Debating The Economist

For those of you who haven’t be following, the blogosphere discussion/debate about the virtues and vices of the Economist has been drawing more and more voices into its ambit. (Donning the persona of Rudolph Hilferding, a younger Rudolph Hilferding, I suppose, I asked on a post on the Economist over at Crooked Timber, what else would we expect from the unofficial mouthpiece of international finance capital. As long as we remember its biases in full, meaning what it is likely to do to set up a story, what assumptions it makes, what relevant factors it will not consider, and filter them, the magazine is not a bad one. It’s not as good as it can be and, as DeLong rightly suggests, certainly not as good as the FT.)

Tom Scocca’s advice to Time that it not try to emulate the Economist and, especially, Henry Farrell’s spot on description of its tone seems to have started the discussion. Scocca:

The Economist is less provocative than it is aggressively boring: “The last time he ran for president John McCain spent months rolling around New Hampshire in a bus, the Straight Talk Express.” “In the absence of reliable, up-to-date information, markets go awry.” The layout is even duller—thick columns of type wrapping from page to page, like a cross between the old New Republic and the telephone book. The back page is filled with currency tables (for those who would convert the 16 different cover prices longhand). The only nod to magazine aesthetics is the sheen of the paper stock.

Stupefaction is its own form of power. “When a Garuda Indonesia airliner crashed and burst into flames at Yogyakarta airport in central Java on March 7th it naturally saddened the nation.”

Taken seriously, the content becomes inscrutable. A dispatch about Cote d’Ivoire declares that a peace agreement had settled the “vital” issue of “identification”: “Millions of Ivorians do not have identity papers, so northerners like [rebel leader Guillaume] Soro and his fighters have been obstructed from getting the Ivorian citizenship that is rightfully theirs.” Are identity papers the same thing as citizenship? How did millions of people come to be without them? The story, unperturbed, moves on, like a scene from a commuter-train window.

The audience for this is not people who care about the world, but people who believe it is important to care about the world. When other magazines say they want to be like The Economist, they do not mean they wish to be serious. They mean they wish, by whatever means, to be taken seriously.

If you think that’s harsh, here’s DeLong:

As a longtime reader of the Economist, let me just say that in the past six years I have come to the conclusion that in five important issue areas–U.S. politics, U.S. economics, finance (U.S. and global), Middle Eastern politics, and African politics–anything the Economist states that I did not already know is likely to be wrong. That’s a terrible thing to have happened.

But I think Henry Farrell’s resurrection of James Fallows on the Economist is what has really gotten people going, especially of this description by Fallows:

The other ugly English trait promoting The Economist’s success in America is the Oxford Union argumentative style. At its epitome, it involves a stance so cocksure of its rightness and superiority that it would be a shame to freight it with mere fact.

American debate contests involve grinding, yearlong concentration on one doughy issue, like arms control. The forte of Oxford-style debate is to be able to sound certain and convincing about a topic pulled out of the air a few minutes before, such as “Resolved: That women are not the fairer sex.” (The BBC radio shows “My Word” and “My Music,” carried on National Public Radio, give a sample of the desired impromptu glibness.)

Economist leaders and the covers that trumpet their message offer Americans a blast of this style. Michael Kinsley, who once worked at The Economist, wrote that the standard Economist leader gives you the feeling that the writer started out knowing that three steps must be taken immediately — and then tried to think what the steps should be.

In response to that Economist staffer Lane Greene answers back:

I’ll resist the urge to answer most of the criticisms here; the only one I’ll respond to is our oft-cited condescension and snobbishness. What bothers me about this is the assumption that a million readers are idiots, or are masochists who enjoy being condescended to by a bunch of upper-class English twits. Who is really condescending here? Us, or James Fallows, Henry Farrell and Tom Scocca, who are think that we’ve somehow snookered these million fools with nothing more than a bit of Oxford-Union sneer? If you think our readers are stupid, that is your right. We rather respect and like them.

But it is Henry Farrell’s response to this which I think gets to the heart of the matter (the whole comments describes one case that illustrates how the Economist journalistically falls short).

(There’s also a discussion over at the Economist’s own blog.)