Is Michael Massing Making a Joke?
Yet Another Harvard Professor Crashed-and-Burned Watch (Alan Dershowitz)

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Jonathan Weisman/Wall Street Journal Edition)

Let's turn the mike over to Dvid Sirota:

A Revelatory Look at D.C.'s Media Matrix:: Friday, when my column hit newspapers, [Wall Street Journal reporter] Weisman sent me a series of emails in protest. In his first note, he seemed to suggest that it wasn't ethical or permissible to quote him asking his rigged question at a televised press conference because "it's not from anything I've actually written." Then, in a subsequent message, he said he wasn't making "a statement of anything at all"... (I, of course... [had]said he was "wondering" not "stating). Finally, and most importantly, he insisted he was merely asking a question and "a question is designed to elicit a response." "If I ask Robert Gibbs what he thinks of the birth certificate issue, does that mean I don't believe Barack Obama was born in the United States?" Weisman asked me in his email.

A few hours later, me and my editors at Creators Syndicate received a series of emails from Dow Jones the parent company of the Wall Street Journal) formally demanding a published "correction" to my column for "misquoting" Weisman. For reference, here is what I wrote juxtaposed to the official White House transcript of Weisman's question:

SIROTA COLUMN: "Wall Street Journal correspondent Jonathan Weisman wonders why the surtax 'soak(s) the rich' by unduly 'lumping all of the problems of the finances of the United States on 1 percent of (its) households?'"

WEISMAN QUOTE FROM THE OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE TRANSCRIPT: "My point is, is there a point where you really are soaking the rich, where the carrying capacity of this small group of people has been exceeded and there's just no way you can keep lumping all of the problems of the finances of the United States on 1 percent of those households?"

Dow Jones did not dispute that I wrote what I wrote, and did not dispute that Weisman publicly wondered this. Additionally, Dow Jones was not asking for a "correction" for the syntax change (ie. the change from "soaking" to "soak(s)" and from "those" to "(its)". No, Dow Jones wanted a much broader "correction," stating in its emails to me and my editors that "What you presented in your article can be easily interpreted by your readers as an opinion of our reporter or a statement that was made in the Wall Street Journal and as we both know is not accurate."

So what have we learned? I'd say a few things....

D.C. reporters believe they can say anything... in a very public, agenda-shaping forum... and not only never be asked or challenged about what they're saying, but not even quoted.... D.C. reporters and media executives believe that by virtue of something being posed as a question, it is an empirical fact that it includes no opinion.... As the Dow Jones Vice President wrote in his letter to me and my editors, it is simply "not accurate" for anyone to "interpret" Weisman's question as conveying any opinion.... This makes absolutely no sense....

[A] reporter could have asked President Bush, "Why do you love killing Iraqi children?" and another eporter could have asked Bush "Why have you taken such extraordinarily brave steps to limit civilian casualties in Iraq?" Likewise, a reporter can ask the White House "Are you pushing a tax on the top 1 percent of Americans because those people have benefitted so disproportionately over the last three decades?" or he can ask if the White House is "soaking the rich" by "lumping all of the problems of the finances of the United States on 1 percent of those households?" The point here is that questions can quite obviously convey ideology - and the idea that they can't simply because they are questions "designed to elicit a response" is preposterous...

That Weisman is staggering around clueless about what is going on and what he is doing is no surprise. It's not the exception, it is the rule. For example, from the archives:

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Structural Flaws Edition): Archive Entry From Brad DeLong's Webjournal: I've been trying to think about why so much of America's elite press corps is so flawed--does such a lousy and incompetent job so much of the time. I don't have answers. I do have observations....

Consider the passage below from [Jonathan Weisman of] the Washington Post. It's one of a hundred or so examples I've filed away over the past year or so--examples of egregiously bad political-economic reporting from elite journalistic institutions. It's not the worst such example, but it is selected from a set of howlers. The reporter (Jonathan Weisman) is not the worst example, but I certainly wouldn't employ him to cover American economics and politics.... Let's roll the tape:

Economy Provides No Boost For Bush: The nation's economy is growing smartly, wages have begun to rise, and employers have added more than 1.4 million jobs to their payrolls in the past nine months. Yet voters continue to give President Bush poor ratings on his handling of the economy....

[...]

Bush is not the first president to suffer from a disconnect between objective economic indicators and voter perceptions on the economy. The economy began growing steadily in March 1991, when President George H.W. Bush registered a 49 percent approval rating on his handling of the economy. But by July of 1992, those approval ratings had slid to an abysmal 25 percent, presaging his electoral defeat three months later...

Ask any economist not bought and paid for by the Bush campaign why there is currently a "disconnect" between "objective economic indicators" and "voter perceptions", and the first answer you will get back is that the question is simply badly posed. Recent economic news has been good. But the current economic situation is not good--the current situation is mixed. The productivity picture is amazingly good. The level and rate of growth of production are both more than satisfactory. But on the labor side, employment is still well below what it was three and a half years ago (and with our growing population we would have needed employment to grow by 4 or 5 million to keep the employment-to-population ratio steady), and wage and salary incomes have been essentially flat since the last business cycle peak. While the productivity situation is excellent, and the production situation is good, the labor-side situation--and that's what the overwhelming bulk of voters see: they aren't coupon clippers--is quite bad.

There is a similar flaw in the reporter's historical example: production began growing after March 1991, yes, but the unemployment rate peaked more than a full percentage point higher in the summer of 1992. Is it any wonder that George H.W. Bush's approval ratings fell?

Thus here we have an example of a Washington Post reporter writing on page A1 about American economics and politics who:

  1. Doesn't understand the current economic situation.
  2. Doesn't understand the economy history of the Bush I administration.
  3. Poses a false problem--i.e., why the "disconnect" between the good economy and the grouchy voters.
  4. Fails to listen or understand when the potential sources he talks to tell him that he has posed a false problem.

It gets worse. Later on in the story our reporter then finds a "public opinion expert" at--surprise--the American Enterprise Institute, who says that "Americans are a show-me people.... They need to be shown that things have actually been changed, and I think in an economic recovery, this means seeing the guy down the street getting his job back rather than good jobs numbers." The reporter doesn't think to wonder: if there are good jobs numbers, doesn't that mean that the guy down the street is getting his job back? What could good jobs numbers possibly be other than the guy down the street getting his job back?

With a straight face, our reporter then writes that:

For Republicans, frustration is beginning to show. Last week, when the Labor Department announced that an additional 248,000 jobs had been created in May, House Ways and Means Committee Republicans e-mailed reporters, blaring, "It's a Booming Economy, Stupid."

The reporter doesn't seem to wonder about the bona fides of the Republicans on the Ways and Means Committee. Is an economy in which unemployment is above its natural rate and in which there are few if any inflationary pressures an economy in a boom? Nobody but a bunch of congresscreatures seeking to fuzz the issues and muddy the waters would ever say so.

Overall, Weisman's article is like... it's like... it's like somebody totally drunk staggering around the neighborhood in the middle of the night, mistaking lampposts for trees, bushes for people, and busses for elephants. Someone who knows next to nothing about the issue area--and who seems incapable of learning--is turned loose on page A1 to try to interpret the state of the economy and how that is affecting current American politics. "How in God's name," I ask myself, over and over again, "did we ever get such lousy reporters* like this ensconced in the center of our elite press corps?"

And the first article by Jonathan Weisman I remember reading was his beat-sweetener for Glenn Hubbard, where Weisman did a similarly incompetent job:

Why We Need a Better Press Corps: Archive Entry From Brad DeLong's Webjournal: January 23, 2003: I was cited in a Washington Post profile of CEA Chair R. Glenn Hubbard yesterday:

washingtonpost.com: An Economist On a Mission: ...Princeton University economist Paul R. Krugman, also a New York Times columnist, and J. Bradford DeLong, a Clinton administration Treasury official now at the University of California at Berkeley, accuse Hubbard of sacrificing his sterling academic reputation with politically motivated but nonsensical economic utterances. "This is a delicate game," DeLong wrote on his Web site. "You need to retain political credibility as a team player while preserving enough analytical distance to tell the president what he needs to hear. . . . I think Glenn Hubbard played the game well for his first 20 months at the CEA. But now I think he's lost his balance and fallen off the tightrope."

Notice that this Washington Post reporter tells his readers absolutely nothing of why Paul and I are annoyed with Glenn. It's an outsiders-critical-of-administration-official story--which, in the context of Washington, is dog-bites-man: not news at all....

[It] is not that [Weisman] had no space to talk about the substance of policies and criticisms. He has space to tell his readers that Glenn Hubbard is "owlish," that Larry Lindsey's shirttail often hangs out, that Glenn Hubbard writes meticulous handouts and gives crisp Powerpoint presentations. He is simply not very interested in the substance of policy--no matter whether it favors Democrats or Republicans.

This is not a partisan point. The article is at least as unfair to Glenn Hubbard as it is to me. It says that Glenn believes that cutting taxes on dividends is a step "toward a more fundamental reform of the tax system -- no taxation of capital investment. A tax system based on consumption rather than savings and investment would remove a primary impediment to economic growth." But it doesn't say why Glenn believes that the social costs of capital taxation are high. it doesn't say why Glenn believes--as he does--that the benefits from this small step in the reform of taxes on capital income outweigh the costs of the expanded deficit. A reader knows no more about why Glenn believes that reductions in dividend taxes are a very good thing after reading the article than she did before she started reading it.

And so from Glenn's point of view as well as from my own, the article is a loss: it is a failed chance to educate Americans about what kinds of taxes are good and what kinds of taxes are bad, as well as a failed chance to educate Americans about why it would be much better to be running budget surpluses than budget deficits...

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