Sunday :: Jun 5, 2005

Cowbirds in the Media?

by Mary

The brown-headed cowbird is known for its propensity of leaving its eggs in the nests of unsuspecting songbirds in North America. The cowbird's egg is designed to hatch earlier than the songbird's eggs and the aggressive offspring will crowd out the young of the songbird and grab most of the food.

Recent stories concerning Daniel Okrent as the NY Times ombudsman reminds me of the behavior of the cowbird. Okrent was the editor brought in to clean up the image of the NY Times after the embarrassing Jayson Blair bruhaha.

Brad DeLong has been commenting on the very strange last column of Okrent in his role as an ombudsman with his attack on Paul Krugman, alleging that Krugman plays fast and loose with facts. Brad was surprised to find that Okrent had come in ready to take down the Times a notch:

He told me [Donald Luskin] that the Times didn’t deserve to be called the "newspaper of record" and vowed, "When I’m done with this assignment, I want everyone to know that." (Okrent later wrote on this theme.)

Did Okrent come into his assignment as ombudsman to the NY Times because he felt like it needed to be taught a lesson? And was Paul Krugman on his radar from the beginning? Or did that come later?

Just how effective was Okrent in putting Krugman in his place? Certainly Okrent has made some question Krugman. eRiposte wrote about how even Salon's writer thought that Okrent might have a point. Nevertheless Farhad Manjoo was surprisingly naive about the spat between Krugman and Okrent. According to Manjoo, although Krugman won on the facts, Okrent's blow was surprisingly effective. Manjoo noted (and noted again) that Okrent's criticism was based in a number of critics who were liberals but felt that Krugman was undermining the cause by his fast and loose use of facts. Yet, as Bob Somerby notes, Manjoo has no way of knowing that because no one even knows who those "liberal critics" were or even if they existed. And Manjoo admits that the example Okrent provided was flat out wrong.

Reading Krugman's column, though, it's hard to see how Okrent concluded this. All the numbers cited in the column appear to be from just one employment measure -- the establishment survey. As Krugman points out in a response to Okrent, he even urged readers to go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics Web site and look up the numbers he used in the column; the numbers are all from the establishment survey.

So what gave Okrent the idea that Krugman was wrong on this example? Was it those liberal critics?

We know there was one critic that had been "working the refs" (including Okrent) for quite a while. That critic is not liberal. That critic is Donald Luskin who has created his own "Truth Squad" designed to destroy Paul Krugman. When Okrent was named as ombudsman, Luskin opined that perhaps here was someone who could stop Krugman from spouting his liberal nonsense:

America's most dangerous liberal pundit has been on his best behavior lately — almost. Paul Krugman's New York Times columns over the last month have been bland, at least relative to his normal shrill standards. Just the usual mindless Bush-bashing Halliburton-causes-cancer stuff you can read on almost any editorial page these days.

What's reined Krugman in? Well, there's a new cop on W. 43rd Street.

In December, Daniel Okrent became the Times's first "public editor" — something between an ombudsman and a special prosecutor, brought in to restore the paper's tarnished reputation in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal and the sacking of executive editor Howell Raines.

...I've had a very productive relationship with Okrent so far, so I don't want to leap to the conclusion that he's stonewalling, or that he's afraid to take on the superstar pundit at the Times. As I see it, Okrent's in a tough spot on this one.

He continues to lay out what he thinks Okrent needs to do....

But there are ways out:

First, Okrent will have to pierce what I call "the veil of opinion." He can't let Krugman characterize his lies as mere "opinion" just because they were printed in what is putatively an opinion column, or because he used subjective descriptions like "unusually large" or "many." Face it, Mr. Okrent, these are issues of fact. And I trust Okrent would agree that false statements of fact should not be permitted in the "newspaper of record," even on its editorial page.

Second, Okrent will have to find some way to distinguish truth from lie in a subject area that is fairly technical — and a subject area in which Krugman is putatively an expert. What will Okrent do when, as we've seen in other cases, Krugman conceals a simple statistical matter behind an edifice of irrelevant but impressive-sounding theory? If Okrent finds a Stanford economics professor who will contradict Krugman the Princeton economics professor, how will he decide which one is right?

I don't envy Okrent, but this is precisely the kind of problem he was hired to solve. Jayson Blair showed that news isn't necessarily factual just because it's in the New York Times. Okrent must face the reality that statements about economics aren't necessarily factual just because Paul Krugman writes them.

That was Luskin's take about Okrent in January 2004.

So what did he say when Okrent slammed Krugman for lies (without giving any examples)?

To be sure, Okrent could have gone much, much further in blowing the whistle on America’s most dangerous liberal pundit. He could have cited the dozens upon dozens of partisan distortions, uncorrected errors, deliberate misquotations, and flat-out lies that we’ve caught Krugman making over the years. For that matter he could have echoed what N. Gregory Mankiw, the universally respected former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors, told Fortune in a recent interview — that Krugman "just make[s] stuff up."

Okrent knows all these things. I know he knows them, because I’ve met with him and corresponded with him about just these matters since he became the Times's "public editor" 18 months ago. Our e-mail correspondence on Krugman totals almost 40,000 words (some of which was "off the record," so I'm using my judgment here in determining what portions are fair to reveal now that Okrent's tenure as “public editor” is over). Yes, I'm the one Okrent was talking about when he referred to "Krugman's enemies."

When Okrent first came on board, Luskin had already set up a goal to have Okrent discredit Krugman. After 18 months of Luskin Wormstongue, Okrent was ready to lay his charge as he left the room.

As a Paul Krugman fan, I know that I've been impressed with how knowledgeable he is compared to most of the media. In my interview with him last year, I asked him about how he kept up with everything that he wrote about.

One the things I'd been thinking about was how in the world do you have time to keep up with things you write about? It's obvious that it's very well researched.

Actually a lot of it is relying on colleagues and friends to feed me stuff. I'll sometimes use the Center on Budget Policies and Priorities. I'll call them up and ask them to run some numbers for me. As for the pensions, I read the same stories that you did and I haven't done any additional work.

It was clear talking to him, that he doesn't go further than what he has actually studied or gotten credible information from a trusted source. When he hadn't studied the issue, he didn't act like he was an expert and he definitely didn't go around "making things up."

To have someone like Donald Luskin, a cheerleader for the lying Bush crowd, question the integrity of Paul Krugman is a bit much. Yet, this is par for the course with those on the right these days. Just like a cowbird (but with more actual anomosity than the bird shows) Luskin dropped his evil egg into the NY Times nest and then watched it try to crowd out the truth-telling of Paul Krugman. Well, I say: good riddance to the bad Okrent egg.

Mary :: 10:41 AM :: Comments (2) :: TrackBack (0) :: Spotlight :: Digg It!