Markets in Journalistic Failure

Are you considering enrolling at your local university to incept with an economics degree? Or, having already completed a university track, are you thinking about cracking open an econ tome like Man, Economy, and State to study up on the dismal science?

Don’t bother. Don’t even take the shortcut of reading Hazlitt or Sowell. (Well, OK, maybe their condensed tracts are worth browsing, simply for the respective clinics in clear prose.) The truth is that economics—what Matthew Crawford defined as “the wider field of social meaning”—is more reductive than a one-act, one-man show. Other than unreconstructed Marxists still preaching that old-time redistributionist religion, professional economists stick to one maxim: let the market decide.

How much wheat should a country reap to feed itself? Let the market decide. How many flat-screen 55’’ LCD TVs should be produced? Let the market decide. How many 1999 limited-edition chlorochrous Nintendo 64 Donkey Kong 64 bundle packs should be remanufactured? Let the market—that is I and a handful of other nostalgic man-children—decide… by shipping one right to my doorstep!

The iron-law of consumer preference seems to work in all industries, with one glaring exception: journalism. The media, contrary to its purported function, doesn’t sell information, facts, synopses, and evidence-backed conclusions about daily happenings. In fact, the reportorial class can barely be entrusted with keeping simple matters straight and precise.

The so-called “first draft of history” is always just that: a draft, mostly composed of fiction, wishcasting, and narrative-setting.

Think I’m too harsh? Consider our most august of newspapers, the New York Times. David Leonhardt, who has the coffee-at-midnight job of authoring the paper’s bulldog e-newsletter, subjected his own beat to some market correction. Appropriating an idea from The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, Leonhardt wrestled with an exercise called “pundit accountability” for the past year. This was no mere underscoring of empirical errors, emending off-the-beam figures. Leonhardt essayed the Full Monty of journalistic remediation. “Pundit accountability” means “journalists highlight their own mistakes—and not small factual errors, which often get corrected, but errors of analysis, which don’t.”

How refreshing! To wash my news-junk littered brain in the Lysol of self-correction! Had I actually been paying for a Times subscription instead of creating dozens of fake emails to bypass its online paywall, I’d be getting my money’s worth.

Perhaps the loyal Grey Lady fandom—the dozens of white silk napkin-users who reside in Prospect Heights co-ops—may enjoy this attempt at emendation. Or they may altogether disregard this taking account, and eagerly scan the text for word of more January 6ers collared in the heartland. Any schMAGAnfreude to take their minds off the naked tramp two-stepping on the cracked sidewalk outside their building.

After a year of pandemic alarmism, perhaps Leonhardt will disavow how his colleagues treated COVID-19 as some undivine judgment rendered on America’s benighted bigots. Heck, maybe he’ll realize what Janet Malcolm concluded about the muckraker profession and quit his post posthaste. Enough with the lies! Enough with the motivated reasoning! Enough with the blue-colored narration! Down with the click-scare journalism! Down with the Order of the Brown Nose. Finir avec what Proust called the press practice of making us pay interest “in some fresh triviality or other every day”!

Please, Mr. Leonhardt, deliver us from journalistic conceit!

That high task is unfortunately beyond lowly Leonhardt’s power. But he gets points for effort. Leonhardt first comes clean on COVID: he not only underestimated the vaccine’s effectiveness but overestimated its protective longevity. “Before the Delta variant emerged, infections among vaccinated people—known as breakthrough infections—were rare. I assumed that the pattern would probably continue throughout 2021,” he admits. Leonhardt wasn’t the only Pollyannaish press jockey sold on Pfizer’s miracle jab. The media, in cahoots with public health bureaucracies and tech censors, actively suppressed criticism of the breakneck-developed mRNA vaccines, which not only have proven bootless in stanching transmission and seem to require successive intakes.

To be fair, needing four “booster” shots in one year seemed like a gross and risky exaggeration—now it’s slowly becoming medical orthodoxy. When we’re on our shot #20 in 2025 and our new third arm is developing ichthyosis, maybe it’ll be time again to rethink the More-Jab-Now! Regime. (Only kidding, Facebook thought police! Kind of…)

Leonhardt further concedes, “I was too skeptical of the early signs of waning vaccine immunity and the importance of boosters.” These are shocking words to read considering the source. Were Leonhardt a reporter for a smaller, more conservative organ writing the same thing a year ago, he would be immediately red-flagged for “spreading misinformation.” His Twitter would be locked; his Facebook account suspended; his byline washed from Google queries. But now that the “data is in,” as if the data from clinical trials wasn’t already public when the big vax drive began, it’s OK to question Dear Leader Scientia.

The last item Leonhardt errored on is inflation, which he describes as “higher and more enduring than I expected.” It’s a soft concession, but it checks out—especially in the checkout tally at your local filling station. Leonhardt’s hardly alone in missflation. The Biden White House first dismissed rising costs as the privileged’s problem before doing a double blame on the meat and oil industries for price gouging. Treasury Secretary and Oompa-Loompa ringer Janet Yellen called inflation “transitory” for months; ditto Fed head Jerome “Gradgrind” Powell. Now it’s economic orthodoxy to admit the skyrocketing price on lamb shanks isn’t coming down to earth any time soon. The mea culpa is nice, but hardly a salve to low-income families trying to scratch out a non-microwave meal.

“I was lulled into complacency because inflation had not been a problem for decades,” Leonhardt excuses for his lack of foresight. One should assume that sitting comfortably in easy narration is why many journalists like Leonhardt missed both the current “everything shortage” and the COVID vaccines being less inoculations than short-term edge-alleviators.

So if markets come with built-in corrections, why is it that nothing succeeds like failure in modern journalism? How can the professionals charged with framing “order out of chaos” behave like blind monkeys tapping Lettera 25s? Is it simply the occupational fog of living in a liberal-urban bubble? Is the world just too hard to pinpoint, with pandemics, and angry politics, and an insatiable online consumer base craving proof of their priors?

Social media commoditization has spoiled journalism plenty. But it doesn’t fully explain how prestige media’s best and brightest were so blindsided by COVID or how more than a few reporters bought into the idea that Vladimir Putin owned the last president like a loin-licking husky.

The only plausible reason for why journalistic malfeasance still pays is that subscribers want falsity over verity. Like middle aged housewives consuming six hours of serial killer podcasts in a single sitting, the average Times reader is content with news that’s washed thoroughly in leftie assumptions. What’s being sold on A1 isn’t a straight look at events, but confirmation bias that Republicans are evil, Swastika-adorned boogey men trying to fashion an American Reich while Democrats are totalitarian-fighting avengers.

Leonhardt can apologize for misreporting all he wants. Much of his audience doesn’t care. They’re shelling out for copy that tickles their liberal brain lobe. Real journalism—real recounting of objective facts that portray the truth of things—is no longer a Times hook.

That doesn’t mean objective reporting is in desuetude. The outcropping of Substacks—from Bari Weiss’s popular “Common Sense” to Matt Yglesias’s progressive-contrarian “Slow Boring”—demonstrates demand for independent analysis. CNN’s ratings plummeting 90% over the past year show fading interest in excitable politainment. One of America’s oldest, most established periodicals has been reduced to a snively neuro psych eval. And the perpetual campaign to get Joe Rogan, an everyman bruiser and conversationalist, booted from podcast airwaves belies pathetic insecurity on the part of the corporate press.

Forget raw metal mines in Kolwezi—there is an emerging market in honest and intellectually curious journalism. It’s just not located in Midtown, Manhattan.

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Taylor Lewis

Taylor Lewis writes from Virginia.

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