this experience. Our reporters are likely to be a bit more skeptical when a spokesperson asks about the timing of a story’s publication.

ProPublica is not ‘left wing’ but is simply an investigative reporting outfit. It is not their fault that in the US, conservative views have drifted into far-right, fact-denying, fabulist territory that has resulted in the truth being perceived as left-liberal on the political spectrum.


  1. Pierce R. Butler says

    Apparently (from the source article), even ProPublica neglected to mention that the Wall Street Journal, like False Noise, belongs to Rupert Murdoch, and that we should adjust our ethical expectations accordingly.

  2. Mano Singham says


    The WSJ is a weird paper. Its news section is pretty good because businesses need accurate information to function and rubbish is of no use to them. However the editorial/opinion section is nuts. As I understand it, the news section tries to keep its distance from the editorial section to avoid being tainted by it.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Mano Singham @ # 3: The WSJ is a weird paper. Its news section is pretty good … the editorial/opinion section is nuts.

    ‘Twas that way long before Rupert Murdoch first befouled its front door with his shadow (they even did good original work on the Iran/Contra scandal). Howsomevotherwisely, that does not excuse ProPublica from failing to flag the connection, particularly in the Alito context, and this violation of J-ethics does involve the WSJ opinionators front and center.

    Certainly media watchdogs catch the “news” side of WSJ making “mistakes” hard to imagine done without awareness, but it would need a deep historical study beyond their reach to say whether or how much that has changed since absorption (circa 2007) into RM’s NewsCorpBorg. By now, I expect the majority of staffers to have hired on in the last 15 years, signifying a willingness to follow Murdochian “morality” in media -- pls see my # 1 re: ethical expectations.

    Also, see (2011) Former Wall St Journal owners: ‘We wouldn’t have sold if we had known’ (about just one of the multiple Murdoch scandals) and SourceWatch:

    The Wall Street Journal, an influential international daily newspaper published in New York City, is owned by News Corporation, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch. It typically misinforms its readers about climate change. … The Wall Street Journal has been a corporate funder of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

    Raging Bee @ # 4 -- The Washington (Moonie) Times gets caught regularly slanting their “news” -- mostly by omission, which rarely gets attention beyond the media monitors, rather than blatant fabrication. Dunno much about the Economist, though I have a general impression that their opinion side generally avoids sensationalist verbiage.

  4. Dunc says

    @6: I had an FT subscription for a while, and I still dip in although I let my sub lapse a couple of years ago (because I couldn’t find time to read enough of it to justify the fairly eye-watering price tag). I would certainly characterise it as pro-business, but not pro-Tory -- they’ve been pretty scathing about the last several Tory administrations (and excoriating when it came to Liz Truss, featuring headlines such as “The UK government should stop doing stupid stuff” and coining the term “moron risk premium” in relation to the spike in bond yields her ill-fated budget triggered). Socially it’s about as liberal as The Guardian (arguably more so on certain topics), and their main problem with Keir Starmer seems to be that he’s not radical enough. And it’s pretty relentelessly anti-Brexit, obviously… Most Tories now seem to regard it as a fully-paid up member of the Liberal Remainer Backstabbing Elite, if not the Guardian-Reading Tofu-Eating Wokerati.

  5. lanir says

    It seems a lot of places use their regular news sections as reputation savers for whatever else they want to do. I’ve even heard that Fox has decent news as long as you don’t mind them not covering some things I might think are newsworthy. But as I understand it, their problem is they use the same branding and terms like “news” for things they claim in court are just entertainment which no one should believe. Essentially they’re claiming they’re a lousy copy of The Daily Show or John Oliver while not being even remotely as factual as either one.

  6. sonofrojblake says

    @7 -- you didn’t expect #6 to bear some relation to reality, did you? Check the name at the top of it again.

  7. Dunc says

    @9: I normally wouldn’t engage, but I felt it worth attempting to correct the record for the benefit of other readers in this instance. A lot of people seem to assume the FT is like a British version of the WSJ, when that couldn’t be further from the truth.

  8. KG says

    John Morales@6, Dunc@7,

    I recall it being said -- many years ago, and with some intervening ownership changes -- that among the British press, the Telegraph contains what the ruling class want the middle classes* to think, the Times what they want foreigners to think, and the FT what they think themselves.

    *Note that in the UK the term “middle class” is less all-encompassing than in the USA, where it seems to include everyone with a regular income who is not a billionaire.

  9. sonofrojblake says

    It’s easier to understand the stunted ignorance of post #6 when it is demonstrated that its author gets their information on the current political leanings of UK newspapers from a 35 year old sitcom.

  10. John Morales says

    sonofrojblake, um.

    It could not possibly be that it directly refers to KG’s immediately preceding comment, could it?

    Of course, I grant it’s possible that such as you imagine the entirety of my dataset consists of a 35 year old sitcom. Maybe, just maybe, the similarity therein is random, and I was exhausting my knowledge.

    Of course, that entails I know nothing about Brexit, other than this:

  11. KG says

    John Morales@13,
    With the exception of the Mirror, I think Hacker’s description of the readership of newspapers has held up pretty well (particularly the Morning Star,/I> and the Telegraph) -- and I’m not sure what was meant by saying the Mirror was read by “people who think they run the country” even then. Perhaps a hit at trade union leaders, but if so not a particularly accurate or telling jibe even then.

  12. xohjoh2n says


    and I’m not sure what was meant by saying the Mirror was read by “people who think they run the country” even then. Perhaps a hit at trade union leaders, but if so not a particularly accurate or telling jibe even then.

    That seemed worth googling, which lead interestingly to this blogpost about the history of the skit. I personally find the trade union link plausible -- though perhaps you might consider the link more pertinent in 1973 or even 1976, before Thatcher was through with them -- but the earliest traceable version has an extra bit that really drives the nail in there.

  13. John Morales says

    xohjoh2n, wow! I’m rather impressed by the nerdiness and thoroughness of that piece.

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