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Friday, September 26, 2003

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Here's a follow up on what I reported yesterday about the process of fact-checking and correcting columns at the New York Times. You'll recall yesterday I learned that Times columnists are responsible for their own fact-checking (that is, their facts are not checked at all -- they are just trusted to get them right) and for their own corrections (they decide what needs to be corrected, and they write any necessary corrections and append them to subsequent columns). This explains how Paul Krugman's columns can be so consistently riddled with errors, distortions and misquotations -- and yet there have been only two corrections in almost three years of columns.

Now I have learned that there is one correction process that operates independently of the columnist -- and that is letters to the editor. According to New York Times Company VP of Corporate Communications Catherine Mathis,

"The decision to publish a letter is made by the letters editor, in consultation with the editorial page editor. If a letter criticizes (or praises) a column, the columnist is given a copy and can inform the letters editor if he or she feels the letter is incorrect. But it isn't the columnist's decision as to whether the letter will run or not run."

This explains why, while Krugman rarely had the class to admit an error in his columns, there have been a number of letters (such as here, and here) that have pointed out his screw-ups. We seen that, at least in one case, the letters editor can significantly defang critical letters -- but at least they run.

So there is at least this one independent contact point with reality. Nevertheless, knowing now how the process works, I remain concerned that Krugman's columns (and the others at the Times and elsewhere that have come to imitate his style) represent an especially virulent form of the general corruption of newspaper journalism. While news stories have come to be infiltrated by subjective opinion and analysis not properly labeled as such, opinion columns have come to be places where news is revealed -- but without the layers of editing and other checks-and-balances that news stories get. In other words, with essentially no accountability.

Let me elaborate. Krugman's columns are more than just opinion. They frequently give what are represented as facts that are neither generally well established or otherwise reported in the Times. Sometimes these facts are simply presented as though they were determined by Krugman himself; other times they are attributed to various sources -- websites, other newspapers, magazines, think tanks, and so on. It's these apparent facts presented on the pages of the "newspaper of record" that give Krugman's columns such power, the power of going beyond just opinion. Yet these facts have not been quality-assured the same way as other facts presented in the Times. By reporting them there, though, Krugman effectively puts the imprimatur of the Times on whatever snippets he happens to have gleaned from marginal sources such as, Talking Points Memo, Vanity Fair, Washington Monthly, or Citizens for Tax Justice. It's a neat trick -- Krugman attains credibility by attributing his claimed facts to these independent sources, but they are only credible because Paul Krugman is quoting them in the New York Times.

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 1:47 AM | link  

Thursday, September 25, 2003

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In coaching Pat Buchanan to prepare for his confrontation with Paul Krugman on MSNBC's "Buchanan & Press," I suggested to the producer that the single most devastating question Buchanan could ask Krugman would be:

Does anyone fact-check your columns?

No matter what he answers, you can be shocked -- shocked!  "No? Do you mean to tell me that there's no reality check on all the wild allegations you make in your columns?" Or, "Yes? You mean there's someone who's supposed to be catching all these lies, errors, and misquotations?"

Buchanan didn't ask that question (he had his own devastating question: "Are you kidding?"). But I now know the true answer to it. The answer is "no." No one fact-checks Paul Krugman's column, or any other op-ed columns at the New York Times.

That's according to New York Times Company VP of Corporate Communications Catherine Mathis, a very nice lady whom I contacted while researching a piece I'm working on for the print edition of National Review. When I got her on the phone and explained what I was looking for she asked in a tone of surprise and innocence, "Do you mean there's something wrong with something that Paul Krugman has written?" I just said, "Hey, you obviously don't know who I am. There are only about a million things wrong. But right now I just want to know about the process." And here's what she was gracious enough to tell me.

According to Ms. Mathis, "Columnists are responsible for factchecking and correcting their own columns." So now we know the basic problem -- there's no reality check on Krugman. To say that a columnist fact-checks himself is to say that he is not fact-checked. At the very least that puts enormous pressure on the Times to hire columnists only of the highest integrity, self-discipline and intellectual rigor.

But it turns out it's not just the columnists. There's no reality check on anyone else either. Mathis says, "Unlike magazines, most newspapers, including The New York Times, do not employee factcheckers. This is mainly because of deadline issues. Reporters are responsible for the accuracy of their journalism. Editors review all material before it is printed and often catch errors prior to publication."

This statement strikes me as probably technically true but effectively disingenuous. The Times is famous for the multilayered editing process that a news story has to go through on the way to print. There may be no one in all those layers whose business card says "fact-checker," but in all that editing some real fact-checking certainly happens.

At least with news reporters, one discipline on the process is corrections. As the world learned in the Jayson Blair scandal, Times management tracks each reporter's correction record. Presumably reporters with high correction ratios would be subject to greater editorial scrutiny, even if it's not formally called "fact-checking." Here, Mathis has supplied me with the section of the Times' Manual of Style and Usage pertaining to corrections:

"Because its voice is loud and far-reaching, The Times recognizes an ethical responsibility to correct all its factual errors, large and small (even misspellings of names), promptly and in a prominent reserved space in the paper. A correction serves all readers, not just those who were injured or who complained, so it must be self-explanatory, tersely recalling the context and the background while repairing the error.

"A complaint from any source should be relayed to a responsible editor and investigated quickly. If a correction is warranted, it should follow immediately. In the rare case of a delay longer than a month, the correction should include an explanation (saying, for example, how recently the error was discovered, or why the checking took so long). If the justification is lame or lacking, the correction should acknowledge a reporting or editing lapse...

"Seldom should a correction try to place blame or deflect it outside The Times; the effort might appear defensive or insincere. But when an error has occurred under the byline or credit of a blameless staff member or news agency, the correction may cite an editing error or a transmission error. And if The Times has been misinformed by an institution or a reference work that should have been authoritative, the error may be attributed: ' included an erroneous profit figure from the company's annual report.' Note, though, that the attribution is light-handed, and given in passing (not, for example, 'Because of erroneous information from the Karitsa Company')."

Yet this rigorous process does not apply to columnists. I can only think of one correction of a Krugman column in the Times' Corrections section -- and one other that got a retraction appended to the end of a Krugman column. Where do corrections for op-eds go, and who decides whether to make them?

Ms. Mathis says, "Corrections of columns appear at the end of the columns. That seems to us most appropriate since the people who read the original piece are most likely to see them there."

She continues, "The columnists are responsible for correcting their errors, and for the wording of those corrections. We obviously expect them to do so fully. When our editors are aware that something in a column has been challenged as factually incorrect, they discuss it with the columnist. In the event that we had an irreconcilable difference with a columnist about a correction issue, we would take it to the publisher." I can just see that -- Paul Krugman and Gail Collins can't agree so they take it to Arthur Sulzberger Jr. as a tie-breaker?

That leaves the only potentially somewhat independent source of corrections for columns being the Letters section. There are numerous examples of letters correcting Krugman's screw-ups (such as here, and here) -- but these don't have the force of officially acknowledged "corrections" of an admitted error: they're just equal time for another view. I've asked Ms. Mathis for more details on how letters get chosen for publication, and whether the columnist is involved in that decision. As soon as I find out, so will you.

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 12:14 AM | link  

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

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Lord knows what possessed Paul Krugman to go on live TV against conservative pundit Pat Buchanan on MSNBC's "Buchanan and Press" Monday. He must have known Buchanan wouldn't have treated him the way the rest of the media has, as he's tooled around the country promoting The Great Unraveling. Most interviewers simply ask him leading questions that allow him to say whatever he wants to say -- essentially unchallenged by any follow-ups or criticisms. Liberal bias of the press? Maybe... or perhaps the interviewers simply want to let a guest, particularly a book author, tell his own story his own way. But Buchanan was obviously spoiling for a fight -- in fact his producer asked me to provide some intellectual ammunition for him, which I happily did. I wish he'd used it -- instead he pretty much just improvised, and so this debate is pretty weak. But it's worth it just to hear Krugman whine "I thought we were going to have a discussion here..." Of course that means "I thought I was going to do all the talking." Anyway, if nothing else, enjoy Krugman's discomfort. Here are the best parts, and here's the whole transcript.

BUCHANAN: All right, Mr. Krugman, in your -- page five of your book you talked about us facing revolutionary power like Robespierre's reign of terror and the Third Reich.

KRUGMAN: I never said that.

BUCHANAN: I wonder -- well, you said totalitarian regimes of the 1930ís and only one came into existence...


BUCHANAN: ... in the 1930ís that I am aware of...

KRUGMAN: Well...

BUCHANAN: ... who are you talking about? Because I followed on the next page and you mention the Heritage Foundation, and what I want to know is are you serious?

KRUGMAN: Come on, if you actually read what I said there, I said that Kissinger was drawing parallels about the difference -- the quote from Henry Kissinger that I rely on was drawing parallels between the difficulties that established regimes accustomed to stability have in dealing with powers that really are out there to change the system, that donít accept...

BUCHANAN: Revolutionary powers.

KRUGMAN: Thatís right. And it doesnít -- I also say thereís not a moral equivalence. So donít try and throw me...

BUCHANAN: All right...

KRUGMAN: ... on the defensive here.

BUCHANAN: All right...

KRUGMAN: These are very radical people.

BUCHANAN: Whoís radical? You mentioned Grover Norquist...


BUCHANAN: Are you serious?


BUCHANAN: I mean youíre talking about the Third Reich in Robespierre and Grover Norquist?

KRUGMAN: Is that really the best you can do, Mr. Buchanan?

BUCHANAN: No, is that the best you can do?


KRUGMAN: No. Come on...

BUCHANAN: You mentioned Norquist, I didnít.

KRUGMAN: ... letís not try to pretend the book is saying something it doesnít. Right.

BUCHANAN: Did you mention Norquist?

KRUGMAN: I said very clearly that itís not about moral equivalence. What it is about is that these are very radical people. When Grover Norquist, the most powerful lobbyist in Washington is closely associated...

BUCHANAN: You have to be kidding.


BUCHANAN: The most powerful lobbyist...

KRUGMAN: All right...

BUCHANAN: Have you heard of the NRA? Have you heard of APAC [ph.]?

KRUGMAN: Come on -- closely associated with the Republican leadership says that his goal is to shrink the U.S. government down to a size where you can drown it in the bathtub. Then you know that something very drastic is happening and that all...

BUCHANAN: All right...

KRUGMAN: ... of the pretense of moderation, compassionate conservatism is just not the real thing.

BUCHANAN: All right, Mr. Krugman, I donít care if Grover Norquist says he wants to get this down to the U.S. post office and get rid of the entire federal government. Bill knows, I know, everybody in this town knows that Grover Norquist is the guy who runs around with a tax-no new taxes pledge, some people sign it, some people donít. He has no real power in this town and for you to talk about revolutionary power and then use terms like the Heritage Foundation, moderate conservative and Grover Norquist...

KRUGMAN: Oh my God...

BUCHANAN: ... the tax cutter, is a little absurd.

KRUGMAN: Well, all right. Letís-you know, I thought we were going to have a discussion here...

BUCHANAN: ...Let me ask you this, though, Mr. Krugman, youíre very good at attacking Mr. Bush as he lies, he distorts, et cetera. Let me ask you about your personal situation. You took $50,000 from Enron while sitting on an advisory board for Enron and writing...

KRUGMAN: Oh God...

BUCHANAN: ... Fortune magazine...

KRUGMAN: I wrote a piece...

BUCHANAN: Is that true?

KRUGMAN: Yes, I wrote a piece saying the markets were great using Enron as an example and declared the connection. Now, look, I was a pretty highly paid business consultant speaker in those years. I was not writing for The New York Times. William Kristol of The Weekly Standard was on that board...


KRUGMAN: ... for two years, received $100,000. This was not -- gain, Iím really kind of disappointed. Is this really the best you can do?


KRUGMAN: Canít we talk about the substance of your arguments?


KRUGMAN: Did I ever...

BUCHANAN: ... you go after peopleís character and motives and he lies and he distorts and so and so. Grover Norquist is a revolutionary and Heritage Foundation...

KRUGMAN: Well...

BUCHANAN: I think we can call you on some of these. Would you apologize right now for writing that piece on Enron when youíre getting $50,000, when you see how those folks got...

KRUGMAN: When the piece begins by saying full disclosure, Iím a member of an Enron advisory committee and then I said, gee, itís really interesting. I went there and saw the market at work. OK, this is -- by the way, this is one of the points I make in the book. The response of these people to substantive criticism of their policies is to send the attack dogs after the critics.


BUCHANAN: When you call people liars...

PRESS: I want to follow up on that...

BUCHANAN: ... thatís not substantive criticism.

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 1:02 AM | link  

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

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At last, a truth-telling and deeply perceptive review of Paul Krugman's The Great Unraveling. It's in today's New York Sun -- it's not easily available on the web, so I reprint it here in it's entirety (with permission).

Every word is right on. It's hard to isolate a single "money graph." Perhaps it's this, in which Russ Smith captures the essence of the Krugman phenomenon -- the platforming of irresponsible partisan flamethrowing in a context of great authority and respectability:

"It is important, however, to examine this filthy book if only to expose the thought process of an extremist who, inexplicably, is given free reign to spread propaganda in a powerful institution that was once considered 'The Paper of Record.'"

Savor the whole thing... here it is. (And thanks to Russ Smith for the terrific plug at the end.)

The Collected Works of a Paranoid Crank
By Russ Smith
Mr. Smith writes weekly columns for New York Press and Baltimore's City Paper.

Paul Krugman, an economist who teaches at Princeton University, is a crank.

Ordinarily, this wouldn't be particularly significant: Academia, notably at the elite institutions, is littered with Mr. Krugman's ilk. Isolated from the real world and worshipped by impressionable young men and women, professors collectively form a base of the Democratic Party that's as potent, in rhetoric if not fundraising, as the country's unions, trial lawyers, and the vast majority of Hollywood celebrities.

But Mr. Krugman is one of the most influential left-wing critics of the Bush administration. Thanks to Howell Raines, he has a twice-weekly op-ed column in the New York Times. Maureen Dowd, a colleague of his on that page, isn't nearly as consequential because her own column is all off-the-cuff fluff, a primer in pop culture that almost makes another Times staple, Frank Rich, seem serious.

Foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman ó who ought to reacquaint himself with The Lovin' Spoonful's 1960s hit "Did You Ever Have to Make Up Your Mind" ó appears as moderate as the Washington Post's David Broder compared to Mr. Krugman. The less said about Bob Herbert, the better. And the paper's newest pundit, the ubiquitous David Brooks, the "conservative" who's presentable to liberals, is intent on becoming this generation's Gail Sheehy.

Currently, in addition to braying about President Bush's tax cuts, the "quagmire" of Iraq, the "conspiracy" of conservatives to subvert the Founding Fathers' intentions, and the relative insignificance of September 11, 2001, Mr. Krugman is flogging a collection of his columns, "The Great Unraveling." It's as dishonest a book I've read in several years, and I've read books by Michael Moore, Al Franken, and Eric Alterman.

My natural inclination would be to suppose that a professor, as opposed to a faux-populist filmmaker like Mr. Moore, might at least, regardless of political convictions, write with a modicum of sophistication. But that's not the case with "The Great Unraveling," one long diatribe that asserts that most Republicans, including Mr. Bush and his entire administration, are solely interested in lining the pockets of wealthy Americans and exploiting patriotism for political gain.

The book is remarkable not only for its paranoia ó you get the feeling that Mr. Krugman is veering toward being institutionalized lest he harm himself ó but its simplistic sloganeering. If this was the work of one of his students, a reader would dismiss it as youthful exuberance, however misguided, but coming from a national columnist who's taken seriously by a vast number of politicians, lobbyists, and readers, it's fairly alarming.

Fortunately, even a perch at the New York Times doesn't have the panache of, say, Mr. Franken's status as a famous comedian, so it's likely "The Great Unraveling" will be in remainder bins by Thanksgiving.

It is important, however, to examine this filthy book if only to expose the thought process of an extremist who, inexplicably, is given free reign to spread propaganda in a powerful institution that was once considered "The Paper of Record."

Mr. Krugman believes President Bush and his subordinates have transformed American politics, imposing an agenda ó he harps on tax cuts throughout the book ó that would have toppled previous administrations.

In the book's introduction, he writes: "Why don't the usual [political] rules apply? Because a revolutionary power, which does not regard the existing system as legitimate, doesn't feel obliged to play by the rules. Are there hints of scandal regarding administration personnel? No matter: Fox News, the Washington Times, and the New York Post won't follow up on the story ó instead they'll harass other media outlets if they try to make it an issue."

This statement is clearly delusional. Does Mr. Krugman really believe that Fox News, although the leader in cable television ratings, is more influential than its network counterparts CBS, NBC, and ABC, which reach far more households? That the Washington Times, with a circulation that's minuscule compared to The Washington Post, is the first read in the nation's capital? Or that the Post, an entertaining tabloid that's published in the same city as the New York Times, really intimidates "other media outlets"?

Mr. Krugman's enormous ego is on display throughout "The Great Unraveling." In the introduction to his "Fuzzy Math" chapter, he predicts the United States will soon, because of Mr. Bush's fiscal incompetence, enter a "Latin American-style financial crisis." He adds: "You read it here first."

He also claims his columns have more validity because he's not a Beltway media insider afraid to cross the administration. "I'm not part of the gang," he says, "I work from central New Jersey, and continue to live the life of a college professor, so I never bought into the shared assumptions." It must come as a surprise to liberal commentators like E.J. Dionne,

Thomas Oliphant, Richard Cohen, Ms. Dowd, and Albert Hunt that they are GOP lackeys.

But Mr. Krugman's relative isolation ó Princeton is just an hour away from New York ó might explain his callous reaction to the terrorist murders of September 11. Sure, several thousand people died, but for Mr. Krugman that cataclysmic event ó which has unquestionably defined not only Mr. Bush's presidency but the early 21st century as well ó pales in comparison to corporate scandals.

In a January 29, 2002 column ó not reprinted in his book ó Mr. Krugman rubbed his crystal ball and came up with the following whopper. "One of the great clichťs of the last few months was that September 11 changed everything. I never believed that. Ö I predict in the years ahead Enron, not September 11, will come to be seen as the greater turning point in U.S. society."

Six months later, in a June 28 piece, he altered his "prediction" to "suggestion" about Enron, but then added triumphantly, after the WorldCom and Adelphia scandals emerged, "Does that sound so implausible today?"

Yes, it does. First, if Enron was the key event of the Bush administration, exposing the president and his supporters as reverse Robin Hoods, you'd have thought the Democrats, rather than the Republicans, would've swept the midterm elections of 2002. In addition, Mr. Krugman apparently believes that the Enron scandal was the first of its kind. It's telling that his book's index doesn't include the names Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, or anything about the savings and loan meltdown in the 1980s.

Actually, excerpts from "The Great Unraveling" ought to be used in President Bush's direct-mail effort in his reelection campaign. Mr. Krugman's November 22, 2002 column (talk about cynical) is about nepotism and cites the Bush brothers, Bill Kristol, John Podhoretz, Eugene Scalia, and Janet Rehnquist as prime examples of ciphers who return nothing to society. He writes: "It wasn't always thus. The influential dynasties of the 20th century, like the Kennedys, the Rockefellers, and, yes, the Sulzbergers, faced a public suspicious of inherited position; they overcame that suspicion by demonstrating a strong sense of noblesse oblige, justifying their existence by standing for high principles."

Perhaps Mr. Krugman thinks that Senator Edward Kennedy's character assassination of Robert Bork was "high principle"; or that Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who like his father is notorious for personal scandals, has contributed something to Congress other than raising money for fellow Democrats.

I can't go on describing Mr. Krugman's lies, fanaticism, and contempt for other Americans without becoming physically ill. But here's one more sample of his Bush-bashing: "So how did we end up being ruled by these people?" he asks. Blame it on "the increasing manipulation of the media and the political process by lavishly funded rightwing groups. Yes, Virginia, there is a vast right-wing conspiracy."

Finally, Mr. Krugman's vitriol is at least challenged on a regular basis by Donald Luskin (chief investment officer at Trend Macrolytics LLC) with his "Krugman Truth Squad" column, which appears on the National Review's web site. If you must subject yourself to Mr. Krugman's ravings, at least Mr. Luskin provides a powerful antidote.

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 9:19 AM | link  

Sunday, September 21, 2003

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Several readers have pointed out this interview with Paul Krugman in the UK newspaper The Guardian. In the flooded zone of recent Krugman interviews, this one stands out on several counts. Who else but the ultra-leftist Guardian could say of Krugman that he

"...isn't a loudmouthed lefty radical in the manner of Michael Moore, but a mild-mannered, not-very-leftwing, university economist..."

The Guardian's lead paragraph suggests that he is so important that he gets enough death-threats to justify the New York Times paying someone to spare him from having to see them.

"The letters that Paul Krugman receives these days have to be picked up with tongs, and his employer pays someone to delete the death threats from his email inbox. ...'I can't say I never get rattled,' the gnomish, bearded 50-year-old Princeton University professor says a little hesitantly, looking every inch the ivory-tower thinker he might once have expected to be. 'When it gets personal, I do get rattled.'"

Perhaps the Times justifies the expense of a death threat deleter by having the same person also delete criticisms and demands for corrections and retractions so that Krugman's editors don't have to see them. But what the heck -- with the money they save by not fact-checking Krugman's columns, I guess they can afford a full-time email whipping boy to take the heat for him (and make him feel oh so important).

True Krugmanologists will have noticed the description of Krugman in the lead paragraph as "gnomish" -- in contrast to "gnomishly handsome," as Newsweek described him in 1996. Odd that The Guardian also says he looks "every inch the ivory-tower thinker" -- that would seem to mean that he's not much of an ivory tower thinker, since "gnomish" people don't look very many inches of anything.

Posted by Donald L. Luskin at 11:12 PM | link