## Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Press Corps? (CJR Daily Jumps the Shark Edition)

UPDATE: Bree Nordenson of Columbia Journalism Review says that she will explain her side of the story about why she wrote that Paul Krugman's references to median earnings of households headed by college graduates was "partisan slipperiness." But she says that she will do so "only if it's off the record."

I argued her into "Let me speak to my editor and see if he thinks if it's a good idea for me to explain myself."

And we have an email from Mark Mitchell, assistant managing editor of CJR Daily, which reads, in full: "Thank you for your comments."

Who will watch the watchdogs? I had hopes when the Columbia Journalism Review got into the real-time media watchdog business. But now I find CJR Daily committing all the standard sins--a snarky ignorance of where genuine expertise is to be found, an addiction to "he said, she said" journalism, a stubborn insistence on splitting the middle and poxing both houses driven by an uncuriosity or an inability to recognize when one side is right and the other is wrong, a laziness that keeps them from making phone calls to get the real story, et cetera, et cetera.

You get the picture.

Here we have Bree Nordenson writing:

CJR Daily: The Dogma Behind the Pay Wall: The left-wing Krugman, while not as flagrant as Brooks, coats his column with a similar sort of partisan slipperiness. While he criticizes "conservative commentators [who] tell us about wage gains for one-eyed bearded men with 2.5 years of college of whatever -- and conveniently forget to adjust for inflation" he chooses somewhat specific data himself, suggesting that there has been 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...b

So I wrote back to its boss, Columbia Journalism Dean Nicholas Lemann:

Dear Dean Lemann:

You have a problem at CJR Daily....

"Typical" means "median"--Paul is using "typical" to try to reach that part of the audience that doesn't understand "median". No slipperiness there.

The complaint about "specific" data rips the phrase from the context in which Krugman explains why he is presenting information about this measure--only by doing so can Nordenson falsely accuse him of cherry-picking.

Krugman's full sentence is:

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.

The idea is to rebut the claim that the American economy is still offering rapidly increasing rewards to those in middle America who have bettered themselves by getting a college education. Paul chose it not because it was one of the few statistics that goes his way, but because it is one of the statistics that would be expected to show income gains if the principal factor at work were rising rewards to education.

With respect to where the data comes from...

The standard reference on income figures is Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States:, published by the Bureau of the Census. The latest edition was published in in August, 2006, including data collected in 2005.... The URL for the Census Bureau report is http://www.census.gov/prod/2006pubs/p60-231.pdf....

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman writes that the exact source for his column is http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/income/histinc/h13.html:

Historical Income Tables - Households: Historical Income Tables - Households

Table H-13. Educational Attainment of Householder
Households with Householder 25 Years Old and Over by
Median and Mean Income: 1991 to 2005

(Households as of March of the following year.  Income in
current and 2005 CPI-U-RS adjusted dollars28/.  See Table
H-14 for data before 1991 based on the old educational
attainment questions.)...

Median income
Number   Current      2005
year           (thous.)  dollars   dollars

...Bachelor's Degree or More

2005              31,153   $77,179$77,179
2004 35/          30,640    74,303    76,788
2003              30,149    73,446    77,942
2002              29,484    73,600    79,895
2001              28,552    72,284    79,714
2000 30/          27,591    71,842    81,438...

And Paul Krugman writes that he does have a sources-and-methods email for his columns that he would be happy to send out to anyone who asks.

Mot surprisingly, I have received no reply from CJR--not from Dean Lemann, not from author Bree Nordenson, not from CJR Daily assistant managing editor Mark Mitchell. Not a hint that they are going to do the right thing and apologize to Paul Krugman.

Now CJR Daily was started with the best of intentions to be part of the solution, not part of the problem, for American journalism today. Yet, here at least, it cannot maintain minimum quality controls against the vices that make so much of elite American journalism nothing but inferior-quality birdcage liner.

Perhaps someone at Columbia Journalism School could study why.

And why oh why can't we have a better press corps?