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June 02, 2005

Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (Jonathan Chait No Like Danny Okrent Department)

Chait writes:

The New Republic Online: etc.: OKRENT'S LAST WORD: I didn't think Daniel Okrent, the departing New York Times public editor, could get any more cowardly. But he just did.

If you didn't notice, Okrent included in his final Times column a parting shot at columnist Paul Krugman and two other Times columnists. Okrent wrote, 'Op-Ed columnist Paul Krugman has the disturbing habit of shaping, slicing and selectively citing numbers in a fashion that pleases his acolytes but leaves him open to substantive assaults.' Okrent declined to offer a single example of such slicing and dicing, or even to expound upon his accusation in any way. By way of explanation, he wrote: 'I didn't give Krugman, Dowd or Safire the chance to respond before writing the last two paragraphs. I decided to impersonate an opinion columnist.'

This is, of course, a shockingly dumb explanation. No, op-ed columnists don't give their targets a chance to respond. But they do make some effort to substantiate their claims. Krugman wouldn't write that President Bush told a lie in a recent speech and leave it at that. He would pass on to the readers what Bush said and explain why he felt it was a lie. Is Okrent really so dim that he couldn't grasp this point?

Maybe, but more likely he doesn't have the guts to do it. In an online debate, Krugman pressed Okrent to substantiate his accusation. You can read the debate here. It's truly pathetic. Krugman explains why Okrent's accusations were wrong, and Okrent repeatedly dodges the substance.

For instance, Okrent writes, 'His 5/9/05 column on progressive indexing. The column itself (without the ex post facto explanation) suggestively conflates 'retirement income' and 'social security benefits' without sufficient explanation, but with plenty of apparent point-making.'

Krugman replies:

I explained that the term 'retirement income' normally refers to income from all sources, not just Social Security benefits (the Social Security Administration says on its Web site that 'you should not count only on Social Security for your retirement income.') I supplied him with a study (pdf) that used Social Security Administration data to show that because high-income workers depend much less than middle-income workers on Social Security, they would have smaller percentage cuts in overall retirement income than middle-income workers. This was similar to a point I made, using different data, a week earlier (5/1/05), so I was surprised that Mr. Okrent even raised the issue.

So Okrent simply launches even more personal attacks. For instance, he writes: 'For a man who makes his living offering strong opinions, Paul Krugman seems peculiarly reluctant to grant the same privilege to others. And for a man who leads with his chin twice a week, he acts awfully surprised when someone takes a pop at it.'

But of course Krugman didn't challenge Okrent's right to disagree with him, only his right to launch unsubstantiated attacks on his integrity.

The sneakiest thing in Okrent's latest entry is this:

Believe me--I could go on, as could a number of readers more sophisticated about economic matters than I am. (Among these are several who, like me, generally align themselves politically with Prof. Krugman, but feel he does himself and his cause no good when he heeds the roaring approval of his acolytes and dismisses his critics as ideologically motivated.)

Note what's going on here. First, Okrent implies that there are lots of examples of Krugman abusing data but declines to provide them. Next, he conflates that accusation with a completely different one--that Krugman plays to his liberal base and dismisses those who disagree too easily. I think there's some truth to the latter criticism. But that's a completely different accusation. Being too ideological or partisan is a common flaw among pundits, and it's in the eye of the beholder. Manipulating data is far more serious. Readers can judge for themselves if Krugman is playing to the liberal crowd. They can't judge whether he's using numbers dishonestly. To say he does so is to tell readers they can't trust him.

Okrent continues on with other snide remarks, including this parting shot: 'If he replies to this statement, as I imagine he will, I'll let him have what he always insists on keeping for himself: the last word. I hate to do this to a decent man like my successor, Barney Calame, but I'm hereby turning the Krugman beat over to him.' Look, many journalists have been in the position of wanting to dodge a reader who harbors a burning desire to debate some obscure point and lots of time on his hands. But Krugman isn't some crank, and he's not debating some obscure point. Okrent smeared him in his own newspaper, and he has a right to clear his name.

I'm not saying there are no quarrels that anybody could ever make with any of Krugman's data. He deals with very complicated questions in a very small space. He simply can't devote endless technical paragraphs to establishing his every premise. (That's why I happen to think his recent series of columns on health care, which allowed him to develop his thoughts at greater length without rushing through his premises, have been his best ones.) So Krugman can't chase every rabbit down every hole, but given the constraints of his column, he does a very good job. Okrent ought to be ashamed of himself.

Posted by DeLong at June 2, 2005 11:26 AM