February 05, 2004

Jonathan Weisman's Defenders Write in

I have received a number of emails from various journalism insiders defending or excusing Jonathan Weisman, which make some interesting points that I would like to share:

As you will recall from our last episode, Jonathan Weisman responded to my critique that one of his news articles from the Washington Post read like a rewritten White House press release by writing:

F*** Brad DeLong. The first piece put on the web is slapped together as quickly as possible, and the guy for some reason doesn't like me. Here's my analysis: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A6881-2004Feb2.html

Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post economics writer

I understand this to mean:

  • Yes, it was a rewritten press release.
  • There's nothing wrong with rewriting press releases, even if doing so conveys a fundamentally misleading story.
  • The important thing was to get some column inches written quickly, not to inform readers about the budget.
  • If you want to learn about the budget, go to my article here instead.*

This indicated to me that the Washington Post's news editors have some very serious quality control problems here.

But, as I said above, Jonathan Weisman's supporters have been writing in via email. Here are the points they make:

  • He has a potty mouth, and had no idea how his email would actually look to readers.
  • The article I cite is an unusually, anomalously bad article. He's done a lot of good work, much better work in the recent past.
  • He's a pretty good reporter most of the time, and is improving relatively rapidly.
  • He's in an impossible situation. He knows he's not good enough to survive if White House Media Affairs directs the administration to close down his access, and they know he knows, so he is under immense pressure to trim his stories to the liking of the White House--or else.
  • He gets little backing in his struggle with the White House from his editors, so it is not credible for him to go back to his sources and say, "Gee, Karl, I know I told you I would write it that way, but my editor said that was unbelievable and made me change it."
  • He's not alone in feeling muzzled by enormous, intolerable pressures: remember, even reporters as good as William Greider and Ronald Suskind could not do their big stories about how it really happened until they were out of the daily news reporting cycle.
  • He doesn't have the depth of knowledge about your issues--economic and fiscal issues--to feel comfortable challenging his sources on them, so he tends to take what he is told at face value and reserve his scrutiny for the political side--where he is quite knowledgeable and good.
  • You cannot realistically expect him to write an article of the quality that, say, Hitt and McKinnon write for the Wall Street Journal. He's essentially out there by himself trying to make sense of things. The Journal writers have multiple levels of backup and are subject to constant kibbitzing by an enormous institutional memory composed of all those who have covered these issues in the past and have decades of experience at figuring out what questions need to be asked and how to correct for White House spin.

All--well most of--these points seem to me to be good ones. But they suggest that what we have here is a much deeper, profound, structural problem. It's much more than a lack of editorial quality control.

*I think he's wrong: I don't think http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A6881-2004Feb2.html tells readers what they need to know about the budget either.

Posted by DeLong at February 5, 2004 07:54 AM | TrackBack | | Other weblogs commenting on this post

This back-and-forth has truly been an immense resource. This will rival your series on the O'Neill book, I suspect. Keep it up!

Posted by: Goldberg on February 5, 2004 08:20 AM


I think your criticisms are correct, and I think this is an example of a wider problem. Before the rise of television, print journalists at major newspapers were often subject area experts and were capable of analyzing the information they were fed. Today, the most rewarded journalists are television talking heads, who are seen as entertainers. In-depth subject matter expertise is boring, and thus not sought after by practitioners or those hiring them. This is why horse-race stories dominate political coverage. It is sad that there doesn't appear to be any countervailing impulse likely to reverse the trend. I'm glad blogs such as this one give access to subject area expertise applied to current affairs.

Posted by: cafl on February 5, 2004 08:27 AM


Good work, Brad. Score one for the professors.

I had a conversation in a bar-room about five years ago, months after completing the PhD, with a very distinguished mentor. He bitched about the low quality of the incoming undergraduates (and their reluctance to read books).

He pinned it on the low quality of their public high school education. I argued that, as a public-school college professor with knowledge of what is wrong, he had a duty to intervene and couldn't bitch about that problem like he was not related to it. He was pretty stunned. I was playing devil's advocate at first, but I convinced myself of the correctness of this position as the conversation unfolded.

I think we have the same situation with the media. The younger people doing jobs like Weisman's are in a very difficult situation - one that could be compared to the situation of public-school high school teachers.

The first responsibility of all college professors is the preservation of knowledge; creating new knowledge means nothing if we allow a hurtful erosion of the foundation upon which it is built.
Guys like Weisman need backup. Unfortunately, we are the ones who must provide it. It's our responsibility if we know better. Knowledge is eroding fast. Once we bail them out - and we are going to have to bail them out this election season - then we have to start applying what pressures we must to provide resources for these people so that we can get back to creating knowledge.

Posted by: fellow prof on February 5, 2004 08:42 AM


One irate observer points out correctly that the "under deadline" excuse is totally bogus: enough was known about the deficit that the story could have been written, all except blanks for exact numbers and exact quotes, the previous weekend.

Posted by: Brad DeLong on February 5, 2004 08:43 AM


This point I don't get:

"He's in an impossible situation. He knows he's not good enough to survive if White House Media Affairs directs the administration to close down his access, and they know he knows, so he is under immense pressure to trim his stories to the liking of the White House--or else."

The media/news have no backbones. Why don't they make a story about how Rove et al refuse to answer questions. The news each day will not be what the White House releases. The news will be, today the White House tried to release more self serving information. However, until the White House answers the following requests: A to Z we ain't giving them the time of day. Then, attack the other sources who lick Rove's boots as hacks, cowards, shills for the administration, unreliable news sources which the public should not trust for information so don't buy their product buy our product instead. Make the news AND compete with the other media. That's how the right wing media sell themselves: we tell the truth, we are not bias liberals. It's a two way street. It should be a badge of honor for all newspapers writers to be shunned by Rove. If they get shut out, then the headline reads: "Bushy, what are you affraid of?" Dateline: Continuing its policy of covering up, obfuscating and out right lying to the public, today Bush, Rove and their minions refused access to a reporter from [name of paper] today. The [name of paper] has been consisting trying to get information and answers about [deficit, Bush military [un]records, OMB botched medicare estimate, why Bush refuses to include any costs for Iraq in budget, why Bush refuses to comply with statute expressly requiring Administration to give a written national security statement for three of the four years of his administration (exhibit A to the charge that Bushies have done no planning on Iraq), Cheney task force information, payoffs to Pat Robertson related organizations under the [dis]guise of the faith based initiative so he'll do more dirty work in coming campaign (a la McCain character assassination in SC and Michigan) that Bush will claim he can't possible control etc etc etc. bla bla bla Why can't we have a better press corps? Well, even William Safire has observed two years ago that the White House Press corp is now a bunch of coward thoroughly disciplined by Rove. Until they wake up and realize that Rove needs them more than they need Rove, they cannot level the playing field.

Posted by: Cal on February 5, 2004 08:47 AM


Wow, let's take these comments in turn -- and would you consider posting the originals?

1) "no idea how Email would look to readers"

Here's a simple rule: avoid answering criticism
with a public "F*** you". Does any adult really
need to be told this?

2) anomalously bad article and 3) usually good

Can they point to any specific example of a
good article he's written, so we could judge
it instead of taking their word?

4) not good enough to survive loss of access

"not good enough" I believe. But loss of access?
What special access is he getting that he
wouldn't be able to get? Would Media Affairs
refuse to send him any more press releases,
thereby making it impossible for him to type
them up?

5) no backing from editors

This I believe. Clearly his editors are conplicit
in the decision to push Bush propaganda instead
of news.

6) not alone under pressure

If there are a significant number of good articles
written on the budget by reporters in similar
situations, this is disproved. Are there?

7) no depth of knowledge

Then why doesn't he start writing about sports
or something? Because it pays less?

8) no institutional support

BS. Any reporter should cultivate sources who
can give him / her a quick read on basic issues
like this. He could pick up the phone and call
OMB Watch, or Brad DeLong, or any one of a
thousand people who know what's going on, before
he writes his article.

Posted by: Rich Puchalsky on February 5, 2004 09:10 AM


So this Weisman feller then is trying hard at being (a)honest, (b) competent, and (c) well mannered, isn't he? Or, is he? And his editors give him all the backing he needs for being good at those three things, don't they? Or, do they? And they hired him in the first place because he had at least a good potential at being good at those three things, didn't they? Or, did they?

Would be nice if the journalists could come together with editors and discuss those things, I mean those things they communicated to Brad in defense of Weismann, and I mean discuss (a) honestly, (b) competently and (c) politely.

It would be good for democracy if they could do that, would it not?

Posted by: Bulent Sayin on February 5, 2004 09:17 AM


He's not good enough, and he knows he's not good enough?

How's he keeping the job if he's not good enough? Aren't there any better reporters available?

If he knows he's not good enough, why isn't he trying to do something to improve?

He has no background in this subject? Then get somebody who does. If he knows he has no background in this subject, and does nothing about it, can we refer to him as incompetent?

Brad, if he'd called you to explain some of this stuff before he wrote the article, would you have helped him?

Posted by: Chuck Nolan on February 5, 2004 09:37 AM



Over the next five years, the President’s budget proposes to slice away gradually at domestic discretionary funding outside homeland security. By 2009, the overall funding for domestic discretionary programs outside homeland security would be $50 billion — or 11.5 percent — below the level needed to keep up with inflation.

Many analysts prefer to measure changes in discretionary funding in real per capita terms — that is, after adjusting for both inflation and population growth. This approach measures the level of funding needed to maintain current service levels per person. The budget would cut domestic discretionary funding outside homeland security by $69 billion in 2009 — or 15.2 percent — on a real per capita basis.

Posted by: anne on February 5, 2004 09:49 AM


Granted most of the objections, what conclusions can we come to?

First, that the system is terrible corrupt. We can't talk about defects or glitches or inefficiencies, because many of the worst problems are designed into the present system. It's supposed to work this way.

Second, individuals who want to make careers in the system are in a terribly difficult and compromised position. Essentially, if they know what good work is, and they try to do it, they will be fired. Weisman is thus not personally responsible for making anything worse -- he's just a cog. But people who despise the whole thing have to despise Weisman. He has other options.

Professionalsim always has a tension between "doing the best for your clients", "doing the best for yourself", and "doing the best for the profession as a whole". Professions discipline individual professionas when they benefit themselves at the profession's expense, but less so when the profession's interest conflicts with clients as a group.

But recently, professionalism in journalism seems to have been redefined. First, the professional rules in effect (neutrality, objectivity, and moderation -- as defined by the profession) produce a stunted and inane product.

On top of that, a lot of bright ambitious young things think of their job as "figuring out what Roger Ailes wants and giving it to him" (or whoever the boss is.) At this point there's really no concept of professionalism left at all. People who get fired for writing good work are just suckers and losers who have no one to blame but themselves. Success is the only standard.

Posted by: zizka / John Emerson on February 5, 2004 09:55 AM



The following elements of the budget stand out.

Tax cuts, especially for the most well-off, emerge as the Administration’s highest priority. This is so even though the budget itself projects that federal revenues in 2004 will be at their lowest level since 1950, measured as a share of the economy, and even though the budget data show the decline in revenues accounts for three-fourths of the unprecedented fiscal deterioration since 2000.

New budget rules that favor powerful interests. The Administration proposes new budget rules that would impose fiscal discipline on entitlement programs for middle- and low-income families but impose no discipline on new tax breaks for high-income families and corporations.

The budget won’t cut the deficit in half. The Administration attempts to wrap the budget in an aura of fiscal responsibility by claiming it will cut the deficit in half in five years. This claim is not credible. The budget omits approximately $160 billion in costs in 2009 — the fifth year — that the Administration itself favors and is expected to propose in future budgets.

The budget obscures the long-term deficits. By showing deficit numbers for only a five-year period, the budget conceals the marked worsening of the deficit expected under Administration policies in the second half of the coming decade.

Disproportionate emphasis on reducing domestic discretionary programs. The Administration singles out one relatively small part of the budget for tough treatment — domestic discretionary programs outside homeland security. These programs, which have had little to do with the recent rise in the deficit and are below historic average levels, measured as a share of the economy, would increase only 0.1 percent in 2005.

Posted by: anne on February 5, 2004 10:12 AM


Fellow prof has an excellent point. Don't moan educate. The WaPo should enroll Weisman in Collender's federal budget workshop. He would learn something and make connections to unbiased sources.

Posted by: bakho on February 5, 2004 10:23 AM


The unmitigated bullshit of the "access" consideration, as i'm hardly the first to note, is especially irrelevant to the coverage of fiscal policy. Read the documents; go to sources who study the budget. There is no need for access to the executive branch.

But of course, sadly, Zizka is only too right about the careerist principle in play.

Posted by: howard on February 5, 2004 10:50 AM


The thing about re-writing press releases is that one can do that with no access.

Has Weisman written anything useful [to us, not to the administration] which required access?

Posted by: Barry on February 5, 2004 11:18 AM


The Journal writers have multiple levels of backup and are subject to constant kibbitzing by an enormous institutional memory composed of all those who have covered these issues in the past and have decades of experience at figuring out what questions need to be asked and how to correct for White House spin.

Heeel-lo? Somebody is actually trying to claim the Washington Post has less experience covering the federal budget than the Wall Street Journal????

This is the Post's backyard, guys. They've got hundreds of thousands of readers who are deeply, passionately interested in how the federal government raises and spends money.

Any regular reader can tell you: The Post covers the federal budget the way my little hometown paper covers the local schools -- which is to say, wall to wall. And historically, the Post has done a reasonably good job -- as good or better than the WSJ anyway.

Posted by: Billmon on February 5, 2004 11:42 AM


Re Cal's area of discussion: This is the sadest
part of the excuses; that his access would be
affected by any vigorous truth telling.
Just sad, as Ross Perot used to say.

Posted by: Bartolo on February 5, 2004 12:04 PM


Billmon, i hate to disagree with you about anything, and i supposed part of the question is what you mean by "historically," but in my "historical" experience, i trust the WSJ news coverage of the budget far more than I trust the WaPo (or the NY Times).

Now, the WaPo may be better about the politics of the budget, and this may be your point, but in terms of the economics of the budget, i have to disagree....

Posted by: howard on February 5, 2004 12:24 PM


It seems to me the same situation as with "analysts" at investment banks, who were (are) pretty much reduced to repackaging corporate press releases and prospectuses as analysis product. Do some actual analysis and the CEO excludes you from the conference calls. There's no risk to going along with the pack and getting it wrong, 'cause hey everybody else did too.

Posted by: Fabio on February 5, 2004 12:44 PM


Changing the subject just slightly, the business sections of most newspapers (printed section) also include rehashes of a company's press release. Maybe newspapers have been getting away with it so long there, so they figured they could do it elsewhere?

Posted by: Andrew Boucher on February 5, 2004 12:45 PM


Newspaper and journalists should try to change their culture and operating principles; people like Karl Rove has become too good at manipulating them. This things happen after some time as skills progress. More, because the politic operatives have an enormous incentive to manipulate and the journalist only has a moderate incentive to not be manipulated, it's natural that one becomes much better than the other. A more partisan press could be an improvement in this, although it presents other problems.

Posted by: Carlos on February 5, 2004 12:49 PM


Those were a set of excuses emailed in to you, Brad, not reasons. And they were pretty lame excuses at that.

Posted by: MQ on February 5, 2004 01:05 PM


Just to reiterate in short form, I really don't think that there's an innocent explanation. I'm not talking about "a conspiracy". But I really think there's been a deliberate management choice to give the administration the benefit of the doubt, even though they shouldn't.

In non-controversial situations and the case of an organization with a reputation for honesty, reprintin a press release might be excusable. But even in that case, sometimes it's a mistake, and the more often it's done, the more likely it is that it will end up being a mistake.

Posted by: zizka / John Emerson on February 5, 2004 01:27 PM


I wrote a better column but my dog ate it.

Posted by: Jonathan Weisman on February 5, 2004 03:51 PM


Andrew B. -- Your point about the business pages is valid, almost. The typical retyped press-release will be a small blurb saying "Company X announced today that ..." so that it's clear to the reader that the content is what the company is saying, not the newspaper.

Then if you go to the actual press release, you'll see the standard caveat that the statement is forward-looking and may not be true...


Posted by: Angry Bear on February 5, 2004 03:57 PM


"He...had no idea how his email would actually look to readers."

Isn't that kind of an odd excuse for a guy who's a writer?

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