What’s wrong with MSM Opinion Pages ?

This is today’s topic largely because of an op-ed by Bret Stephens which is widely considered to be absolutely horrible. I haven’t read it. I want to bloviate about the issue and not just because I envy op-ed columnists.

I will write after the jump, because I don’t have anything to say really.

OK I have nothing to say at great length on two topics. One is what is wrong with high status main stream commentary, and one is what could be done better .

My views on the first are totally conventional blog standard complaints, which I have read on innumerable blogs and recently in a twitter thread which I can’t find. So I will get to the first topic last (after all have stopped reading I trust).

So my humble question is how should one edit an op-ed page. How should columnists be chosen. Now I think a first point is that op’ed pages might be better if the editors did much more work. The standard is to have a rotation of standard columnists with occasional op-eds by prominent outsiders. Few people are capable of writing 3 essays worth reading a week. I will just accept that opinion editors can’t (or shouldn’t) act like magazine editors and print a few articles each from many different authors. So I will accept as a rule of the game that a small number of people are hired to each write two or three columns a week. I find few of the current columnists worth reading. In contrast, I spend (waste) a huge amount of time reading blogs and much more reading tweets.

But how do I think they should be chosen (not that anyone asked). I’d start with two principles — best player available and fills a need. They will work out similarly in the end.

I’d say the first requirement is a good pundit has sound judgment based on knowledge, experience, and brains. The idea is that many people would benefit from their thoughts and advice. I think that there is only one way to judge judgment — wisdome after the fact. When there is a discussion of what is to be done, someone’s advice is followed and then there is a disaster, it is reasonable to reduce one’s estimate of that person’s judgment. It is reasonable to increase one’s evaluation of his or her judgment When the advice is followed and good results follow, or when the advice is ignored and the bad outcome that the person warned about occurs as he or she predicted.

This doesn’t sound impossibly hard. It is also absolutely clear that this procedure is not followed. In particular, it implies firing people for reasons other than misconduct. In practice, columnists seem to have tenure — it doesn’t matter how often they are wrong. I consider Hamilton College public policy course project in which students looked for predictions by commentators and then looked at outcomes. They found many prominent commentators performed less well than a tossed coin. Only one was almost always right — that was Paul Krugman of course. The results of the study are striking (of course Krugman pointed me to it) but it is more striking that it is plausibly presented as a new original approach.

Another valuable role is to introduce new thought provoking ideas. Here new doesn’t mean new to humanity, but new to the reader (or viewer). It’s fine for the columnist to read a lot, find something new to the columnist and write it up (maybe after interviewing the author). So again this is knowledge and judgment. Knowledge to know the idea is new to the discussion and judgment to know that it is worth considering. Finally, I found myself thinking of trusting experts when I first considered looking for reliable advice. Then I thought of academic macroeconomics. I think it is also valuable to have generalists who are smart enough to understand (self declared) experts, bold enough to question orthodoxies but not reflexively contrarian. Again, knowledge and critical judgment. Again, it is possible to assess a track record. A new idea is worthwhile if it provokes thought and this can be crudely measured by counting how often the column is cited.

This was all under the heading draft the best player available, but it already leads towards add the one who is needed because missing. The second and third desired traits — new ideas and questioning of orthodoxies, imply that someone different from the existing columnists is better (for roughly the same track record of judgment=. So the editor should seek a variety of views, none of which are demonstrably nonsense and all expressed by people who haven’t made fools of themselves.

It seems hard, but it also seems hard to do it as badly as it is done.

OK so the first question. What went wrong ? Why are so many blogs so much better ?

I think the main problem is affirmative action for conservatives. There is an idea that there should be a balance of liberals and conservatives and conservative activists argue that anyone who isn’t a movement conservative is a liberal. A problem is that the refs have been worked. One key aspect of this is that extremely rich people have significantly influenced the discussion with a tiny fraction of their wealth by founding and subsidizing conservative think tanks. These places (AEI, Heritage, Cato etc) appear to be research institutions and produce documents and presentations which look like research. However, the conclusions are decided in advance by the people who put up the money. I don’t think this is widely contested anymore (although many of the conservative critics of conservative think tanks are disgruntled ex employees who were fired for deviating from the orthodoxy).

The view that conservative columnists must be hired is absolutely explicit. The opinion editors defer to the conservative movement to choose prominent conservatives. They are selected based on reliable conservative orthodoxy. Some are smart thoughtful people, but they generally don’t remain conservative (Bruce Bartlett, Max Boot, Anne Applebaum, Jennifer Rubin, Michael Gerson, even David Frum has become interesting (note the whole axis of coining “axis of evil” right there).

Now there just aren’t conservatives with decent track records. I also don’t recall being exposed to a new and interesting conservative idea in the past 40 years (and before that they were new to me because of my ignorance).

I think another problem is that the commentary is on the news of the week. There are too many columns on the same issues. A final problem is that commentators work as opinionated reporters (William Safire’s self description) and buff sources just as beat reporters do.

But I think the main problem is the aim not for variety but for balance. The desire for different perspectives is a desire for someone who will argue in favor of Republicans. Socialists, fundamentalists, Leninists, anarchists and monarchists are not welcome. There must be a range and it must stretch all the way from the mainstream of the Democratic party to the mainstream of the Republican party.

Importantly, balance is measured relative to congressional delegations (or leadership). This means that on many issues, the median US adult is invisible because past the left edge of the Overton window. Most people in the USA want Social Security pensions and Medicare to be more generous. On the op-ed pages there was a debate between those who wanted to cut them and raise taxes and those who just wanted to cut them. I recall the debate on invading Iraq ranged from necessary immediately to worth trying other things first. The possibility of leaving Iraq as it was indefinitely was outside the range of acceptable opinion (it was also more dovish than the median view but not vastly so as about a third were of that view in polls). On the other hand, creationism is not welcome on op-ed pages even though polls show it is widespread (the belief of a large minority).

So balance is not among hypotheses not rejected by the data or opinions of people who don’t have terrible track records. And it is not balance compared to public opinion. It is based on a desire to speak power to truth. But really on the influence of a few rich men and the gains from working the refs.

But of course you all knew that, or you wouldn’t be here.