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Don't Believe Everything You Read In the Blogs

I recently finished reading Seth Mnookin's Hard
News: The Scandals at the New York Times and Their Meaning for the Media
blah blah. It's a good read, and its assessments of Howell Raines, Gerald Boyd and Arthur Sulzberger, Jr., seem just about right, even if without larger "Meaning." So I read the saga of the Times's "public editor" Daniel Okrent's grim parting jab at Paul Krugman as a kind of coda to that story, since Okrent's appointment was the most visible attempt to admit to and remedy the Times' problems.

In his last column, you'll recall, with the title "13 Things I Meant to Write About, But Didn't," Okrent said, "Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults."

Obviously a serious charge, without evidence. Krugman and Okrent have now had a back-and-forth exchange, which you can read here, or with annotations by economist Brad deLong, here.

This is mostly pretty arcane stuff, with Okrent accusing Krugman of manipulating numbers of discouraged unemployed workers because he failed to adjust them based on a 1995 research paper, etc. Trust me, Krugman wins every point.

As to why he didn't raise any of these issues with Krugman before, Okrent says that he dealt with him on another issue, and basically Krugman was such a pain in the ass that "it wasn't worth it." What a bizarre admission: The whole job of the ombudsman or public editor or whatever the Times wants to call it is to be independent and invulnerable. He's got a one-year contract that can't be renewed; no editor or columnist can touch him. If he thinks a columnist is misusing data, his job is to say so.

Imagine, by analogy, a CBS executive saying that he wanted to say something about the National Guard documents, but Dan Rather had yelled at him over something else, so he decided not to.

Part of this story, I suspect, is in the still-awkward relationship between traditional media and the free-for-all world of blogs. Okrent didn't take on Krugman out of his own ideological bias, but got played, in this case apparently by National Review Online blogger Donald Luskin, unforgettably dubbed "The Stupidest Man Alive" by DeLong, who claims an e-mail exchange with Okrent totalling 40,000 words. Okrent claims no economic expertise, so his knowing citations to "the Polivka-Miller study" presumably come not from immersing himself in the methodological literature regarding BLS data, but from someone else, e.g. TSMA.

What Okrent doesn't seem to understand is that he's hearing only one side of a debate with two sides. He seems to assume that where there's smoke -- e.g. Luskin's obsession with discrediting Krugman, which goes back to "proving" Krugman's incompetence on the grounds that he predicted continued inflation, in 1982 -- there must be fire.

But the amazing thing is that Krugman is the most accountable columnist alive, with David Brooks perhaps second. Everything he writes is ripped apart within seconds, and litigated to death, and almost every time he comes out ahead. (Take, for example, Krugman's citation of Dean Baker's challenge on Social Security, which was to find a likely economic scenario under which the Trust Fund does as poorly as Bush predicts, while simultaneously stocks do as well as predicted for private accounts.) The problem is that you have to read in several places to follow the debate about any given Krugman column. But if he makes a serious mistake, he'll be called on it within minutes.

Krugman and Brooks are subject to this kind of public accountability because they mostly work with publicly available information. William Safire deserves sharp criticism -- which he didn't get from Okrent -- for repeating the thoroughly disproven assertion that Mohammed Atta met with an Iraqi agent in Prague, but no blogger is in a position to challenge a columnist's assertion about what sources told him. Another Times' columnist who seems to escape scrutiny altogether is Bob Herbert, who's at least as liberal as Krugman. I don't know why that is.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on June 2, 2005 | Permalink


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"Another Times' columnist who seems to escape scrutiny altogether is Bob Herbert, who's at least as liberal as Krugman. I don't know why that is."

Because he doesn't use numbers?

Because he isn't a professor? (that I know of)

Because he is black? (I think)

Because he writes from the heart?

Posted by: AE | Jun 2, 2005 5:25:35 PM

Because nobody reads him (regrettably).

Posted by: Sven | Jun 2, 2005 5:40:20 PM

Herbert's style is far more anecdotal than Krugman's. In that regard, verifying Herbert often presents much the same difficulty as verifying Safire.

But the bigger point is that Herbert and Krugman are playing entirely different games. As AE in part suggests -- "because he writes from the heart" -- Herbert typically writes via an emotive rather than analytic mode.

By contrast, Krugman is typically analytic, probably the most so among all the columnists for the Times. Consequently, he also receives the most scrutiny: you cannot seek to disprove an emotional state, but you can seek to disprove the premise, process, and conclusion of analysis.

That's why the vulture's come flocking for Krugman, and why he deserves commendation for so consistently opening himself to attack.

Posted by: Chris Meserole | Jun 2, 2005 6:23:47 PM

Because nobody reads him (understandably).

Posted by: angry moderate | Jun 2, 2005 8:16:49 PM

Herbert doesn't get the challenges Krugman does because he writes as a cultural critic, rather than as a representative of an alleged science. Herbert's essays are narrative and discursive, and thus apply a different evidentiary standard.

Plus no one reads him. :-P

Posted by: Mrs. Coulter | Jun 2, 2005 9:20:49 PM

Because nobody reads him. When was the last time you read a Bob Herbert column? I think my last one was in those heady post-9/11 days when I was reading everything, though you may need to reach all the way back to the nineties.

Posted by: Matthew Yglesias | Jun 2, 2005 10:11:02 PM

Good post Mark but there is a poor analogy here:

"Imagine, by analogy, a CBS executive saying that he wanted to say something about the National Guard documents, but Dan Rather had yelled at him over something else, so he decided not to."

I wouldn't be shocked by that at all.

Posted by: Lloyd | Jun 3, 2005 8:20:59 AM

I think one other NYT person got as much as instant critical analysis as Krugman -- and that was Okrent.

And generally more deservedly. Okrent's outing of a angry e-mailer's name was beyond the pale, and he's been less than energetic about pursuing stories within the Times. I think the 'ombudsman' position that demands a thick skin, and Okrent found he didn't have one. It also demands, or should, a combative temperament towards the _newspaper_, not the readers. I believe Okrent found he didn't have that either.

Posted by: Thomas Nephew | Jun 3, 2005 12:29:38 PM

He may "write from the heart," and I appreciate his good intentions, but his blandness sticks out like a Democrat in Crawford, Texas.

I'm sure you've all seen Timothy Noah's Times columnist allocation game at Slate, based on the upcoming TimesSelect service? If not, click here.

The results (click here) weren't friendly to Herbert, who ended up with an average of just $1.42, just three cents ahead of Brooks (who was likely punished for being a conservative -- Tierney, justifiably, was last at $0.31.

Krugman was first, by the way, at $6.90, well ahead of Friedman, Rich, and Dowd (Kristof was a distant fifth).

I realize it's just a game, but it speaks in a way to what Mark is saying. Krugman is an incredibly powerful columnist -- not just because he's a liberal economist who blows the lid off of supply-side nonsense, but because he works with numbers. Despite all the "values" talk in America, we still live in an age of social science, with its Weberian fact/value distinction and almost universal recognition that numbers are true. Pro-lifers and pro-choicers may never get along, but 2 + 2 always = 4. Krugman's got the numbers on his side, but that means that the only way to bring him down is to find errors in his arithmetic or intentional miscalculations.

Here's my point, I suppose. Although my favourite Times columnist is Frank Rich, his weekly cultural analyses are far less of a threat to his opponents than Krugman's economic analyses. We may think that Rich is right about a lot of things (and he's very good at exposing hypocrisy in the Bush Administration), but he lives in the world of values -- and, postmoderns that we have become, it is virtually impossible to determine conclusively that one value is simply right and another simply wrong. But Krugman can show that his opponents are simply wrong by pointing to the numbers, the facts. QED.

By the way, I hesitate to mention my own blog (The Reaction) here, given my respect for The Decembrist, but if any of you would care for additional commentary on the Times columnists, see here and here. Thanks.

Posted by: Michael J.W. Stickings | Jun 3, 2005 12:43:05 PM

I read Bob Herbert regularly. The guy has done heroic work, has managed to shine the NYT spotlight on all sorts of social injustice, and consequently he gets results. If you guys aren't reading him you have no one else to blame.

Posted by: global yokel | Jun 3, 2005 2:51:30 PM

Any idea why Judith Miller still has her job?

Posted by: susan | Jun 3, 2005 3:52:19 PM

frankly, the black thing is two fold: I don't think anybody reads him because he is black, and nobody attacks him because he is black. Sad But True.

Posted by: Joel W | Jun 3, 2005 8:31:29 PM

I'm surprised to hear that no one reads Bob Herbert, but then I've only read The Times about a year and I'm not bored with anyone yet (except Tierney -- and that happened instantly). I enjoy Herbert a lot. And I was glad to find out he's black, and doesn't concentrate on black issues the way all the black columnists my local newspaper picks up do. BookTV has been challenged for not having more black writers on, but Connie defended herself by saying that blacks always write on one subject: blacks.

Is it possible the truth of "no one reads Herbert" refers only to people like bloggers and readers of blogs, people who are REALLY into politics, and want harder hitting columns/news?

Posted by: AE | Jun 3, 2005 9:59:45 PM

Speaking of Safire, you mention the Atta in Prague thing, but the one that kills me - and the other big time culprit here is Chris Hitchens - that Safire continually recycled is the claim that because Zarqawi was in Iraq before the invasion, that this "proves" Saddam's connection to Al Qaeda. What Safire (and Hitchens) don't mention, however, is that Zarqawi's camp was in the Kurdish autonomous zone that was also a part of the US controlled no fly zone, over which Saddam Hussein had had no control since the end of the first Gulf War in 1991. Conceivably, one could argue it was the Kurds - not Saddam - who should be attacked by this logic Indeed, the US could have conceivably taken out Zarqawi in the run up to the war, and I suspect they chose not to because it would have disrupted the effort to launch the invasion Bush wanted to launch.

Posted by: Ben P | Jun 4, 2005 3:12:15 AM

I read Herbert, but fundamentally he is no danger to the central identity of the Republican party, they already have crafted an easy response to anyone who points out systematic racial inequality "Get a job". Yeah its cheap, but it works.

Krugman on the other hand is about to deal a death blow to Privatization. Republicans have hated Social Security since Day One (don't believe me, pick up any novel by Ayn Rand) and have dreamed of killing it for 70 years. That dream is now being snatched out of their hands, no longer from think tanks like Baker's CEPR or Sawicky's EPI, but right from the editorial page of the NYT.

There is now a frenetic and frantic attempt to demonize Paul Krugman, but it won't work. Each and every number he is using is coming from the Social Security: Annual Reports and the economic clock is ticking.

Krugman is just the public face of the Solvency battle. That battle actually ended on March 23, 2005 with the release of the 2005 Report. The numbers are devastating for Privatizers, no body believes the economy will perform down to the levels required for the standard Intermediate Cost projection. Privatizers know this full well and are making a last ditch attempt to kill the messenger.

Posted by: Bruce Webb | Jun 5, 2005 1:22:24 PM

Armando, 6/3/05, at DailyKos on Matt Miller's recent column:

"I got bad news for Miller. The "beardstrokers," with few exceptions (Herbert, Krugman) have not demanded the truth. Miller has written on social security and instead of demanding truth from the Bush Administration he chose to chastise Democrats for not being open to discussion."

Some people read Herbert.

Posted by: AE | Jun 5, 2005 2:47:06 PM

James Wolcott nails it: Krugman is resented because his popularity makes him less subject to the institutional pressures that other Times columnists are.

But it has less to do, I think, with Krugman success as a columnist than his success outside the world of punditry. At heart, Krugman is not interested in playing the game - being part of the NY-DC party circuit, having access, being the guy "in the know," spreading the gossip, and so on. Krugman doesn't care about become a success as a pundit because he's already an enormous success at his chosen field, economics. He doesn't need the good word of the "opinion-makers." And this gives Krugman immense power, because he can call it as he sees it, without feeling any need to tone down his rhetoric.

This also explains Krugman's reaction to a challenge from a non-economist like Okrent on his use of data. Pundits use data loosely, and nobody seems to care that they do so, because the next week, they're on to another topic. (Whether this is good is another question.) But to an academic like Krugman, Okrent's statement was a professional insult. Academics can disagree on methods and conclusions, but you don't get to the level of Krugman's stature - or at least, you don't keep that stature for long - if you fudge your data.

Posted by: Kenneth Fair | Jun 6, 2005 5:01:33 PM

I just heard Bob Herbert interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio. The host asked him about being attacked for being a liberal. He said he was attacked a lot 2-3 years ago, but the pendulum has changed back to support of liberal values.

Posted by: AE | Jun 9, 2005 2:14:18 PM

Krugman's the man! Even on non-economic issues of foreign policy he asks the right questions and makes sense.

Posted by: Phil | Jun 10, 2005 9:26:40 AM