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Basic Journamalism: David Brooks Once Again

Columbia Journalism School 701: Highly Advanced Journamalism

**UPDATE January 17, 2012:** Bree Nordenson emails that the email sent me signed by her was actually written by Mark Mitchell:

[F]ive years or so ago I wrote an article about Paul Krugman and David Brooks for what was then CJRDaily. Anyway, it was not a pretty incident. I had just graduated and taken a position at CJR the magazine and I occasionally wrote for the Daily. I wrote a piece about how Krugman and Brooks used statistics and it was significantly re-written with inflammatory language ("partisan slipperiness" etc) and posted by then assistant editor of CJR Daily Mark Mitchell (he left/was let go a few months afterwards, along with the editor). Anyway, I just googled myself for the first time in ages (I am no longer in journalism, probably for many of the reasons you do not like the press) and saw that you posted a letter that is attributed to me but that was actually written and sent to you by Mark Mitchell. I would never have written anything like that– smug, self-righeous etc (very similar to how Mark changed the original piece). If possible, it would be great if your website could reflect that Mark Mitchell wrote that letter: http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2006/09/columbia_journa.html

I sincerely never meant any harm by writing that article. Please also know that the original article I wrote was not the one that was posted. I was dismayed by the edited-in language. I am very sorry about the whole thing and that it was handled so poorly.

----

Wow. The quality-control problems at Columbia Journalism Review are bigger than I had imagined.

It turns out that Bree Nordenson's true beef with Paul Krugman is that Paul "fails to reveal [in his column] that during... [2000-2005] incomes dropped for [the median] household."

The idea that somebody could accuse Paul Krugman of being "partisan" for failing to reveal to his readers that median household incomes have fallen during the Bush administration... well, words really do fail me. That really doesn't pass the laugh test.

Funniest thing I have heard all month.

Here's what Bree Nordenson has to say, on the record. Not believing that she really wanted to call Krugman "partisan" and "slippery" for "fail[ing] to reveal" that median household incomes have fallen during the Bush dministration, I gave her a chance to amend it. She declined:

Dear Mr. DeLong:

Here is my response to be posted in its entirety (or not at all) on your blog (not simply the comments section):

Leaving aside the question of whether "typical" households can be characterized as "median" (rather than, say, "average" or "neighbors of Paul Krugman"), we stand by our conclusion that Mr. Krugman's statistic was cherry-picked and utterly unsupportive of his argument.

We wonder whether Professor DeLong's economics students would be permitted to look at the median personal income of college graduates in two separate years, chosen at random, and then present a paper suggesting that this data alone sheds light on the question of education's effect on income inequality. Mr. Krugman notes that the (median) real income of college graduates was lower in 2005, compared to 2000, and offers this as evidence that education does not improve income disparities. But he fails to reveal that during the same time frame, incomes dropped for all households, regardless of their level of education (see http://www.census.gov/prod/2006pubs/p60-231.pdf, p. 31). To determine whether a gap between the incomes of two groups has narrowed, one must know the incomes of both groups.

And unless the objective is merely to win the argument, rather than identify the truth, it is also necessary to test one's hypothesis against a range of years and other information. Krugman compares college graduates' incomes in 2000 and 2005, because that suits his ends. An entirely different picture emerges, however, if we compare the median incomes of college graduate in, say, 2004 to those in 2005. During that time frame, the number increases (after adjusting for inflation, of course).

Ideology passed off as science is the essence of demagoguery. An economist of Professor DeLong's stature should know this.

Sincerely,

Bree Nordenson
Assistant Editor, Columbia Journalism Review

Her boss Mark Mitchell, assistant managing editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, backs her up at the price of damage to his own reputation, and says that Paul Krugman is indeed culpable for suppressing knowledge that median incomes have fallen during the Bush administration (I think this is a fair summary quote from our conversation):

If you are talking about income inequality, you cannot just take the statistic of one group's income dropping over a period of time and not compare it to the other group's income. I am surprised that the Berkeley economics department cannot figure this out...

And--of course--never any attempt by Bree Nordenson (or anybody else) to talk to Paul Krugman or any labor economist about where the numbers were coming from, and whether they were reasonable.

Can there be any reaction other than "Wow. Look at the circular firing squad of flying journamalistic attack monkeys?"


Let's recap.

In previous episodes, David Brooks had written:

The Populist Myths on Income Inequality - New York Times: [T]he market isn't broken; the meritocracy is working almost too well. It's rewarding people based on individual talents. Higher education pays off because it provides technical knowledge and because it screens out people who are not organized, self-motivated and socially adept. But even among people with identical education levels, inequality is widening as the economy favors certain abilities. In short, government policy is not driving inequality and wage stagnation...

In response, Larry Katz--a source Brooks relies on--said that changes in government policy do play an important role:

Brad DeLong's Semi-Daily Journal: Larry Katz Weighs in on What Should Be Done About Inequality: There are clear market forces that have to do with the demand for talented individuals, but the current period is not that different from the past for that type of thing. In the past, however, we've done a very good job expanding access to education to keep up with growth, providing bargaining power to those left behind, and using government policy to help them. What's changed in the last twenty years is that we've eroded those ameliorating institutions....

In response, Paul Krugman wrote that there are powerful other causes of rising income inequality besides skill-biased technological change:

Whining Over Discontent - New York Times: [N]otice the desperate effort to find some number, any number, to support claims that increasing inequality is just a matter of a rising payoff to education and skill. Conservative commentators tell us about wage gains for one-eyed bearded men with 2.5 years of college, or whatever -- and conveniently forget to adjust for inflation. In fact, the data refute any suggestion that education is a guarantee of income gains: once you adjust for inflation, you find that the income of a typical household headed by a college graduate was lower in 2005 than in 2000...

I, at least, think the number Krugman cites is completely on point: Brooks said that inequality is widening because the market is providing increasing rewards to education and skills. Krugman responds that there is a lot more going on than just skill- and education-biased technological change: even the relatively well-educated have seen their household incomes fall over the current business cycle.

Yet Bree Nordenson, in CJR Daily, then wrote to accuse Paul Krugman of being "slippery" and "partisan"

The left-wing Krugman, while not as flagrant as Brooks, coats his column with a similar sort of partisan slipperiness.... chooses somewhat specific data... a decrease between 2000 and 2005 of incomes for a "typical household headed by a college graduate." This is not a widely published statistic, and Krugman doesn't tell us where he got it. He also fails to reveal the meaning of "typical," so we are left to guess who exactly these desperate college graduates might be.

That's the end of the recap.

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