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Opinion | The Wall Street Journal’s editorial shame

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When is an editor’s note like a comb-over? When it’s trying to hide what the editor would rather not own up to.

On Tuesday, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial declaring “fanciful” and “unlikely” the story of a 10-year-old rape victim who’d had to travel from Ohio to Indiana to get an abortion. Yet the Columbus Dispatch on Wednesday reported that a man had been charged with the rape, adding further ballast to a story that first surfaced in the Indianapolis Star on July 1.

Suddenly “fanciful” became “confirmed.”

The headline on the Tuesday editorial — “An Abortion Story Too Good to Confirm” — was now factually extinct. Numerous lines in the editorial now stood as evidence of the Journal’s too-quick inclination to dismiss a story cited by President Biden on July 8. Most outrageous was the line where the Journal appeared to ding Biden for … not naming a 10-year-old rape victim! “He said a 10-year-old girl he didn’t identify by name was forced to travel from Ohio to Indiana to have an abortion because Ohio now prohibits abortion after a fetal heartbeat is discovered,” reads the editorial.

The solution? The Journal overlaid an editor’s note on top of the errant text:

This risible half-measure drew its share of criticism on social media. The editorial said one thing; the editor’s note said something quite different. They were doing hand-to-hand combat.

The Journal apparently decided that it might be appropriate to address the snafu with some form of the verb “to correct” and published a new editorial on Wednesday evening with the headline, “Correcting the Record on a Rape Case.” Here’s the opening paragraph:

It appears President Biden was accurate when he related a story about a 10-year-old Ohio girl who was raped and traveled to Indiana for an abortion. We wondered Tuesday about the case, after no one had confirmed its accuracy or any public report of the crime, though the story had made the media rounds for nearly two weeks.

Boldface added to highlight the Journal mischaracterizing its own work. The first two sentences of the original editorial, after all, read like this: “All kinds of fanciful tales travel far on social media these days, but you don’t expect them to get a hearing at the White House. That’s nonetheless what seems to have happened Friday as President Biden signed an executive order on abortion.”

You call that “wondering”?

It’s easy, of course, to snark about how poorly and incompletely news organizations correct their errors — and it’s especially easy in this case, where the Journal editorial board decided to dangle its own credibility off the rockiest cliff in American political discourse.

But why did it do so? What led it to take such a dumb risk?

The answer lies in its editorial archive.

As the Journal itself clarified in its corrective editorial, its board has supported abortion rights “before viability,” though it has advocated for the overturning of Roe v. Wade — which it characterized as a precedent as misguided as Plessy v. Ferguson, of “separate but equal” infamy. “Abortion is nowhere mentioned in the Constitution, and its regulation is a classic example of police powers reserved for the states,” wrote the Journal’s editorial board in November 2021.

In April 2022, the editorial board wrote a piece speculating that the coalition to undo Roe v. Wade may well be fragile, and that Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. could be angling to assemble a coalition to preserve the precedent as the court deliberated on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. “He may be trying to turn another Justice now,” notes the editorial.

As for what a post-Roe future may hold, the Journal went with this explanation, which merits quoting in full:

Far better for the Court to leave the thicket of abortion regulation and return the issue to the states. A political uproar would ensue, but then voters would decide on abortion policy through elections—starting in November.

The ability to obtain an abortion would not disappear across the U.S. It might in some states, but in some of those states there are already relatively few clinics that perform abortions. The likeliest result is a multiplicity of laws depending on how the debate and elections go. California might allow abortion until the moment of birth. Mississippi might ban it except in cases of rape or incest.

The Guttmacher Institute, which favors abortion rights, estimates that 26 states “are certain or likely to ban abortion without Roe.” But that means 24 states would allow it, including some of the most populous. Based on a Guttmacher analysis from 2017 on abortions performed in various states, the majority of those abortions would remain legal.

Meanwhile, a movement is already underway to pay for women in restrictive states to travel and obtain abortions elsewhere. Planned Parenthood would have the biggest fund-raising years in its history. Abortion opponents might even be disappointed by the result of the political debate. They would have to make, and win, the moral case against abortion among their fellow citizens.

This expression of sunny federalism and bootstrapping activism, in other words, served as the Journal’s official vision for the days following June 24, when the court, in its Dobbs ruling, did just as the newspaper had advised. “The Court majority in Dobbs has invigorated democracy and federalism,” wrote the editorial board in a July 1 piece breaking down the high court’s term.

“Democracy and federalism,” for the family of the 10-year-old rape victim, meant a trip from Ohio — which enacted a six-week abortion ban — to Indiana so that she could obtain a medical abortion. Ohio’s law doesn’t include exceptions for rape or incest. The Journal hasn’t responded to questions about the process.

The contrast between the Journal’s view of a post-Roe world and the actual post-Roe world as chronicled by a pair of Midwestern newspapers helps to explain why the Journal went overboard in sniping at the story and why it stumbled through an embarrassing two-step process in correcting the piece.

“Fanciful” narratives, after all, are tough things to let go of.

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