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December 29, 2003

Why Do Paul Krugman's New Year's Resolutions Lack Resolve?

Don't cover things you define as news, cover things I define as news. That advice for campaign reporters came from New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. He's an outsider to the press with a big platform inside it. But his list of resolutions is limp and predictable.

Ordinarily we make New Year’s Resolutions for ourselves, not for other people. “Here are my resolutions for you guys” is just one of the odd things about Paul Krugman’s year-end advisory to colleagues in the press. It explains how to cover the 2004 campaign, and how not to approach it.

Krugman’s bulleted list amounts to saying: Don’t cover the dumb things you define as news, cover the smart things that I see as news. This is not an effective way of addressing the national press, although it is a common way of giving voice to one’s complaints.

A key figure in national politics since September 11, 2001 is Paul Krugman. The New York Times columnist has been advancing a view of the world in direct opposition to Bush Administration policy and the political aims of the Republican Party. Before a word is written, Krugman is therefore placed in a certain category by journalists who might have read his Dec. 26 column. To them, he is the partisan observer telling an officially nonpartisan press what it should observe. Not a promising rhetorical situation.

For the sad likelihood, journalists think, is that the partisan will wind up saying: see as I see. Denounce as false what I denounce as false. Treat as urgent what I treat as urgent. “That’s how you would report the campaign— if you were serious,” where serious turns out to be the worldview the writer had going in. And that is what Krugman did. He conformed to the very low expectations that journalists have for press criticism in this genre.

From his Times perch and in his recent book, Krugman has written against an “ideology that denigrates almost everything, other than national defense, that the government does.” To him, Bush, Cheyney, Rumsfeld, Rove and crew are radicals, secret revolutionaries, not conservatives. They took what was beyond the pale in politics and economic policy, and made it happen overnight— without any real debate, without coming clean about the real agenda, without the press noticing or raising basic questions.

The amazing thing, of course, is how this one columnist’s world view spoke to a substantial portion of the country hostile to Bush. So much so that Krugman began to represent, for a good many people, a form of opposition normally expected from the party out of power in government. Krugman is not in government, but he is a figure in politics because the oppositional chord he struck from his platform at the New York Times was more coherent and convincing than anything coming from the political system at the time. Coherent and convincing for a portion of the public, that is. Another portion is hostile, not to Bush for his revolution, but to Krugman for his rejection of all things Bush. (See the comments section of this post for proof of that.)

Starting in mid-2002, I began to hear it. People on the left would be discussing the political scene, especially the intimidating climate after September 11th, and someone would say, “only Krugman is taking on the Republicans over this.” Or: “Krugman is onto it, none of the Democrats are.” To realize how unusual this is—a Times columnist regarded as the unofficial opposition—glance across the op ed page at Bob Herbert. There he is with passionate opinions opposing the Republicans on the welfare state, urban policy, education, health care. But no one looks to Bob Herbert as the one standing up and saying NO. That’s because Krugman’s NO is different in kind.

More than any top columnist in recent times, Krugman has been openly at war with the press in a domain that might be called its “base line view of reality.” This is an elusive matter within journalism. When you try to discuss it, the central categories become hazy items like conventional wisdom among reporters, or a climate of expectations in the press. Or assumptions that precede acts of reporting and are only half-conscious to begin with.

At PressThink, I sometimes talk about the standard script as an elusive factor in what journalists wind up covering. I also call it the master narrative, a term with roots outside the press (in academic criticism). These are all attempts to describe something nebulous, but not entirely unreal: the press helps establish a day-to-day narrative for politics. It sets in outline the acceptable terms of public debate.

Krugman is at war with the base line reality the press sets. He thus jeers at its performance in holding the Bush government accountable. For he doesn’t think reporters and columnists are up to describing reality— the reality his work describes. In a review of The Great Unraveling, Krugman’s best seller on the Bush years, Russell Baker, a former political reporter and former Times columnist himself, remarks on this dissent:

The vocabulary Krugman applied to the President bristled with words such as “dishonesty,” “lying,” “mendacity,” and “fraud.” Among political pundits such language verges on the taboo. As a class, political columnists do not shrink from the occasional well poisoning, but on matters of etiquette they are conservative to the verge of stuffiness, and they tend to view plain speech as the mark of the ill-mannered bumpkin.

But the good opinion of colleagues does not seem important to Krugman, Baker adds. “His indifference toward journalism’s conventional etiquette may even contribute to his success.” I agree with that. Krugman’s great advantage as a journalist is that he is not a journalist. Economist, tenured professor, writer serve quite well as his identity anchors.

Nor does Krugman show signs of wanting to be “in” the fraternity, although he certainly likes the visibility and power of writing opinion for the Times. (And what author would not?) To maintain his prominence in the press, no position in the journalism profession is required. He can even be a pariah, and remain effective. This is from a profile in the Washington Post by Howard Kurtz:

What makes Krugman’s rapid rise even more remarkable is that he rarely ventures from his Ivy League enclave to either Washington or New York and almost never talks to the people he is writing about. An international trade expert, he merely moonlights as a Times pontificator and is more worried at the moment about finishing a new textbook, “Principles of Economics.”

“I hereby propose some rules for 2004 political reporting,” Krugman, the pariah, wrote. Aware of the special base line he begins from, he might have shown his colleagues how different the presidential campaign looks when you assume, for example, that Bush and gang are revolutionaries. How do you cover a revolutionary, running for re-election? If anyone could enter imaginatively into that puzzle, it would be Krugman.

Alas, here is his counsel to journalists: 1.) don’t talk about the candidate’s clothing, it’s trivial; 2.) do scrutinize Bush’s proposal for tax-exempt savings accounts; it will be terrible; 3.) don’t fall for cheesy anecdotes about what a nice back-slapping guy Bush is, he isn’t; 4,) look at the candidate’s records and determine (as I, Krugman, did) that Bush is the radical and Dean the cautious moderate; 5.) don’t fall for insider baseball and its histrionics about the candidates’ flaws, they’re trivial too; 6.) don’t puff yourself up, this is not about you.

So lackluster and condescending are the ideas here that Krugman himself wrote them off: “I don’t really expect my journalistic colleagues to follow these rules.” That too is part of the sad predictability in this genre. The recommender with a world view knows in advance that the press—taking the view from nowhere—will pay no attention. This is what generates the weary tone.

What’s shocking about Paul Krugman’s journalism is that he’s so good at politics— the kind of politics practiced by public intellectuals. They interact with events by broadcasting their ideas, by injecting themselves into public debate and becoming a factor in opinion formation. Which also means an actor. Krugman had an advantage. He was trained as an economist— not as a writer or political actor. On the other hand, he had not been trained (by journalism) never to think of himself as an actor. So he had more freedom of identity when crossing over into another line of work.

When the moment came and he was thrust by the economy of public argument into a politician’s role (in the sense of representing a broad body of opinion going unheard) he was more capable of a flexible and creative response. In his case that meant: keep going. Mount the case against Bush and don’t let up.

Krugman, I think, was not frightened by the ambiguities in being a columnist, spectator at the scene, and a lightening rod for political opinion, both the kind drawn to him, and the kind coming at him as attack or counter-argument. He didn’t have to pretend that he was not a key member of the “opposition” party to Bush. Strangely, this made it easier to stick to the columnist’s role— and just keep it going. Because of the way he wasn’t trained, Krugman turned out to be very good as a newspaper columnist. That makes his limp advice to campaign journalists all the more disappointing.

The media scholar Daniel Hallin once sketched a simple model for understanding the politics of news. He drew a big circle on a piece of paper, and a smaller circle inside it. The inner circle he called the sphere of consensus. This is “the region of motherhood and apple pie,” the things all—or nearly all—Americans agree upon, including journalists.

The next ring he called the sphere of legitimate controversy, where we find argument and evidence offered in the normal course of debate. Outside the second ring is the sphere of deviance, which is the domain of actors and ideas widely thought beyond the pale. Journalists participate in defining all three spheres, although this act is often missing in their self-definition.

In today’s New York Times, for example, an article on Michael Jackson and the Nation of Islam describes “the group’s philosophy of black separatism.” Reporter Sharon Waxman wrote: “The Nation of Islam is a small group that advocates black self-empowerment and a separate African-American state, and some of its leaders have espoused anti-Semitic, anti-gay and racist rhetoric.”

In other words, they’re beyond the pale. Take note that the group is put there by flat descriptive language in a front page news story— not by “opinion” journalism.

Hallin’s device helps us grasp the tension between someone like Krugman and others in the press. For he actually places the current Administration in the sphere of deviance. Or rather, he argues that Bush and company have tried to take policies from beyond the pale straight into “consensus” without being forced through the space of legitmate controversy. This, he thinks, cannot be done without the acquiescence of journalists who patrol these boundaries.

In effect, then, Krugman and the national press live in two different moral universes. But “advice” cannot really flow across such a profound gap. He would have been better off writing about the gap itself. Political reporters are not going to jump into Krugman’s world and view the campaign from there. What they can do, however, is expand, strengthen and properly animate the sphere of legitimate controversy, which is in some measure their own creation.

And here we come upon one of the biggest problems in current press think: The job of the political journalist exceeds the job description most journalists are prepared to accept, in part because that description is so apolitical (“we cover the campaign.”) If political work done by the press goes unrecognized by people in the press, then critics who object to that work will find themselves talking about journalists, but not really to them. This situation is not necessarily the critic’s fault. But a writer as smart as Paul Krugman could have faced it head on.

To me there is no question that for his courage and relentlessness Krugman should be this year’s Pulitzer Prize columnist. Who even comes close to his kind of impact? But that award would itself be a political statement about the breakdown of consensus, a development of deep consequence for American journalists, as it is for American citizens.

Paul Krugman, “New Year’s Resolutions,” New York Times, Dec. 26.

Russell Baker, “The Awful Truth,” Review of The Great Unraveling by Paul Krugman, New York Review of Books, Nov. 6, 2003.

Cal Pundit published this excellent and detailed interview with Krugman (Sep. 2003)

Recently I came across this site about “the absurdity of partisanship.” It has a rating system for columnists that is supposed to show how relentlessly partisan they are— or is it just being consistent? Krugman ranks second on the list, after the notorious Ann Coulter. This attempt to quantify the drift of a writer’s opinions is interesting, but I don’t see how it counts as “absurd” to be ranked at the top.

see PressThink Basics: The Master Narrative in Journalism: “A given work of journalism will have an author’s byline, but in some measure the author is always ‘journalism’ itself and its peculiar habits of mind. You can’t interview that guy.”

For some reason—maybe it’s Krugman—the comments section on this post has a lot of humor. Check into it.

Posted by Jay Rosen at December 29, 2003 11:46 PM