SOMETIMES, WE JUST NEED THE TRUE SIDE OF THE STORY
by Robert Gelfand
American Reporter Correspondent
San Pedro, Calif
LOS ANGELES, March 27, 2006 -- Author and critic Molly Ivins has inadvertently and probably unintentionally provided a clue that something is wrong with newspaper journalism. In considering Ivins' remarks, we shall consider a second clue from Paul Krugman in his recent book "The Great Unraveling" (Norton, 2004). The main question we shall consider is why newspapers gave President George Bush a free pass on his economic dishonesty in 2000-1.
Ivins' column of March 23 (available at cnn.com) is titled "Suicide by a thousand cuts." The column takes up serious issues regarding the news business, but it is a secondary argument we will be concerned with here.
Our interest involves what Ivins thinks is necessary to be an opinion writer.
I have long argued that no one should be allowed to write opinion without spending years as a reporter - nothing like interviewing all four eyewitnesses to an automobile accident and then trying to write an accurate account of what happened. Or, as author-journalist Curtis Wilkie puts it, "Unless you can cover a five-car pile-up on Route 128, you shouldn't be allowed to cover a presidential campaign."
By writing this, the usually excellent Molly Ivins has inadvertently put her finger on one of traditional journalism's worst problems. In order to see this, we can compare Ivins' latest pronouncements with Krugman's book. In doing this, we shall discover a gulf between traditional journalistic practice and the needs of the modern world. Let's consider.
Krugman is an economist and New York Times columnist. His book of which we speak is a collection of op ed columns from the years 2000 to 2004. Stylistically it is a little crude, mainly consisting of old columns pasted together, but it is not style or attitude we are interested in here. Instead, it is this story: Before and right after the 2000 presidential election, Krugman pointed out repeatedly that the President's economic program was fraudulent. It was false in its facts, false in its pretend-logic, and predictable as to its unfortunate outcome. Yet Cassandra-like, Krugman found himself without allies within the machinery of modern journalism as he tried to bring this to the public's attention.
Krugman predicted dire effects come from the Bush-era tax cuts, notably budget shortfalls leading to inevitable long-run deficits and consequent damage to the economy. They were predictions that we have since come to recognize as the new reality.
It's not that Krugman was some lonely eccentric crying out to an empty wilderness; he may be a particularly gifted practitioner of his craft, but as he is the first to point out, well within the mainstream of economic thought. In short, it was completely obvious to the economic fraternity in 2000-2001 that the '00 program was nonsense; the "theory" behind blind tax cuts had been well-tested in the Reagan era and found wanting.
But for some reason, the major newspapers were slow to report these facts, and did so weakly when they did it at all.
When it came to one of the most critical issues facing the American people - shall we adopt a rational economic policy, or shall we dive back into the fever-swamp of supply-side hype - the journalism profession was anything but a leader.
We can view the indictment of traditional journalistic practice according to these two subheadings: First, political claims by presidential candidates are not subjected to critical evaluation very well or very often. Second, when it comes to economic issues, so critically important in the choice of a president, the vast majority of reporters and editors simply lack the expertise to understand the issues.
The former subheading is primarily a problem of attitude; campaign rhetoric is treated by the working press with disinterest bordering on contempt. One interpretation of this attitude, as explained to me by a working journalist, is that newspapers don't want to be perceived as biased in their coverage of elections. So, they are willing to report on what Candidate A said, and they are willing to report that Candidate B called it nonsensical, and that Candidate B cited twelve economists in support of his position. What the press is not willing to do, however, is to go find those twelve economists and evaluate Candidate A's position independently. (Thanks to D. Epperhart for making this clear.)
In other words, there is a certain timidity built into the culture of journalism when it comes to political races. Political speeches occur in a sort of journalistic free-fire zone, where critical evaluation and judgments on the part of the press are considered out of bounds. Only the opposing candidate's critique makes it into the news pages.
Let's compare that approach to Krugman's. In a column titled "Oops! He Did it Again," dated Oct. 1, 2000, Krugman evaluated Bush's performance on CNN Moneyline. "I really, truly wasn't planning to write any more columns about George W. Bush's arithmetic. But his performance on Moneyline last Wednesday was just mind-blowing. I had to download a transcript to convince myself that I had really heard him correctly. It was as if Mr. Bush's aides had prepared him with a memo saying: 'You've said some things on the stump that weren't true. Your mission, in the few minutes you have, is to repeat all of those things."
A little later in the column, we read, "We're not talking questionable economic analysis here, just facts: what Mr. Bush said to that national television audience simply wasn't true." In between, Krugman showed in detail how nearly every statement Bush made was really a misstatement with regard to the dollar figures in his programs, the cost of his Social Security proposal and the projected rate of return on privatized Social Security money.
And finally we get to the crux of this discussion and Krugman's main complaint: "What is really striking here is the silence of the media - those 'liberal media' conservatives complain about. Moneyline would never let a C.E.O. get away with claiming to spend twice as much on research as the sum announced in the company's own press release. But when Mr. Bush declared that he would spend twice as much on new programs as the sum announced by his own campaign, the interviewer said nothing - and nobody else picked up on it."
This is just one set of examples from one column. The case that Krugman makes - that the popular media have failed to cover this sort of issue in the way it ought to be covered - is argued persuasively in multiple columns covering scores of examples.
What's the difference between Krugman and beat reporters? Paul Krugman, like other members of his profession, studied economics as a college student, continued as a graduate student, and has maintained scholarly pursuits throughout the course of his professional life. This gives him some special skills that most reporters lack. It has also taken a lot of time and work.
Yet Molly Ivins wants every reporter to serve an internship covering traffic accidents. Let's forgive Molly her use of such overly specific language, and accept her remarks to mean that reporters should learn their craft by getting out in the field, doing interviews and learning to take notes. This seems a reasonable enough idea until we evaluate the end-product the system has created. We have thousands of reporters who can cover criminal arraignments and Sewer Commission meetings, but apparently the system as a whole was not up to covering the Bush candidacy in the way that was needed.
And this is where my On Media point of view comes in. I think that what Molly Ivins is getting at is that learning to be a reporter involves a lot of on-the-job experience. If you are going to cover public issues which involve conflicting points of view, not to mention conflicting memories, then covering accidents and inquests and murder trials provide that experience. What I think she missed in her March 23 column is that there are other, equally important subjects requiring their own kinds of expertise. They also require on-the-job experience; it's just that you don't get that kind of experience by following the traditional path of a reporter's career.
Economics is one of those other subjects. Practitioners of the economics profession have undergone an arduous training program that includes several years of advanced mathematics (starting with calculus and going on from there) and several years of training in economics itself, including micro- and macro-economics, history, and training in various sub-disciplines.
Viewed this way, it is absurd to imagine that we can train very many people in economics and still expect them to cover the police court for half a dozen yearsm just so they can be allowed to report on what political candidates say on the stump. It would be equally silly to argue that medical writers should cover baseball games after attending medical school.
Yet this is, in effect, what Ivins would have our would-be economic reporters and health reporters do before they can be allowed to report on technical issues for the daily newspaper.
May I politely suggest that life is too short to learn economics or biochemistry and still learn to be a trench-coat-wearing, cigar-toking, hard-boiled city-room ace reporter? It may be possible to be the one or the other, but it is unlikely that anybody is going to be both.
Notice, by the way, that when it comes to the standard journalistic conventions, Krugman is a bit roughhewn. He inserts himself into the discussion, uses his own brand of sarcasm and is awfully free with calling other people stupid and dishonest.
But the issue for our civilization is that we needed the story told, and there was nobody around to tell it but Paul Krugman and a few of his colleagues, however unconventional their journalistic practices may have been.
May I also suggest that there are many other technical subjects that are critically important in the way we make policy decisions; for example, we have the issues of global warming, the population explosion and the effects of chemical byproducts on health. Decisions are made by the political establishment on all of these, so it would make sense for newspapers to cover them intelligently. Just to insert myself a wee bit, I think that in order to write knowledgeably on health and chemical toxicity issues, one should study, at the minimum, a curriculum that includes chemistry, organic chemistry, biochemistry, physiology, and several biology courses. The police-court reporter is not up to this, just as I am not trained to write on zoning and land-use issues.
And this is where we come full circle to that critique of our tired, old "objective" journalism. The "old school" approach of finding opposing viewpoints on whether or not global warming exists is rapidly becoming an obsolete obsession. There are subjects which require informed judgment, and the current practice of treating all opinions as equally valid is as destructive as it is absurd. Would that the media had taken a more judgmental approach to President George W. Bush's lies.
My point is that sometimes we just need one side of the story - the truth.