Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

06 October 2010

An Open Letter to Print Journalists


Update (10/7/10): The Future of Print Journalism

Voodoo Economics
Energy Costs
China’s Leaders
New Industries
Electric Cars
LFTRs
Foreign Competition
Whither the Senate?
Whither John Boehner?
Whither South Carolina?

This post is not for Fox “News” or other “infotainment” media. They are beyond redemption. It’s for our remaining responsible “journalists,” those who still claim that title with pride.

Yes, I mean you, at the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as anyone from the Wall Street Journal who still rejects vassalage to Rupert Murdoch.

As reporters, you write often of our national decline. As pundits, you deplore it and bewail our sorry national fate. But what are you doing about it?

Most of you have spent your careers learning how to dig up hidden facts and find, prime and cajole sources. You can do all the things you say we bloggers can’t or don’t do.

Fair enough. Most of us―myself included―have little or no training in journalism, and no experience in the “shoe-leather sleuthing” that is your stock in trade.

But where is that trade when we need it most? Why aren’t you giving us the facts we need to know?

As examples, I pose the following ten specific questions. All have obvious political, economic or social importance. Where are your answers?

1. Voodoo Economics. The argument that tax cuts (especially for the rich) increase tax revenue is a perennial. It’s been with us since Reagan. It should be named for Dracula, not voodoo, because it keeps coming back from the grave. I see echoes of it in almost every exchange of comments on economic politics.

Can’t we settle it once and for all? It would be a simple matter for a good economics reporter to sit down and make a table (or a graph) of tax revenue after every tax cut and tax increase since 1986. Give us the data, with links to authoritative sources, and let us readers judge for ourselves. And put it on line so we bloggers can link to it.

I’ve never seen such a table or graph in any mainstream publication. Why not?

2. Energy Costs. For all but the rabid right and left, the most important fact about energy is cost. What are the relative costs of coal, nuclear, wind and solar power, per kilowatt-hour delivered, and how are they figured?

For years I’ve been looking for answers to these questions on the Web. I’ve found no credible comparison from any source. The reason, I suspect, is that everyone manipulates the figures.

That’s easy to do. The biggest component of cost—especially for wind and solar power, which have near-zero marginal cost—is the cost of plant. Coal has a long history from which we can estimate plant costs fairly accurately. But wind, solar and nuclear are different. The wind and solar industries are too new (and undergoing too rapid development) to have stable track records. And we haven’t built a new nuclear plant, let alone one with new designs, in thirty years.

So the amortized-plant costs of wind, solar and nuclear power have no track record. They must be “constructed” i.e., estimated from speculative or projected figures for plant construction, useful lifespan of equipment, and maintenance. Letting the public know what the real cost comparisons are, or even that existing claims are bogus, would be a great public service. It’s a job worthy of some aspiring economics reporters, of whom we have far too few today.

3. China’s Leaders. Slowly our elite are coming to grips with the facts that China: (1) is Communist in name only, (2) enjoys a highly educated Mandarin bureaucracy, and (3) is likely to overtake our democracy on many industrial and economic benchmarks by mid-century, if not before. Yet apart from so-called “China experts,” Americans’ ignorance of China is boundless.

We now know, for example, that most members of its Politburo’s Plenum (its highest ruling body) were trained as engineers and scientists, not business people or lawyers. Yet when I looked for this sort of information a few months ago, the latest data I could find was for 2007. At that time, the nine members included five engineers, one scientist (a geologist), and one lawyer who doubled as an economist. I could not determine the backgrounds of the other two.

China will be our most important trading partner, and in a decade or two probably the world’s leading economic power. Shouldn’t our public know who its leaders are, their biographies, and their prospects for future leadership? Shouldn’t this information be updated after every significant Party Congress and personnel change? We know more about Nicolas Sarkozy’s wife than we know about the leaders of nearly one-quarter of the human race and the twenty-first century’s probable number-one economy.

4. New industries. Whatever happens to Wall Street, we are finished as a global leader if we can’t develop new industries. And I don’t mean Facebook and Twitter. As polished and glossy as it is, even Apple Computer can’t sustain us by itself. We need new industries like clean energy, electric cars, stem-cell cures for previously incurable diseases, biofuels, nanotechnology, space travel, and computer-genetic interfaces.

Somewhere in the world, advances occur monthly, if not weekly, in most of these fields. Our future depends on our participation and competition in them. Yet we hear virtually nothing about them, except when Tom Friedman goes to China and suddenly reveals that it’s bought 128 DNA sequencers and is investing $ 15 billion in electric cars. Shouldn’t each of your papers have a skilled reporter assigned to this “beat,” preferably one with some engineering, scientific or industrial background?

5. Electric Cars. Electric cars and their batteries (which also can store wind and solar energy in individual homes) will be the next big global industry. We may be behind the Nissan Leaf, and China is investing massively. Yet our own Chevy Volt is coming to showrooms this year. What’s it like to drive? Who’s signing up to buy it? Where can you get it? What benchmarks is GM using to decide whether to produce it at full scale?

This is not just another car. Our nation’s industrial future, as well as GM’s future and upcoming IPO, may depend in part on the answers to these questions.

6. LFTRs. A new form of nuclear power plant, called a Liquid Fluoride Thorium Reactor, could be the solution to our energy problems. In theory, its fuel, its operation and its waste products are orders of magnitude less dangerous than those in conventional nuclear reactors. It can be made small enough for large buildings and can be air cooled. We have enough thorium in our own country to power us for a millennium. A nuclear engineer named Kirk Sorensen is championing the design, but he appears to be getting nowhere. Why? What is Energy Secretary Steven Chu doing about this technology? What are countries like China, England, France, and Japan, which are rumored to be working on it, doing about it?

7. Foreign Competition. Most of the previous points (all but the first) implicate foreign competition. We Americans love a race, and we love to be “Number One.” But those of us who can, for a few brief moments, ignore the twittering and gossip that passes for news these days know we’ve either lost the lead or are seriously behind in many of these areas.

What is our foreign competition doing with energy costs, the technical competence of its leaders, new industries, electric cars, and LFTRs? in clean energy generally? You wouldn’t know it from reading your newspapers, but these are primarily matters of science, technology and industry, not politics. Why don't these subjects have several stories per week on your front pages?

8. Whither the Senate? With O’Donnell’s primary win in Delaware, it looks as if the Democrats have Joe Biden’s old Senate seat locked up. Rove conceded as much. So do the Democrats now have a shot at a filibuster-proof majority? What about Alaska? Can McAdams prevail over Miller, or will Murkowski’s write-in campaign split the Democratic vote?

Inquiring minds, including Democratic contributors like me, would like to know. A small contribution has a much bigger impact in Alaska than, say, California or New York.

9. Whither John Boehner? The President has made him a target. His Democratic opponent, Justin Coussoule, is young and energetic, with an attractive family. He’s a West Point graduate with military, small-business, big-business and small-town experience. He seems like just the ticket to knock Boehner off.

Does he have a chance? Why does there appear to be a news blackout on him when he’s running against the Minority Leader and possible future Majority Leader, one of the stupidest, most corrupt and most mendacious scoundrels in American political history?

10. Whither South Carolina? It’s conventional wisdom that Al Greene has no chance to knock off Jim DeMint in South Carolina. That’s probably right. You did report that Greene owed his win to Republican cross-voting in the open primary.

But who organized the cross-voting and who financed it? Were there enough registered Democrats in the state to have made a difference? What really happened there, and why? Are powerful interests in control? If so, who? If not, is the state irremediably backward, or are there demographic trends and other green shoots of hope? Why is this state, alone among us, still vigorously fighting the Civil War in the twenty-first century? (This would be a nice topic for an in-depth Sunday magazine piece.)


That’s the list. Could you get us some answers?

I hate to be harsh. But your print media are the best we got. At the moment, they are doing a piss-poor job of informing the public. They don’t even come close to covering what really matters for our future and (in politics) even our present. They’ve become gushers of gossip and twitters, yet without the relentless focus of Fox Propaganda. In fact, they often allow Fox to dictate their content.

To see what I mean, go back and review a few months’ news from your own papers in the 1950s. You will see stories galore about atomic energy, new weapons, new appliances, and future industries. You will see speculation about what the world would look like now. In short, you will see a strong, confident innovative society looking forward to its future, not contemplating its navel or gossiping around the water cooler.

Most of what’s on the front page today was then confined to the gossip and society pages. How far has the mighty tradition of journalism fallen!

You probably became reporters because you like language more than math and people better than things. Fair enough. But our future depends on science and engineering and the industries they create, especially in a dangerous world.

Hadn’t you all better do some boning up and―far more important―hire and nurture some younger colleagues with interests, experience and expertise in these fields? When you ridicule Tea Baggers who deny evolution and global warming and think human brains can fit in mouse skulls, can you deny any responsibility for the public’s ignorance?

Why do you constantly pick the low-hanging fruit of hypocrisy and verbal inconsistencies that anyone with a browser can find? Do you think you’re Jon Stewart? As he has discovered (and has made his career), blatant hypocrisy comes across better live than in print.

What we out here need from our print media is facts that come across best in print, especially those that are important and hard to find, even on the Internet. Please help deliver them.

If you can, your jobs will be secure even in the Internet Age. If not, your jobs and your profession will vanish in the general noise of a declining society.

Yours truly,

Jay


Update (10/7/10): The Future of Print Journalism

(The post above originally appeared under an erroneous date, September 26. The real posting date, now accurately shown, was October 6, i.e., yesterday.)

Two days ago the New York Times published an exposé of the ruin of the Chicago Tribune, Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun, among others, resulting from real-estate mogul Sam Zell’s purchase and catastrophic mismanagement of the parent company. The story paints a picture of utter corruption and degradation, akin to a years-long fraternity party or ancient Roman orgies. It demonstrates, among other things, that truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

The in-depth feature (five long Web pages) is a nice bit of investigative reporting. It gives us the kind of information that readers of print journalism expect and need to know.

The bad news is discouraging and depressing. It shows what good print journalists are up against in a no-limits culture of greed rotting from within. Its 315 on-line comments, many by newspaper insiders, tell the story as well as the feature itself. They laud a few die-hard holdouts for quality in the dying papers, but they show how corrupt and clueless business raiders can overwhelm them and annihilate a real news organization in a matter of months.

The good news appears to be unknown to most print journalists. I pay something around $100 per year for a subscription to the on-line Wall Street Journal. (I don't know exactly how much because the fee, which appears automatically on my credit card, increases every year.)

Think about that. I abhor Rubert Murdoch, everything he has done to news in this country, and everything he stands for. I think he’s an Aussie barbarian at our gate. I would sooner engage in self-flagellation than watch his Fox Propaganda. Yet I pay good money to read his on-line business journal.

Why? The Wall Street Journal has an extreme right-wing editorial board whose repetitive drivel I rarely read. After every remotely political story on line, an avalanche of mindless, bullying adolescent comments appears like sewage overflow after a storm. But despite all this, the Wall Street Journal provides valuable information. Of late, for example, it has provided the best mainstream coverage of electric cars (1, 2, 3, 4, and 5).

Rupert Murdoch is a clever man. His Fox Propaganda machine continually churns out distractions for the ignorant masses. With that feint, he inveigles generally honest and competent newspeople, like Gail Collins, to waste inordinate amounts of ink on trivia. Meanwhile, with his flagship paper, the Journal, he gets people like me to pay good money (and support his evil empire) by providing real, valuable news. It’s a one-two punch that has reputable print journalists down for the count.

I keep wondering why no one wises up. If I pay around $100 per year for a subscription to the Journal, wouldn't I pay at least $150, maybe $200, for the New York Times, which I now get on line for free? And if I would, what about its national on-line readership, which must number at least several million by now? The resulting several hundred million dollars might support a decent news organization, without the expense of printing and delivering dead trees.

Why aren't the people who run the Times at least as smart as Rupert Murdoch? Beats hell out of me. Maybe they’re the kind of people who still believe, despite all that’s happened, that a newspaper is something you can crush between your fingers until the ink rubs off. If so, I hope there are some good journalists with business training who have some inkling how many of us out here would pay for their product on line and so keep their profession alive.

The audience is there. The medium is there. Netbooks, iPads, Kindles and the like are proliferating like flies in a Michigan summer. The revenue is there. When will honest print journalists take it and get back to work in a stable, supportive environment?


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