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

01 January 2012

Bye, Bye American Media, or Why I’m Dropping the New York Times

    “Bye, bye, miss American pie. Drove the Chevy to the levee but the levee was dry . . .” Don McClean

A constant, low-level theme on this blog has been the decline of our American news media. I have described the demise of the old Wall Street Journal, our absurd preference for gossip over news, and the specter of Murdoch the Antichrist behind the general decay.

But far more is going on than just Rupert. Financial and business pressures are driving good reporters and writers out of “print” journalism (which is now also on line), into tawdry tabloids, superficial video, and other less worthy pursuits. Decent news reporting, let alone thoughtful, historically accurate and well-written analysis, is a dying art. Perhaps its best practitioner today is Joe Klein of Time Magazine.

Decay is most apparent at the old Manhattan rags, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. They are about as impressive today as Manhattan’s cratered city streets. The Journal has morphed from a leading business newspaper into a tawdry and transparent house organ of mindless and extreme capitalism—a bizarre mirror image of the Soviets’ Pravda in its heyday. And in just the last year, the Times has begun to resemble a terminal patient on life support.

Bias and propaganda are not the only problems. Journalism is. The general level of English grammar and sentence structure is abysmal. And as for organizing a whole story in coherent and logically flowing paragraphs, fuhgeddaboutit!

In order to comment intelligently on current news, you’ve got to actually know something. But reporters’ general knowledge, too, is uniformly appalling. I still recall the young WSJ ingenue who named two nationally known law firms and an economic/antitrust consultant as lobbying firms, apparently because some of their members had been doing what seemed to her to be lobbying at the time. And then there’s the New York Times reporter who didn’t even question a fringe pol’s claim that long-time Harvard Professor Elizabeth Warren was a “carpetbagger” in Massachusetts. Apparently, this naïf didn’t even know that Harvard is in Massachusetts, or how long Warren had been there (nineteen years).

To the extent I didn’t already know it, I found the information to refute these anti-facts through Google in literally less than sixty seconds.

In an era when computers provide accurate, convenient and instantaneous memory, there is no excuse for failing to get basic facts right. If our news media spent as much time figuring out whether what they have is right, and in organizing and presenting it well, as they do in feverishly filling a supposed 24/7/365 news “void,” they might actually give us something worth reading or viewing.

And as for editors—even simple copy editors who avoid typos, mistakes and ambiguities—forget about them, too. They are either long gone, replaced by spell checkers [scroll to bottom of page and read poem]. Or apparently they are watching video games on some kind of dope.

The last straw has been the New York Times. For some reason, it gave me a temporary free pass earlier this year as it switched to a subscription model. But now it wants me to pay, at the same time as it ends a year in which it has suffered a catastrophic decline in basic quality, most probably due to lack of money and clear-eyed management.

The Times’ best columnists, Bob Herbert and Frank Rich, are gone. Gail Collins is wasting her humor on the various morons who provide increasingly dark self-parody in the Party of Extremists. Tom Friedman’s “gee whiz!” approach to the most pedestrian engineering achievements has now reached an apex of bipolar mania, as if Facebook alone could bring back our jobs and repair our broken government.

Paul Krugman is brilliant less often recently. He seems to be stuck in an intellectual “Groundhog Day,” repeatedly writing the same column—about stimulus and Keynesian economics—over and over in different words. You’d think someone with his Nobel Prize and intellectual curiosity might run some numbers on our rampant casinos and the threat they pose of another financial catastrophe. Maybe he just can’t get the data, which Geithner and the banks are mostly keeping secret. But then isn’t that a job for some enterprising investigative reporter?

As for the Times’ so-called “journalism,” decay is too weak a word. There are still a few good investigative pieces, from time to time, although running closer to three web pages each than the previous six or seven. But they’re less and less frequent and about less and less important subjects. Then, when we get a really vital report on the EU bailouts, the key sentence on banks—signifying continuing corporate welfare—is buried in the middle of a long story, disguised with a double negative to make it sound positive.

One other annoying thing about the Times: its apparent philosophy that liberal-arts majors know everything worth knowing. Not only is Tom Friedman’s utter ignorance of engineering, science and math increasingly embarrassing. Except for Paul Krugman and an occasional cameo appearance by David Leonhardt, the Times’ staff is bereft of reporters and analysts who know anything about finance, economics, or simple arithmetic, let alone how to present these subjects clearly, succinctly, with balance and without hysteria. And as for science and engineering, forget them! For readers not afraid of numbers and math, Bloomberg.com is an increasingly attractive alternative.

So there’s not much left in the New York Times to draw my loyalty as a reader. The healthy skepticism of everyone in power is gone. The sycophancy toward Wall Street is palpable. The excellence is gone. The traditional gap between the arts on the one hand and the sciences (including economics), finance and math grows larger and more important every day. Even the readers’ comments have been dumbed down in length and format; they are beginning to repeat themselves endlessly, just like the ones in the WSJ. Only mediocrity remains.

I’ve found I read the NYT less and less often now, even for free on line. So I’m going to let the paid subscription go. It’s not as if I can’t afford it; I just won’t miss it much.

And, if the truth be told, I’m sick of getting all my news from decrepit Manhattan. Not only has its near-absolute control of our politics made a mess of our nation. It’s near-absolute control of the nation’s media has dumbed us down to the point of catatonia. Manhattan’s self-evident intellectual decay and moral laxity have become our nation’s own.

So how will I get my news now? I’m making a New Year’s Resolution to be more eclectic and more international.

I’m going to get current news from various on-line sources and PBS. I’m going to continue to read the two New York-based “print” news sources that still seem able to maintain reasonable quality: Bloomberg.com, because it’s not afraid of numbers and writes stories (mostly) straight down the middle, organizing them they way a normal writer who wants readers to understand the subject quickly would, and Time Magazine, because it does the same and covers things that need covering but that the Times’ obsessive focus on the cretinous GOP horse race doesn’t leave space or energy for.

I’ve already written in praise of Bloomberg.com and Time Magazine in other contexts. I won’t repeat those points here. I would, however, note three good stories from Bloomberg.com: (1) this one on the increasingly wild volatility of our financial markets, which (mirabile dictu) has some math beyond arithmetic and reporters who actually seem to understand it, and (2) this one, which gives a balanced, unbaised and well-organized summary of the President’s foreign-policy achievements and risks, and (3) a year-end story about Treasury bond yields and returns, which provides more useful information in fewer words than almost anything in the financial press today. (Hint: it uses numbers and manages to figure out which ones are most important.)

It’s a sad day when a simple, well-organized and well-balanced story on an important subject draws particular praise. But that’s the unenviable fate of American journalism today, at least as practiced in Manhattan.

Maybe it will dawn on some enterprising journalistic hero that the Internet makes journalism possible outside the Manhattan echo chamber. Maybe some day soon our ignorant nation, which now ranks 25th among OECD countries in math education, will begin to understand the importance of math not just to science and engineering, but to economics, finance and budgeting as well. Maybe then our media will begin to hire people who can at least do arithmetic and present its results coherently. I wait with hope.

In the meantime, I’m going abroad. Years ago, I had a paper subscription to the British magazine The Economist. I’m going to resurrect it on line. I’m going to watch, listen and read the BBC much more. It enjoys the wide support of a government and people who, unlike our own, still widely credit facts and respect intelligence. For Mideast news, I’m going to start following the English-language version of Al Jazeera, a high-quality local product with an imported British journalistic tradition. And I’m going to look more at foreign news generally. For news on Russia I’m going to start reading Russian again. I hope I’ll be able to find Kommersant on line with reasonable Internet speed and a reasonable price.

So, as my title says, “Bye, Bye American Media.” It’s a big, multipolar world out there. Unlike ours, some cultures still seem to respect facts, accuracy, cogent analysis and good writing, and to take the time to get them right. Almost every other culture values math more.

I’m sure I can find those cultures. I just wish the rest of my compatriots could, too.

And wouldn’t it be wonderful if someone with brains and a conscience would start up a real American news medium outside Manhattan? Maybe closer to Asia, where all the real action now is! Maybe someone could buy the New York Times’ grand old brand, not to pillage and destroy it as Rupert did the Journal, but to turn it back into a real newspaper again.

Footnote 1: I used to love Rich’s hyperlinking every fact in his pieces to some sort of external authority. That’s what we jurists have to do every time we write a brief or a law-review article. Checking facts compulsively is not a bad discipline; it keeps you honest.

Update: 1/2/12: There is Intelligent Life on Bloomberg.com

Evidence is mounting that Bloomberg.com, alone among our daily national news media (Time Magazine is a weekly), harbors intelligent life. The latest evidence is worth special mention: a new “Sustainability” section, with contents on the home page and its own subsidiary page. The new section is separate and apart from the “Energy” section, which remains as before.

By that simple act of classification, Bloomberg.com has made a giant leap forward in American media. It has acknowledged that energy is only part of the problem of human sustainability, and that there are other aspects to energy discovery and production as well.

Why is that important? Well, a society is just like a gigantic organism. The head must turn before the body does. The head contains not only the brains, but nearly all the sensory organs, too.

When a whole society’s sensory organs—its media—insist on looking in the wrong direction, and on failing to really see what is there, the organism suffers. If the sensory misdirection goes on too long, the organism dies. Our American polity is somewhere between the first and second stages of sensory deprivation.

I can still remember standing, as a prepubertal kid, in front of the huge wall-sized map of Europe that my father used to plot troop movements during World War II and later gave me. I asked how many people lived on Earth, and he, who happened to know such things, answered “2.5 billion.”

I’m not sure what year that was, but it must have been no later than 1957. Historical estimates of global population roughly bear out that memory. In just 54 more years, our global population has nearly tripled, to 7 billion.

If nothing changes, and if we continue to find ways to drain the Earth’s resources and other species without destroying both, that number will be around twenty billion by mid-century. Nothing is more important to human survival and quality of life than preventing or reducing that further population explosion and making industrial society sustainable for those of us who remain.

So I salute Bloomberg.com, once again, for recognizing what’s important—nay, essential—and keeping to a minimum reportage of the antics of idiots, who would distract us from what really matters until it physically overwhelms us. It is now becoming clear that, just as tawdriness drives out quality, Bloomberg.com is collecting editors and journalists who still know what’s important and what quality means.

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  • At Monday, January 2, 2012 at 11:47:00 AM EST, Blogger indian49 said…

    Thank you Jay, for clearly making a case about something that has been bothering many of us for some time now. Good factual reporting in a democracy is a bit like canary in a coal mine, it portends a much worse future than one might imagine.

    By not doing something, these become management decisions by default. The decline of print journalism will be blamed on escalating costs and declining advertising revenue, in the end the favorite pinata of all, the Unions. It would be a deja vu from some years ago when the decline of the US Auto industry was blamed on the Unions. Except that it was due to the tone-deaf attitudes and insensitivity of the management, unable to respond to the changing economic conditions (oil prices) and the general belief that Detroit was selling clunkers and didn't care to compete with technically superior imports.

    History tells you what not to do. But we often ignore it and repeat the same mistakes.

  • At Thursday, January 5, 2012 at 1:12:00 AM EST, Blogger Jay Dratler, Jr., Ph.D., J.D. said…

    Dear Indian49,

    Thanks for the good words. But if you include on-line text, I think it much too early to host a wake for “print” journalism.

    People my age have a tough time because we grew up getting our news from a few high-quality, reliable sources. Among them were the three TV networks (with the inimitable Walter Cronkite), the New York Times, the pre-Rupert Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. Even the Los Angeles Times once measured up, in the old days before its downsizing and down-dumbing.

    There are still sources of good, reliable, unslanted, straight journalism today. They are just a lot harder to find. As I note above, Bloomberg.com and Time Magazine are two. Although I haven’t used them much, I suspect that sources like Google and Yahoo News are not bad either. They appear to provide raw facts alone, leaving interpretation, analysis and context to the reader. That’s better than providing false and demagogic interpretation, analysis and context.

    Young people today have to find their own sources of high-quality real news. That’s not easy. Most people just gravitate toward sources that confirm their own prejudices. Maybe what we need is a completely independent, non-profit Website or two that continually analyze the quality of journalism available on the Web and recommend the better sources. Kathleen Hall Jamieson, are you listening?

    Anyway, I wouldn't blame the troubles of journalism on unions. To my knowledge, reporters don’t have any. The problem is, as you state, management’s lack of vision and inability to keep up with, let alone successfully exploit, new technology.

    There is still good journalism out there, both here and abroad. You just have to ignore the so-called “mainstream” media, i.e., the name brands, which are increasingly yellow and governed by profit, not truth.

    Caveat emptor is now the rule in news, just as in banking and consumer products. If you don’t know that, you end up having someone else construct your world view for you, in a way that matches their economic interests, not your own. That someone else can even make you ignore your own personal experience!




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