Paul Krugman writes:
The Good Web: Jonathan Chait mocks Robert Samuelson for his column lamenting the rise of the Internet. I don’t especially want to pile on…
But even though he does not want to, and resists mightily, in the end he is compelled by an irresistible force to do so:
The effect of the Internet on the quality of reporting… has been overwhelmingly positive…. Economics reporting in the pre-Internet era… was terrible…. Reporters and pundits often knew little economics…. A reporter or pundit could say something that everyone who knew anything about the subject realized was all wrong, but those with better knowledge had no way of getting that knowledge out in real time. Let me give an example. A couple of years ago [Robert] Samuelson dismissed the relevance of Keynes, because conditions have changed; these days we have lots of debt, whereas:
When Keynes wrote “The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money” in the mid-1930s, governments in most wealthy nations were relatively small and their debts modest….
In the pre-Internet era, an assertion like that would simply have sat there; economists would complain about it in the coffee room, but that would be it. In this case, however, the whole econoblogosphere… point[ed] out that Britain’s debt/GDP ratio in the 30s was actually much higher than it is today…. Real journalists… benefit…. It’s true that there’s a lot of misinformation out there on the web; but is it any worse than the misinformation people used to get from other sources? I don’t think so…
And I have to pass the microphone again to Jonathan Chait:
Typewriter-Hoarding Pundit Robert Samuelson Hates Internet: Sunday’s column… strikes right at… the cyberterror he already experiences every day…. Writing a weekly newspaper column was never a demanding job…. The easy availability of information now… dramatically increases potential output. Yet Samuelson churns out his same two columns a week, and while he senses his influence has fallen into eclipse, he attributes it not to the rise of very smart, hardworking economic policy writers who vastly surpass him in quantity and quality but to a general reduction of standards….
Samuelson has spent 30 years lecturing Americans threatened by competition that they should suck it up. Only now, in the twilight of his career, does he see himself among them, and his response to this misfortune… is to wish… competition out of existence. The most portentous Samuelson sermon of all may be one he wrote in 1986…. "A little insecurity is better than false overconfidence…. The myth that the [steel] industry was simply the victim of broader problems caused by others distracted labor and management from dealing with their own shortcomings. There's a lesson here for everyone." A lesson for everyone, that is, but Robert Samuelson.
From my perspective, the most remarkable part of it is this from Robert Samuelson's:
The news isn’t free: The sudden sale of The Washington Post, controlled by the Graham family since 1933…. I watched uneasily…. Still, the reckoning came earlier than expected. When someone e-mailed me news of the Bezos sale, my first reaction was: hoax. It was inconceivable that Don Graham, a fierce believer in the worth of independent journalism and (incidentally) a friend since college, would sell. Promoting and protecting The Post is who he is. More selfishly, writing for The Post is who I am…. Under the Grahams, journalism is more than a job; it’s a mission in truth-telling. This feeling is admittedly self-important and pretentious. Still, it’s real and now feels threatened.
Right now, the Washington Post has a value of zero as a business proposition--it is a money sink, not a money source. It has value to a plutocrat who has other interests for which there is a need for somebody to run political interference (cough the Grahams and their Stanley Kaplan University) or for someone who wants to undertake the Post's stewardship as a philanthropic mission--which is what Jeff Bezos is going to do as he pumps his perhaps billion into it.
If Donald Graham were who Robert Samuelson purports to believe he is, he wouldn't have taken $250 million from Jeff Bezos for the Post: he would have given the Post to Bezos for free, or at the very least taken the $250 million and put it in a Foundation for Journalistic Excellence. If journalism were a mission rather than a job, Graham would have said: "Hey. We want to maximize the chances that you will succeed in saving this thing. So take this $250 million you were going to pay us and add it to the pot you are now wiling to risk in order to give yourself a better chance." Samuelson thought that it was inconceivable that Graham, his "friend since college", would sell--that he wasn't the kind of guy who would jump at the prospect of getting $250 million for something with no cash value. He had little insight.
Would that Robert Samuelson's knowledge of economics had been greater than his knowledge of his "friend since college"! Then his columns might have been worth reading over the past generation.