Someone I'm related to by marriage has written a superb column on the problem of media ignorance. The fact I'm not a disinterested observer shouldn't stop me from noting that the column and the event that prompted it has attracted some attention. The piece is pegged to a much discussed interview talk radio star Hugh Hewitt conducted with Zach Carter, the Huffington Post’s “senior political economy reporter.” Hewitt asked Carter why he was spouting off various critical opinions related to Dick Cheney and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Certainly, Carter's not alone here -- the rise of ISIS has had liberal journalists queuing up to insist President Obama bears minimal responsibility for the disintegration of the situation in Iraq. Joe Biden bet his vice presidency Iraq would extend the Status of Forces Agreement, and had they not failed, it might well have prevented the current mess. But here we are.
Still, perhaps there are reasons to criticize Cheney and the invasion of Iraq, but the trouble was that Carter couldn't articulate any of them substantively, and what's more, Hewitt asked a series of questions establishing that Carter doesn't even have an acceptable baseline of knowledge to spout off on the topic. Some of the questions, such as whether Carter has read specific books, might seem pedantic. Others seemed to be a pretty basic litmus test about knowledge of al Qaeda and the U.S.'s involvement in Iraq. The 31-year-old Carter was unaware Clinton had bombed Iraq in 1998, and had no idea who A.Q. Khan was. Carter's inability to respond to Hewitt's inquiries is damning. Still, I have to commend Carter -- he was a good sport and honestly tried to respond to Hewitt's pointed questions.
The problem is ultimately not Carter's ignorance. The problem is that we live in an environment where you can become a "senior political economy reporter" for a major news organization at age 28. (You might bristle at Huffington Post being described as a "major news organization," but like it or not, its reach is vast and they get their questions answered at White House press briefings.) It's hard to fault Carter for taking advantage of what he tells Hewitt is the "best job title in the world," despite lacking some of the experience and knowledge that might justify pontificating on subjects outside his area of alleged expertise.
Anyway, my wife Mollie uses the Hewitt/Carter interview as the launching point to discuss the much broader epidemic of media ignorance and details quite a few embarrassing errors. It's a loose taxonomy, but the examples Mollie lists generally fall into one of two categories. The first is the general ignorance of conservative/religious issues and failure to understand the arguments that undergird them. Liberal media bias is, of course, a long established problem and has been discussed to death even as the problem remains obdurate and infuriating. The second category, however, is much more novel. It's the result of Google-age hubris.
For reporters, basic information gathering was a tedious process even a few decades ago. Now it can literally be done at the speed of electrons. But while the ability to get information is instantaneous, the capacity for reporters to synthesize this information is still limited by their own basic intelligence and lack of curiosity.
In fact, reporters' capacity to synthesize information may even be getting worse. Not because journalists are getting dumber -- they seem to be better educated than they were a generation ago -- but because the emphasis on speed and financial collapse of the industry has eroded professional journalism standards, as well as devalued experience and acquired wisdom.
There's an entire heading in Mollie's column on "The special category that is Matt Yglesias." As a journalist, the Harvard-educated Yglesias has made more cringe inducing errors than any journalist should rightfully be allowed to make while retaining significant professional stature. And there's no excuse for his errors -- he's clearly a very smart guy. But it turns out thinking you can write about any heady topic without lots of thoughtful consideration and/or consulting with those with much more experience is going to get you in trouble. A lot. The amazing thing is that, whether or not he realizes how much his hubris gets him into trouble, Yglesias doesn't even hide the fact that he lies about what he knows. And I quote:
Tyler Cowen notes that “46% of the surveyed men lie about what they have read — to impress partners — and 33% of the surveyed women admit to lying about their reading habits.” I have to say that I’m so accustomed to the idea of lying about one’s reading habits that my first thought upon reading this was “what’s wrong with the other 54 percent of men?” Then I wondered if maybe they weren’t just lying about lying. ... I wonder if you see a substantial difference based on educational attainment here. It seems to me that college (at least as we did it at Harvard) largely consists of lessons on how to pretend to have read various books. How many section discussions of British Moralists 1650-1800 (by far the best introduction to the subject!) did I bluff my way through?
Speaking of hubris, some years ago Yglesias used to "take requests" about what he should blog about as if he were some sort of intellectual DJ. I thought it was obnoxious then, but riffing on anything and everything as if you have a definitive opinion to offer at the drop of a hat appears to be Vox.com's "explanatory journalism" business model. The site actually has a regular feature broaching complex policy topics under the header, "everything you need to know." Of course, it should be obvious that "most issues worth understanding are far too complex to fully explain in the kind of bite-sized, shareable content nugget that’s become the standard currency of the social media age."
But as my colleague Jonathan Last has noted, Ezra Klein, Yglesias's partner in journalistic crimes and head JuiceVoxer, is also so enamored with his status as a disruptive journalism wunderkind showing the old fogies how it's done that he doesn't know what he doesn't know. Even when it comes to Obamacare, and mastery of this subject is said to have made his career, it turns out that what Ezra Klein didn't know is pretty darn embarrassing. It's one thing to fake it until you make it in a college seminar, but when you're just a few years out of school and suddenly a leading voice on health care policy -- well, Healthcare.gov is a pretty good example of faking it until you break it.
It would be more flattering to believe that Klein is consciously coloring the truth, but anyone who believes the ChiComs are benevolent bestowers of birthday cake to their aggrieved citizens might just be really, really gullible. Klein is at least more honest about what he reads, not that this affects his considerable self-regard. After all, Klein was unwilling to accept that George W. Bush, for all his mistakes and faults, might be better informed than he is because "reading books, particularly nonfiction books, takes a really long time. It's hard, and it's boring, and I say this all as an effete liberal intellectual who likes reading long, boring books but can't, like everyone else I know, seem to finish them. I'm pleased to get through one or two a month, and you're telling me Bush, in his time off from running the country, doing a couple hours of exercise a day, and going to bed early, has read sixty?" Maybe George W. Bush, even when he had a full presidential schedule, got to read more because he's not otherwise occupied blogging his every errant thought.
As for Klein and Yglesias's new venture, the proof here is in the wordsoup; despite being hotly anticipated, their boutique media outlet has been in the news for being wrong and tendentious at least as much as it has been for being mildly interesting. I know counterintuitive #smarttakes are all the rage right now, but it ought to occur to someone at Vox that the reason no one else is, say, producing snappy animations explaining to the American people that trillions of dollars in debt doesn't matter is because serious people regard that as dumb. Given the implosion of the news industry, many journalists consider it bad juju not to enthusiastically support any new publication. But Vox is making that impossible. Just yesterday, Vox content manager Max Fisher -- his twitter bio is "I love your smart idea" -- wrote a post at Vox called, "This chart shows every person killed in the Israel-Palestine conflict since 2000." As Fisher explained on Twitter, "the Israel-Palestine conflict has killed **14 times** more Palestinians than Israelis since 2000." Given that the Palestinian terrorist leadership is currently launching missiles at Israel and also sees no problem using human shields to score political points and protect their weapons caches, David Frum quite understandably took umbrage at this particular moral calculus. And -- whoops! -- it turns out that Fisher's count of dead Israelis was off by 100 percent. Fisher conceded he botched the facts and corrected the post, as it's probably best not to find yourself on a list next to all the other people who refuse to correctly tally the number of dead Jews. As for his morally obtuse point-scoring, Fisher dug in and made a clumsy ad hominem attack on David Frum. And his brave editor Matt Yglesias also rode to his defense on Twitter, calling Frum a "jerk" for supposedly misreading Fisher's intentions. But when you've repeatedly advocated lying as a legitimate means to advance political goals, as Yglesias has, maybe Frum isn't inclined to give his publication the benefit of the doubt.
The accuracy and honesty problems pretty conclusively demonstrate the young liberal pundits problem with "epistemic closure" -- essentially, these writers have been hoisted by their own canard. Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry makes a compelling case that Vox.com's existence is proof enough that the left is in a major period of intellectual stagnation -- liberal journalists straining to find creative ways to endorse minimum wage increases and overpraising Picketty's watered-down Marxism isn't exactly the vanguard of cutting edge policy debates. And as a harbinger for journalism trends, Vox's conspicuously lukewarm reception is also telling. Despite his blatant crusading for Obamacare and liberal journalistic pedigree, Klein used to be published in the business section of the Washington Post. Now that he no longer has the institutional credibility of the Post, much less its seasoned editors, you can regularly find reporters rolling their eyes at the empirically challenged, agenda-driven journalism Klein and his ilk are churning out. Shortly after Mollie's piece went up, National Journal's Ron Fournier -- a pretty good mood indicator for D.C. journos -- commented on it by noting that his "uncritical acceptance of a Vox premise" on gun violence was a mistake. Then again, Ron Fournier is a veteran journalist who came up in an era where they didn't hand out grandiose titles to young reporters, much less give people such as Ezra Klein millions of dollars to start their own publications before they turn 30. I suspect Fournier is not the only journalist in town who's earned the right to scream "Get off my lawn!"
So older more experienced journalists are starting to clearly see that the liberal media's reflexive defense of the Obama White House has seriously endangered the media establishment's credibility following Obamacare, ISIS, and any of the other flaming dirigibles currently going down on Obama's watch. For them, it's tantamount to professional suicide to continue to let a bunch of arrogant twentysomething partisans drive the debate. Even the younger, smarter journos such as Dave Weigel are at least beginning wrap their head around the problem. The last six years have been a golden age for liberals where, to paraphrase Kipling, all the young turks were paid for their writing, and none of them paid for their sins.
But we're already in the twilight of the Obama administration. It's too much to ask that entitled young journos who spent the last several years writing welfare state fan fiction under the guise of dispassionate policy analysis be held accountable for what they got wrong. I suspect they'll just quietly wane in influence. Either way, it looks like the era of explanatory journalism may finally be kicking the oxygen habit. And good riddance.