Economic Crisis, Meet the Press

Question: MARK THOMA, ECONOMIST’S VIEW: How do the editorial and news divisions of the Wall Street Journal influence coverage?

David Wessel: Most newspapers have a wall between the news side and the editorial side.  What makes the Wall Street Journal different is that our wall is very high and it has barbed wire on the top.  I long ago came to terms with the fact that the edit page has its views and sometimes its own facts, and they’re different from the facts that I see.  I don’t worry about it.  I do my best to explain to our sources in Washington that we do our thing and they do theirs and the fact that we’ve been successful in covering Presidents with views as different as Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton suggest to me that here in Washington, people get it.  It’s a bigger problem overseas because the editorial views of newspapers tend to affect their news sides more; papers are more partisan, so sometimes that is hard to explain to foreigners.  One thing I will say is that a lot has changed at the Wall Street Journal since Rupert Murdock bought the company, but that thing hasn’t.  I don’t care what the edit page says, and I don’t think they care what I say and there’s very little interchange of ideas between us.  We see each other in the men’s room or on the basketball court, sometimes we sit down with the same policy maker to have a conversation, but I just don’t worry about it and I think the readers are lucky.  They get two newspapers for the price of one. 

The Wall Street Journal has many constituencies.  There are a set of people who buy the Wall Street Journal because they like the editorial page and they like to read what the editorial page has to say about the issues of the day.  There’s a constituency of people who are in business and who want to know what’s happening to their competition, what’s happening to their economy, the dry cleaner in Peoria who wants a sense of how’s business.  But I think more, and more, there are people who read the Wall Street Journal because they want a good well-rounded newspaper and other newspapers have been forced to shrink more than we have so that we always had strong political coverage.  We covered the civil rights crisis in the ‘60’s, with unusual vigor.  And in the years since then, the paper has become broader, not narrower. 

The first section of the paper now is largely general news, not business and finance.  So, I think like any successful newspaper, we have to accept that we have many constituencies, some of them reading us only online or on their Blackberry’s, and our only way to survive as a viable institution is to do enough for each of them so they buy the paper and then they get the rest of the stuff that they don’t want. 

Question: What are some of the really important economic blogs?

David Wessel:  I look at Calculated Risk.  I look at Greg Mankiw's blog.  I look at Brad DeLong's blog.  I look at Paul Krugman's blog for the stuff that's not in the New York Times when he puts online.  Simon Johnson and his friend do one called Baseline Scenario that's good.  I've learned a lot to rely on Twitter in a way because what Twitter does is someone notices something interesting on a blog that I don't normally read but it's on the subject that I like to know something about.  So I don't have an RSS feed so I don't like look at 50 things a day but those are the ones that I do and then we have our own, Realtime Economics, and I spend substantial time making sure that we have some interesting stuff up there.

I think the danger here is very real though, that blogs and cable TV become a way for people to get their prejudices confirmed.  If you believe that John Kerry really won the presidential election, you can find some blog that says oh yeah that's what happened and it had to do with faulty voting machines.  And if you believe that Barack Obama was really born in Kenya you can find a blog to say that.  What I worry about is if people go to the Internet and get their prejudices confirmed that the role of people like reporters at the Wall Street Journal who are trying to check out the rumor before they print it or post it gets diminished and in the worst case the profits go to people at the extremes, to MSNBC on one side and Fox on the other and there are fewer profits for people in the middle who are trying to do what used to be called fair and balance journalism.

I don't think it so much restrains a better part of valor, it's that if you put something on your website or in your newspaper you ought to have reason to believe it's true.  And it's very hard for us when people complain, "You didn't report this thing that I read on XYZ Website."  We can say, "Actually we did look into it.  We found out it wasn't true, so we didn't put it on our site."  In the old days, that would meant that no one heard about it except the people who are on the inside.  Today, it's like everybody knows it.  Everybody knows things that are not true because they can read it on the Internet.

I hope that what will happen is that there will be so much information overload that people will once again realize that some sites are more credible than others and they will turn to those to be mediators between themselves and the whole flood of news.  I mean, most of us do not need the news media to tell us about the things that we do every day; I don't need to read my local newspaper to discover that a tree fell in front of my house, but what I rely on the media to do is to tell me the things that I need to know that I didn't see myself.  People tend to be very critical when there's a story written in the newspaper about a meeting they were at or a subject they know well and they say, "I was at that meeting..." or "I know that subject and this reporter doesn't get it."  That then challenges the credibility of everything else they read in that publication.

Well I'm hoping that works in reverse.  That when they read for the fifteenth time on some website something about Barack Obama that isn't true, that they'll begin to think, "Well this is entertaining but it's not true and I'd rather go to some mainstream media site or some credible new stream media site to give me the truth."  But we're not at that point yet, so it's a little bit frightening.

Question: To what degree did economics bloggers influence coverage of the crisis?

David Wessel: I think there’s a long term trend here that people who work for traditional media, like the Wall Street Journal, are both blogging themselves and reading blogs to get new and different ideas, or net and different takes, or smart analysis on what’s going on.  I think actually, that became more important during the crisis than to the run up.  But it does provide an important monitor and check on the mainstream press willing to go with the flow. 

I think one of the lessons I learned is that if things are going fine and 9 out of 10 experts say that everything’s going to be okay, and one says that we’re cruising for a bruising that our coverage should not be 90% positive and 10% negative.  We really have to listen harder to that 10%.  And sometimes the way you find those 10%, the way you get a critical read on their views, is to read what they’re blogging and what other bloggers say on them.  So, I think it played a role and I think it well play a much bigger role in the future. 

Recorded on November 20, 2009

The media’s coverage of the financial meltdown is often cited as irresponsible and biased. David Wessel weighs in on the balance between editorial and news during a time of chaos. This series was made possible by the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation.

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.