DeLong Smackdown Watch (Joint New York Times Death Spiral/Edward Luttwak/Clark Hoyt/David Shipley/Greg Mankiw Edition)
Grasping Reality with Both Hands: The Semi-Daily Journal Economist Brad DeLong: I do think this really encapsulates the way that Brad's obsession with the press corps sometimes borders on, well, obsession (by which I mean that it's unreasonable in the standard of behavior it demands, even if based on real failings and legitimate frustrations)....
[T]he New York Times... [is] just [a] newspaper, after all--one that puts it pants on one leg at a time. The editors went to a leading academic, who has both a deep knowledge of policy and a sterling reputation among his peers (not to mention a long trail of peer-reviewed publications). And they published (after Mankiw wrote) a piece that contained no factual errors--just a logical flaw. Is it really the job of a press corp to correct the best and the brightest among economists when they make logical errors? Should the science reporters be checking all the equations of a string theorist before reporting on an important new paper?
I think the relevant concept here is division of labor. The Times's job is to find interesting writers who have established themselves in their fields as people worth listening to. And then the writers are supposed to live up to the standards of excellence they are thought to embody.... [T]he New York Times isn't peer reviewed. And no daily newspaper could be.... [T]he Times is a fine paper, [but] it's still, on a very good day, only the first draft of history. And the first draft of argument too....
It's way way too easy to criticize the press everytime the press publishes something stupid. But the fallacy here comes back to the division of labor.... Even a team of 10 polymaths... could not really have the knowledge to seriously engage a bunch of subject-matter experts to push them to state all hidden premises and address all lurking counter-arguments. And even if ten such people could be found... is their highest and best use really editing the New York Times op-ed page...?
[T]he Times I think pretty reasonably reflects the slice of reaonably well-educated, affluent, and over-self-satisfied America that comprises its primary readership.... [W]ould we really want to live in a world of a "better press corps?" What it boils down to is the very best and brightest devoting themselves to popular journalism--and not specialization. If all the best aircraft engineers are fact-checking the occasional op-ed piece on flying, would you trust the planes that the former fact-checkers are engineering?
It is, I think, a matter of line drawing. For thirty years now Republican politicians have been proposing tax cuts and claiming that either (a) they don't need to be funded because America today is on the far sie of the Laffer curve, or (b) they can be funded via a magic asterisk in the budget--by cutting federal spending "waste, fraud, and abuse." Surely this argument is past its sell-by date? Surely it is thirty years' rotten, and stinks? Surely there are four questions that an editor should ask:
- He or she should ask the writer: Is what you are describing actually McCain's proposal? (Answer: no.)
- He or she should ask the writer: Isn't the gasoline tax--which you have in the past used to pay for (a small part of) the extension of the Bush tax cuts, Medicare Part D, the structural long-term deficit, and now want to use to pay for a corporate tax cut--performing the function of the spoiled and rotten magic asterisk in your argument? (Answer: yes.)
- He or she should ask his or her peers: Given what we know, would publishing this tend to inform our readers and raise the level of the debate? (Answer: no.)
- He or she should ask himself: Given the answers to these first three questions, should we publish it? (Answer: no.)
If the New York Times has a role in the future, it is as a trusted intermediary that warrants the quality of what it publishes and thus brings to its readers' attention. If it cannot figure out a way to accomplish this trusted-intermediary function, it should die--and die as quickly as possible so that other organizations that can perform this trusted-intermediary function should begin capturing its revenue flows.
The second example in my original post is if anything more egregious: Edward Luttwak is not qualified to write anything about Islamic apostacy. David Shipley is not competent to select op-ed writers. And Clark Hoyt is right to call him out.
The problem is Shipley's reaction--it is not to say "I blew it; New York Times readers have a right to demand more competent performance from their trusted intermediary; I will try to do better." Shipley's reaction is:
Entitled to Their Opinions, Yes. But Their Facts?: David Shipley, the editor of the Op-Ed page, said Luttwak’s article was vetted by editors who consulted the Koran, associated text, newspaper articles and authoritative histories of Islam. No scholars of Islam were consulted because “we do not customarily call experts to invite them to weigh in on the work of our contributors,” he said...
[David Shipley] said he did not think the Op-Ed page was under any obligation to present an alternative view, beyond some letters to the editor...
On which Clark Hoyt comments:
That’s a pity...
Indeed it is.
This isn't rocket science I am demanding: this is the simple application of basic intelligence.
Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?
It tells us--both the handling of Luttwak's and the handling of Mankiw's piece tell us--that the New York Times editors don't think that they have a responsibility to try as hard as they can to carry out their trusted-intermediary function. Unless the editors get a clue soon, I can't think of a reason to keep the organization around.
One last point: Note that by the end of Clark Hoyt's article calling out both the author Edward Luttwak and the editor David Shipley, they are both uneasily blaming and pointing fingers at each other:
Luttwak said... he was not out to attack Obama and regretted that, in the editing, [David Shipley cut] a paragraph saying that an Obama presidency could be “beneficial”...
[David] Shipley, the Op-Ed editor, said he regretted not urging [Edward] Luttwak to soften his language about [the] possible assassination [of Barck Obama], given how sensitive the subject is...