Cringe and whinge

by Henry on March 15, 2007

I came across James Fallows’ 1991 piece on The Economist (to which my subscription has just lapsed), The Economics of the Colonial Cringe, and thought it pretty interesting. On the one hand, this seems a little dated:

In functional terms, The Economist is more like the Wall Street Journal than like any other American publication. In each there’s a kind of war going on between the news articles and the editorial pages. The news articles are not overly biased and try to convey the complex reality of, well, the news. Meanwhile, the editorials and “leaders” push a consistent line, often at odds with the facts reported on the news pages of the same issue.

If there’s any marked difference these days between the line touted in the editorial pages line and the perspective of the news articles, I can’t detect it. The WSJ seems to still have a firewall between the two (although in fairness its editorial pages are also far loopier than those of the Economist).

On the other, this still seems bang on the mark.

The other ugly English trait promoting The Economist’s success in America is the Oxford Union argumentative style. At its epitome, it involves a stance so cocksure of its rightness and superiority that it would be a shame to freight it with mere fact. American debate contests involve grinding, yearlong concentration on one doughy issue, like arms control. The forte of Oxford-style debate is to be able to sound certain and convincing about a topic pulled out of the air a few minutes before, such as “Resolved: That women are not the fairer sex.” (The BBC radio shows “My Word” and “My Music,” carried on National Public Radio, give a sample of the desired impromptu glibness.) Economist leaders and the covers that trumpet their message offer Americans a blast of this style. Michael Kinsley, who once worked at The Economist, wrote that the standard Economist leader gives you the feeling that the writer started out knowing that three steps must be taken immediately — and then tried to think what the steps should be.

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{ 88 comments }

1

Dan 03.15.07 at 4:46 pm

Hia…

American debate contests involve grinding, yearlong concentration on one doughy issue, like arms control.

Really? I’ve never heard about this: it sounds great. How are they structured? Do you have any links to more info…?

2

Daragh McDowell 03.15.07 at 4:55 pm

Yeah that about sounds right on the Economist. I was talking with a buddy of mine who’s doing an MA in Education policy the other day and he informed me in no uncertain terms that everything he’s ever read in The Economist thats related to his topic reads like the writer simply made a number of assumptions with little research or insight into the topic, and then declared his/her conclusions to be obviously right. Frequently, of course, the complete opposite was true. I’ve never understood why so many people bow down in awe to this magazine, especially since Micklethwaite took over.

3

ejh 03.15.07 at 4:58 pm

Daragh – possibly because it’s telling them what they want to hear, which without exception is that what is required is more privatisation, cuts in welfare and cuts in tax. Easy to be confident that you know the answer if the answers are always the same.

4

John Emerson 03.15.07 at 5:05 pm

Megan McArdle simply makes a number of assumptions with little research or insight into the topic, and then declares her conclusions to be obviously right?

Why, I never heard such a thing! What a terrible thing to say!

It sounds like the classical Chinese eight-legged-essay, which was replaced with the Communist Chinese eight-legged-essay, and which has now been replaced with whatever the Chinese call an authoritarian neoliberal eight-legged essay.

In ancient Rome,too, writing things up with virtuouso fluency trumped knowing anything about anything.

And of course, the Limbaugh/O’Reilly/Russert “common man” rhetorical schtick has swept all before it in these United States.

If it sounds good, it’s true. Our new oral tradition. I blame Foucault!

5

Shelby 03.15.07 at 5:13 pm

I’ve never subscribed to The Economist, but I often get the feeling Henry describes from The New Yorker and The Atlantic. Time Magazine, on the other hand, never rises to the level of “glib”.

6

Barry 03.15.07 at 5:17 pm

“Daragh – possibly because it’s telling them what they want to hear, which without exception is that what is required is more privatisation, cuts in welfare and cuts in tax. Easy to be confident that you know the answer if the answers are always the same.”

Posted by ejh

The ‘propaganda model’ of the elite mass media certainly explains most of the past six years, doesn’t it?

7

ejh 03.15.07 at 5:27 pm

Not sure I understand the “past six years” reference.

8

CJColucci 03.15.07 at 5:38 pm

Some years ago, I attended a legal education exchange program at Oxford, where I got to see eminent British barristers operate and talk to budding baristers. Watching the cross-examinations, in particular, I saw very impressive, quick-on-your-feet, but hopelessly general cleverness, which was quite a contrast to the straight-ahead, grind-it-out, document heavy American-style cross-examination based on the trial lawyer’s personal immersion in the pretrial discovery process (quite different from what I understand to be the barristers’ practice of picking up on the fly a file developed by a solicitor).

9

Aeon J. Skoble 03.15.07 at 5:43 pm

“the barristers’ practice of picking up on the fly a file developed by a solicitor”
On the fly? Not exactly.

10

ejh 03.15.07 at 6:04 pm

(I do, of course, understand the reference, but I don’t understand what it has to do with anything. It’s not like economically, the pre-Bush administration was pursuing policies at variance with the philosophy of The Economist.)

11

Daragh McDowell 03.15.07 at 6:07 pm

Well there’s something to be said for being able to process data and present an argument quickly. That could be the definition of ‘journalism.’ But making an argument based on an absence of data is something else, perhaps ‘bloviating’ is the best term. My main research focus right now is on Russian politics, and the crap that gets printed in the West on the current regime never fails to dismay. This isn’t a defence of Putin, but I hope to hell that EU and US Russia policy isn’t based on Newsweek or Time.

Speaking of which, the former cited the Bible as a source discrediting the recent discovery of what is being called Jesus’ tomb. Again, not defending James Cameron, but citing the BIBLE to dispute an archaeological find?

12

Barry 03.15.07 at 6:44 pm

ejh, I meant that it’s so clear that a number of elite MSM organs acted pretty much as Party organs, so to speak.

13

Robin 03.15.07 at 6:51 pm

What do you expect from the unofficial mouthpiece of international finance capital, says my inner Rudolph Hilferding.

14

debris 03.15.07 at 7:19 pm

Today is a great day for Economist bashing.

15

CJColucci 03.15.07 at 8:10 pm

I think I have offended a brother (or sister) at the bar without meaning to. I meant “on the fly” only in a comparative sense. Without enormous files of deposition transcripts and file cabinets (or megabytes) of documents, few US civil litigators would be able to stand up on their hind legs in court without soiling themselves.I constantly marvel at the ability of British barristers to try cases as deftly as they do without the long slog of US-style discovery, and have tried to adapt their techniques as US-style discovery becomes prohibitively expensive.

16

Henry 03.15.07 at 8:28 pm

debris – it was via reading that article (which in turn was linked to today by the political theory daily review) that I came across the Fallows piece. But I thought the Fallows piece was much better – the _Observer_ article lost track of itself completely half way through, and focused on the wrong target imo; the ‘boring’ bits of the _Economist_ were the ones I _liked._

Robin – Hilferding knew more about mouthpieces of capitalism than he let on; he was apparently a key member of Bruening’s kitchen cabinet (cf Sheri Berman’s book).

17

JR 03.15.07 at 8:39 pm

A major difference between US and UK trial practice is that in the US, lawyers are permitted to “prep” or “woodshed” their witnesses – that is, to rehearse their testimony and to point out potential pitfalls and ways of handling difficult questions. In UK practice, this is considered highly unethical and any barrister who did it could be disbarred. What this means in practice is that in the US it is extremely difficult to surprise or shake a witness or to elicit unfavorable testimony on cross-examination, unless the questioning attorney has a specific document that can be used to demonstrate a lack of candor. In the UK, by contrast, a good barrister can browbeat, cajole, and pressure a witness into saying all sorts of stuff.

18

Watson Aname 03.15.07 at 9:02 pm

jr: So you are saying the difference is which lawyer gets to beat up the witness, and when?

19

ejh 03.15.07 at 9:39 pm

A major difference between US and UK trial practice is that in the US, lawyers are permitted to “prep” or “woodshed” their witnesses – that is, to rehearse their testimony and to point out potential pitfalls and ways of handling difficult questions. In UK practice, this is considered highly unethical and any barrister who did it could be disbarred.

I learned this from John Cleese in A Fish Called Wanda.

20

harry b 03.15.07 at 10:00 pm

Very unfair to My Word and My Music, I think.

The back half of the Economist remains a very good, and usually fair, read. The Science writing is terrific, and the business writing is serious and interesting. I often read books they review, and the obituaries are almost always good.

Like daragh’s friend I know something about education policy, and my take is this: the reporters do, occasionally, want to shake their readers assumptions and, when they do, they are quite careful to back things up. When they don’t, they simply fall back on assumptions that I presume circulate at the dinner parties they attend in DC and Islington, but have no relationship at all to empirical reality. Deeply ignorant, for example, about the research on grammar schools versus comprehensives. Incredible on the causes of lousy schoolng in the US (the unions are always to blame, never a symptom of deeper problems). It sometimes reminds me of papers like the Socialist Worker of my youth (reasonably well-informed and interesting analysis, well written, and in service of an utterly predictable political line). I would guess that a bunch of the journalists used to be SWPers.

But, when they write about political philosophy (the other thing I know about) they’re usually pretty well-versed (if not always right).

21

Richard Jennings 03.16.07 at 1:26 am

You can get free access to all those subscription sites like wall street journal and morningstar with a netpass from: http://news.congoo.com

22

ed 03.16.07 at 2:59 am

I used to subscribe to the Wall Street Journal, and I have the no doubt eccentric opinion that the straight news coverage is overrated. It looks good mainly in comparison with their batshit insane editorial pages, and also the business coverage in competing publications (it seems standard for business editors to simply reprint corporate press releases), but is amazingly narrow in focus. The paper also has a number of quirks, such as those lengthy, aimless, trivial and often bootlicking front page articles, that manage to make the publication less readable but fall short of being endearing.

The Economist retains its main strength, which is to cover parts of the world, books, and businesses that are often simply ignored in the US media world. Its true that its articles are more impressive if you don’t know much about the topic, though this is a common problem in journalism, but worse the writing has become strangely humorless in the past decade. I think that has made its faults so glaring since the humor was needed to make the glibness tolerable.

23

Joanne 03.16.07 at 6:41 am

I used to love The Economist, having had subscriptions to the magazine. I read it avidly. Then I gradually got tired of its pretentious, high-handed tone. I noticed in a couple of places where the articles did, indeed, have lots of qualifying words like “perhaps,” and I remember thinking: “Well why doesn’t the writer just do his reporting and find out?”

I had a friend from Jordan, who had worked high up in the government there, who told me that the country profile about Jordan done by the magazine was riddled with errors.

I couldn’t always be aware of where they made factual mistakes, but I did resent the high-handed tone, as I said above. Two examples: When reviewing Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, I resented the fact that the review could be summed up in one of its first sentences: “Not another book on the Holocaust,” or words closely to that effect. It just seemed a bit much. In a review of the film Europa Europa, just a couple of years earlier, the writer opined that the movie must’ve been hated in Israel because it showed a Jew being wily or dishonest. Something to that effect, I don’t remember the actual wording. Here the “perhaps’s” or similar words were thick in the text. When you deleted the sentences that were actually only suppositions, there was little left to the article. In any case, it was a low blow, and, I later found out, an inaccurate one. Then I remember reading that the editors caught and deleted a phrase to the effect (again, I don’t remember the wording) that that many believed 6 million Jews died in WW2. Ridiculous.

At first I thought that the magazine was written by cultured and erudite older journalists whose sense of self-importance and self-confidence came from many years in the profession and a firm grasp of their subject matter. Later, I did have a funny feeling that there was a certain immaturity to the articles, as if they were written by much younger people trying to sound as if they were cultured and erudite older writers with a firm grasp of their subject matter.

Now that I read in the article that the magazine is staffed by a small group of mostly young people (assuming that this hasn’t changed since 1991), my suspicions have been confirmed.

One strength of the magazine is that it consistently covers every region of the world, unlike American newsmagazines that only give coverage to the hot spots. That’s something that makes the magazine stand out.

I’ve heard people now and then express discomfort with the magazine, not trusting its tone, sensing biases and errors, etc. But we’re made to feel that we are supposed to like it because it’s quality. More often than not, I find myself and others always meaning to read the next issue, but somehow never getting around to it. The issues just pile up and pile up. A sort of subconscious reaction.

24

K R Hasan 03.16.07 at 7:39 am

I always found the Economist to be very informative, so long as one discounted the bias, and the back pages are very good. However, I’ve stopped subscribing now.
Some time back, I found it describing the traditional electricity companies as “stalinist”, not once but in a number of articles on the topic. Not something one expected from a magazine once noted for its wit.

25

Glorious Godfrey 03.16.07 at 12:22 pm

Ah, a little treat: an Economist-bashing thread.

the Observer article lost track of itself completely half way through, and focused on the wrong target imo; the ‘boring’ bits of the Economist were the ones I liked.

I don’t know. The Fallows piece is certainly written with more verve and focus, but I find that the Observer article complements it nicely.

The Observer guy, Scocca, does make a minor mistake: instead of accusing the Economist of being “boring”, he should have said that it is increasingly banal and pretentious.

“In the absence of reliable, up-to-date information, markets go awry.” Sorry, that’s probably just some sort of back-handed acknowledgement that Stiglitz and his gang may be on to something, but reduced to the consistence of porridge.

Or take the bit about China, the hilariousness of which Scocca does not fail to notice:
“Some 2,500 years ago, one of Confucius’ big ideas was … ”. Sure, Confucius is important and everybody should read the “Analects”, which are short and sweet and even allow you to have a little pause every three lines of text or so. But this is all tweeness without insight.

“A bourgeois revolution led by the emerging property-owning middle class”. “The potential for the simmering resentment in the countryside to boil over.” There’s a lot of bicycles there, too!

The leading sections of the Economist deliver these days pretty much the same kind of stultifying, middlebrow pap purveyed by its competitors. The deadpan delivery is replaced with a smirk, however.

Scocca’s remarks about the Côte d’Ivoire dispatch touch on another of the widely-held views about the magazine, to wit:

The Economist retains its main strength, which is to cover parts of the world, books, and businesses that are often simply ignored in the US media world. Its true that its articles are more impressive if you don’t know much about the topic

Frankly, many articles become distinctly less impressive if one just bothers to read carefully. The “better bad coverage than none at all” line only goes so far.

In short, give Scocca a break. Bashing the Economist is fun. It’s even addictive.

I need my drugs.

Why are you trying to keep me from my drugs??

26

Glorious Godfrey 03.16.07 at 12:32 pm

The Fallows hits in on the nose with regard to the class-conscious vibe of the magazine. His take is US-centric, which is entirely appropriate given the magazine’s target readership. But this class consciousness also leaves its smudgy fingerprints all over the reporting on other places.

The attitude of the Economist is informed by a key tenet of Tory wankery: that of kinship among the élites of most countries, and of the unique recognition of this kinship by the English upper class. It is tempting and facile to search for the origins of this attitude in the days of the Empire, and it’s probably not entirely misleading.

Right-wing leaders with the proper background can count in principle upon the Economist’s trust . This can manifest itself in the occasional discovery of Teh Next Important Stateman like, say, Vaclav Klaus. The hype rarely retains its momentum for long. The most frequent and more comical expression of this attitude, however, is to be found in the leniency with which some leaders are treated. For instance, when “Josemari” Aznar, in the run-up to the Iraq war, said something to the effect that the anti-war crowd –some 90% of the Spanish populace at the time– were “a threat to democracy”, the sensible, level-headed Economist reporter berated him, vewwwy gently, by pointing out that, although he “might well be right”, he should tone it down. He “might well be right”. Whoever said that Enlightened Despotism was dead?

Particulary worth-watching now is the magazine’s treatment of the Polish government, with its reluctant admission that you can’t polish a turd. Bad pun intended, of course.

Sometimes, reality asserts itself too brutally, like in Berlusconi’s case. In those cases, the fire of the magazine’s righteousness more than makes up for its lateness.

These occasional disavowals reinforce the conceits about the magazine’s independence. They might also fuck with the target readership’s heads in ways that might be of relevance in other sectors of the media .

Oh, and for the economic news the Financial Times is better. Not even their yearly surveys of the world economy are that hot anymore.

27

John Emerson 03.16.07 at 12:55 pm

The magazine’s treatment of the Polish government, with its reluctant admission that you can’t polish a turd. Bad pun intended, of course.

Political correctness forbids us to make ethnic jokes about the ruling Unabomber twins and their mole in the American media, Ms. Drzewojabłka-Sikorski.

28

dbomp 03.16.07 at 1:00 pm

Can I almost change the subject? I’m a 40-something American, and until I saw it in the Economist a couple of years ago, I’d never seen the work “whinge”. I figured out that it was the same as “whine”, and figured that it was one of those words that non-North American English speakers spelled differently, like “tyre” or “colour”, but that it was pronounced like I’d pronounce “whine”, though.

Seeing how it’s paired with “cringe” here, though, do those words actually rhyme?

(More on topic, I dropped my Economist subscription last year after a ridiculous news article featuring a long series of anti-gay quotes by prominent anti-gay types, and for a reply in the last paragraph was a sole bartender in a gay leather bar. In other cases, I found the Economist’s treatment of subjects I know really well really bad. If I know that the Economist is poor on things I know about, how can I trust its coverage of Namibian politics or Chinese labor?)

29

Glorious Godfrey 03.16.07 at 1:42 pm

“Backhanded”. “The Fallows piece”. “Statesman”. Crap.

30

Martin Hinton 03.16.07 at 2:25 pm

This is fascinating. I knew from the constant depiction of Englishmen as ‘bad’ charcters in Hollywood movies that you Americans were a little unsure of yourselves in relation to your parent nation but I had no idea just how deep that insecurity runs in apparently educated people. Why are you so concerned about this little magazine from a little island? Why must you sneer so at Oxbridge types who are clever? Have the old inadequacies and complexes not been erased by all that bombing, invading, and policing the world? Time to grow up, perhaps?

31

Henry 03.16.07 at 2:32 pm

Sometimes, reality asserts itself too brutally, like in Berlusconi’s case. In those cases, the fire of the magazine’s righteousness more than makes up for its lateness.

This has been the major redeeming part of the magazine’s news coverage the last few years. They have done a superb job not only of covering the topic, but also of doing some real original investigation – and I think have actually demonstrated some political courage in calling things as bluntly as they have. They have also done sterling work on some of the less salubrious aspects of interlocking finance capital in France, Germany and elsewhere. More power to the reporters who have been doing this.

Can I almost change the subject? I’m a 40-something American, and until I saw it in the Economist a couple of years ago, I’d never seen the work “whinge”.

Fallows has a little bit on the whine/whinge thing; hence the post’s title (also, given that I’m whinging about the magazine I thought it was apposite). Whinge has always been pronounced to rhyme with cringe in my family anyway.

32

Eli Rabett 03.16.07 at 3:59 pm

My understanding of any argument of the Economist is they claim that if pigs were horses, cows would fly, therefore watch out for cow manure falling from the sky. Look to the assumptions, mostly false.

33

ejh 03.16.07 at 4:01 pm

An Englishman writes (in between glances at the cricket score):

What is Martin Hinton on about?

34

Marvin Davidoff 03.16.07 at 4:06 pm

Richard- Thank you for the congoo.com free access tip…I was skeptical that it would work…but it did. Good tip!

35

engels 03.16.07 at 5:21 pm

Not to endorse Martin Hinton but I’ll admit I can’t see a hell of a lot in common between the Economist and the Oxford Union apart from “they are both English and they are both full of bullshit”. If that was Fallows’ point, it doesn’t seem terribly incisive: about as witty as having a go at the Cato institute by calling them cowboys. Also, using the terms “Oxford Union argumentative style” and “Oxford-style debate” as if they are interchangeable is, well, stupid. Apart from anything else it ignores the general derision in which Oxford Union types are held by the majority of their peers. As a visiting American scholar maybe Fallows was a bit out of the loop on this.

Also, if Fallows really is right that the Economist‘s problem is an unamerican preference for clever-sounding bullshit over facts, which stems from a genetic “trait” in the English National Psyche (TM), then presumably we can expect it to be pulling itself together now that it has had a healthy injection of American-style empiricism from stateside fact fetishists like Megan McArdle… Needless to say, I’m not holding my breath.

36

duncan 03.16.07 at 5:40 pm

“Cringe” and “whinge” do indeed rhyme.

Also a little off-topic: can anyone recommend a good alternative to The Economist?

37

engels 03.16.07 at 6:06 pm

Duncan: the FT? I really hate to be defending them, I do think the Economist is still worth reading, though. Some of the flaming they receive in comments here seems a bit overblown IMHO.

38

Richard Groenendyke 03.16.07 at 6:19 pm

The Economist is not perfect, but name another publication as well written that does better?

39

duncan 03.16.07 at 6:21 pm

Thanks Engels. Am I right in thinking that the Economist has no direct rival? A serious (but not boring), weekly, international news magazine, that is. Seems a shame.

40

Glorious Godfrey 03.16.07 at 6:47 pm

Not to endorse Martin Hinton but I’ll admit I can’t see a hell of a lot in common between the Economist and the Oxford Union…

Also, if Fallows really is right that the Economist’s problem is an unamerican preference for clever-sounding bullshit over facts, then presumably…

Fallows does indeed make the mistake of insisting too empathically on the importance of the upper-class Englishness of the Economist’s bullshit and pandering to explain its success in the US. In so doing, here and there he appears to want to rediscover a sense of practicality and appreciation of facts that would be typically American. Which obviously would be belied by the evolution of the feeble American competitors of the Economist, and more generally by the dismal quality of political discourse in the States in recent years.

Well, yes. He is careful to point out, however, that the kind of upper-class Englishness that the magazine projects is a bit of a fake. Which makes the imprecision of the terms he uses less distracting.

And although the confirmation of many of the target readership’s biases and preconceptions is really the key to the magazine’s success, the bogus Oxbridgeness and all the attendant mannerisms remain important, for obvious reasons.

In a sense, it’s the worst of all worlds: highly stylized but obnoxious Toriness that panders to a stateside readership with a strong partisan bias. All tempered with some droplets of good stuff in every issue, because the outfit isn’t staffed by idiots after all.

So, basically: I need my drugs.

My overblown drugs.

Since I cancelled my subscription, I can buy more drugs.

Why are you trying to keep me from my drugs??

41

Glorious Godfrey 03.16.07 at 6:57 pm

“All worlds” = “both worlds”, of course.

42

Martin Hinton 03.16.07 at 7:59 pm

I love that “unamerican preference for clever-sounding bullshit over facts”. Ever watched a Pentagon press conference?

For those with one eye and half a mind on the cricket, let me explain. Fallows laughs at other Americans for showing deference to old world style over substance and crediting a publication just because it comes from London, but at the same time, his sniping and sneering at Englishness, and then suggesting that the Economist isn’t really upper-class anyway, as if it would matter if it were, are typical reactions of the inadequate American who constantly feels the need to promote the American way as inherently better than the English because he’s haunted by his own lack of style, wit, humour and grace. Compare Mark Twain’s ‘Innocents Abroad’.

43

Glorious Godfrey 03.16.07 at 8:07 pm

The Economist is not perfect, but name another publication as well written that does better?

There’s a jungle out there. Blacken your face with soot from the campfire. Travel light and silent, holding your jagged knife between clenched teeth. Find your quarry and lay it low and eat the meat and avoid the gristle and the fat and…and by sheer WILLPOWER impose ORDER upon the CHAOS of the INTERNET and build your OWN goddamn NEWSPAPER and be BAD-ARSE and screw the whole fuckin’ lot of them DECADENT mainstream…

Ahem.

I’ll shut up now.

44

engels 03.16.07 at 10:08 pm

Am I right in thinking that the Economist has no direct rival? A serious (but not boring), weekly, international news magazine, that is. Seems a shame.

Well, following on from the success of this site maybe disgruntled leftists and liberals should start up their own. The Liberonomist? No, wait: the Sociologist.

45

fred lapides 03.16.07 at 11:24 pm

The Economist is indeed (as is the WSJ) well written. But I have to admit my shortcomin gs and confess that I do not care to get a roundup weach week of all the countries in the world. There is a fgocus upon business, which is fine but not my cup of Twinings. The [price…no need to discuss. The science/arts section is grand but very limited.
The general outlook moves between conservative and fence straddling

Finally, I am amused that a Brit journal devotes so much space to–America.

46

Chris Stiles 03.17.07 at 12:15 am

“Finally, I am amused that a Brit journal devotes so much space to—America.”

The British edition contains (British) stories that aren’t in the international edition. Still – it’s not all that suprising when you consider the relative circulation figures in the two countries. Which probably also explains their rightwards tack over the last few years – more noted since the time of the redesign – as magazines live and die by such figures. As goes American politics, so goes the Economist.

The worldwide coverage isn’t all bad – and as far as I know a lot of their more far flung (read outside London and Washington) correspondants are shared with other news organisations/papers.

In general it’s like the Pravda. You can get a reasonable idea about the world as long as you read the interalia.

47

nick s 03.17.07 at 6:17 am

I’m hoping for Harry Frankfurt to show up and provide an elucidation of the difference between US administration press conference bullshit and Oxford Union-style bullshit. Waiting for Veblen to show up and explain the measure of class-reassurance that comes from reading the Economist is likely to be fruitless.

48

Glorious Godfrey 03.17.07 at 4:13 pm

I should stop embarrassing myself and give this a fucking rest already. At any rate…

It´s indeed very hard to argue that a serious magazine like the Economist generates net disutility in purely informational terms. However, the amount of utility one deems to be able to derive from a given news source is generally predicated on one´s ability to see through its inherent biases (see e.g. #48 above). I´m sure there must be some research out there that suggests that we tend to overestimate our ability to filter out the bullshit.

This is hardly all that´s going on. There appears to be some talk of “expressing identity through choices” further down in the Brooks thread. If a magazine like the Economist happens to get on one´s tits for whatever reason, the discussion with more benevolent readers becomes somewhat futile, if it remains stuck with considerations of mere informational value. For the most part, when a relatively benevolent reader points out that, say, the obituaries of the Economist are kind of fun, he or she is actually indicating that the magazine does not happen to get on his or her tits, and that the fuss appears to be unwarranted.

All talk in terms of utility tends to obscure the importance of convention to some extent. “Well-informed” people are still supposed to be more-or-less-regular readers of a number of conventional news sources. This tends to limit the evaluation of the informational value of a given source to the comparison with its direct competitors. Although the gap is closing (fast) due to the magazine´s falling standards, it is true that the Economist still beats the competition hollow, in particular its American counterparts like Time or Newsweek . This is however one of the cases for which an idiom like “damning with faint praise” was made, no? By the same token, if one remarks that the science section of the Economist is good, it´s not unlikely that one is not actually comparing it with the coverage provided by proper science magazines. The science sections of general news sources are obviously not a patch on those, and we tend to ignore out of habit that the Internet has largely made the latter as easily available as the former.

That´s all pretty mundane, even pedestrian, common sense, isn´t it? Is it OK to dislike the Economist , then? My precious?

Gollum?

Gollum?

49

Walt 03.17.07 at 6:11 pm

Glorious Godfrey is trapped in the Internet, and unable to get out.

50

Joanne 03.17.07 at 9:29 pm

“Have the old inadequacies and complexes not been erased by all that bombing, invading, and policing the world? Time to grow up, perhaps?”

I don’t know what’s gotten up Martin Hinton’s nose. He is putting words into our mouths, assuming that this is about the colonial cringe and then spouting tired cliches about Americans.

Why? Where did he get this from? We are talking about a news magazine. Period. Whatever Americans feel about snobby Brits is really beside the point here.

Whatever faults or value The Economist magazine has exist quite independently of our feelings toward the British–upper-class, pseudo-upper-class or otherwise. Those feelings are often ambivalent. So what? We’re talking about a magazine here.

Please just stay on topic and find some other pretext to vent your feelings elsewhere.

51

Lane Greene 03.18.07 at 12:33 am

I’m a staffer for The Economist, full disclosure. In case you don’t know, there is a thread over in the Economist’s Democracy in America blog on this subject, if anyone wants to know what our readers think–including their criticisms.

http://www.economist.com/blogs/democracyinamerica/2007/03/passively_fascinating.cfm

I’ll resist the urge to answer most of the criticisms here; the only one I’ll respond to is our oft-cited condescension and snobbishness. What bothers me about this is the assumption that a million readers are idiots, or are masochists who enjoy being condescended to by a bunch of upper-class English twits. Who is really condescending here? Us, or James Fallows, Henry Farrell and Tom Scocca, who are think that we’ve somehow snookered these million fools with nothing more than a bit of Oxford-Union sneer? If you think our readers are stupid, that is your right. We rather respect and like them.

52

The Emperor 03.18.07 at 1:12 am

The Economist is to Time as Time is to People.

When I read Time, Newsweek, US News, etc., I come away feeling empty, having gained no new information or insights. By contrast, each week the Economist packs immense amounts of information and analysis into each issue. Sure, they have a particular worldview, and you have to recognize that everything is filtered through that. But so what? Everyone has a worldview. The Economist is just up-front about it.

53

Martin Hinton 03.18.07 at 11:07 am

Joanne, darling, try to relax. I was referring to the original Fallows article, which I think is not about a news magazine but about the writer’s awkward feelings towards the English. You, of course, are not a cringing American with a haunting fear of your young country’s inadequacy, but that doesn’t mean such people do not exist, and Fallows strikes me as one.

54

John Emerson 03.18.07 at 11:10 am

A lot of people who used to respect The Economist don’t any more. (Check Brad DeLong: letting their subscription to the Economist lapse is a stock theme over there). Having a worldview is indeed OK (thenks for that banality, Emperor) but if your worldview starts to make you stupid or dishonest you have a problem.

Lane: in fact, it is quite possible for a widely-selling publication to be stupid. In these Unted States that kind of argument isn’t very convincing, but it’s diagnostic of the Economist’s mad-dog freemarketism.

55

jimbo 03.18.07 at 1:22 pm

I’m one of those who let a long time subscription to the Economist lapse. Mostly because I tired of forking over big bucks for a hefty dose of English snobbery. I’m also a big fan of Megan McArdle and have been since she blogged from a trailer at ground zero; but I’m a wee bit concerned lately that in pursuit of a decent living she’s might be undergoing a sort of Stockholm Syndrome by associating with her oh so clever OxBridge colleagues.

Now, having said that, I must say that if someone held a gun to my head and said that I must read one weekly general magazine, I would take the Economist hands-down. I cannot believe that anyone with half a brain would mention Time or Newsweek as in any way being remotely comparable to the Economist. Sitting in a waiting room, I usually read Time AND Newsweek in about a minute because most of their content is unreadable or not worth my time. As a subscriber, I never had time to read my weekly Economist and part of my reason for letting my sub lapse was that unread copies of the Economist were taking over my house.

56

Henry 03.18.07 at 4:53 pm

If the _Economist_ is compared to _Time_ or _Newsweek_, it wins hands-down. But that’s because it’s not in the same game as those two publications. It’s supposed to be in the game of serious, substantial coverage of economic and political news. Its peers aren’t _USA Today_ etc; they’re the _Wall Street Journal_ and the _Financial Times._ The WSJ has a far loonier editorial page than the _Economist_, but pretty good news coverage, esp. of the US (it’s weaker on Europe and a lot weaker on other parts of the world. The _Financial Times_ is a lot better in its depth of coverage of Europe, about the same on the US (deeper coverage of DC politics, not so good on the rest of the country), and weaker on the other international news. But both of these newspapers’ news coverage seems to me trustworthy in a way that the _Economist_ isn’t – the agenda doesn’t get in the way of the story. Even so, I’d be prepared to put up with a dollop of libertarianism with my news if the _Economist_ did a better job of it. Why I think the accusation of Oxbridge debating society cleverness hits close to the mark is that the _Economist_ seems very often to me to go for cheap debating tricks, obfuscations and non-sequiturs in the cause of advocating for their politics. This doesn’t make for good reading, at least for me; if I want libertarian arguments there are better places that I can go for them these days.

One rather outrageous example of obfuscation which I had a back and forth about with Megan McArdle last year was an _Economist_ story on immigrants in the US work force. It used the example of a notoriously nasty meat packing plant; while it mentioned that some human rights organizations had said that there were bad things going on, it countered these claims with a just-so anecdote from a former worker who had gone back to Mexico and thought that things were fine and dandy. The story never saw fit to mention that the company had actually been convicted of glaring labour abuses against immigrant workers in a US court, which would have cast the purported anecdotal refutation in a rather different light. This doesn’t seem to me to be responsible journalism under any reasonable definition. Indeed, it seems rather hackish.

Lane – fair enough that you want to defend your magazine – but the ‘millions of readers can’t be wrong’ defence isn’t a very good one, for all the obvious reasons. Nor am I claiming, contra what you say that the _Economist_ is attractive because of its cultural snobbery. If anything, it seems to me to have a mid-Atlantic voice these days rather than a specifically English one. As noted, the Oxbridge debating connection is to a tradition that prizes a certain kind of argumentative cleverness over a willingness to confront issues as they are (insofar as you can; obviously everyone is to some extent blinded by their priors). In short, the Economist‘s fault as I see it isn’t that it’s English upper-crust; it’s that it’s all too frequently glib. And glibertarianism is not a commodity that is in short supply.

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Glorious Godfrey 03.18.07 at 9:03 pm

Who is really condescending here? Us, or James Fallows, Henry Farrell and Tom Scocca…

I have the impression, Lane, that part of the point of the aforementioned pieces is to approach the Economist with the same amount of dismissive glibness that you all-too-often bring to bear on those you criticize.

It´s not entirely fair, it´s a tad shallow, but it´s all the more instructive for that, I think.

You may have heard of the motto “simplify, then exaggerate”.

Live by the sword, die by the sword and all that.

58

anon 03.18.07 at 11:38 pm

I actually prefer People. It doesn’t stick to the fish.

59

Jane Galt 03.19.07 at 12:40 am

For Christ’s sake, I have never, in four years working at The Economist, heard the motto “simplify, and then exaggerate”, and neither have any of my colleagues. As far as I can tell, the only person who ever did hear it was the chap who coined it; he last edited the paper 50 years ago.

60

Jane Galt 03.19.07 at 12:45 am

Henry, everyone who disagrees with the tone of an article in any paper can find some egregiously omitted fact that they think is crucial upon which to hang their principled opposition to disagreement. We disagree about whether this was, or was not, a significant omission, in part because we disagree about what the point of the story was. You seem to have thought that the point of the story was to perform a muckraking analysis of the slaughterhouse industry. Our editors erroneously believed it was a story about immigrants in America.

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The Emperor 03.19.07 at 1:03 am

John Emerson: I agree that “if your worldview starts to make you stupid or dishonest you have a problem.” But if you think the Economist is “stupid” or “dishonest,” I think it’s you that may have a problem. There are a lot of fair criticisms to make of the Economist. Calling it “stupid” or “dishonest” is just plain silly.

Oh, and just to clarify, I enjoy People quite a bit. It’s a great celebrity gossip magazine. Time, however, is worthless.

62

dsquared 03.19.07 at 1:37 am

I love the way that even in the course of defending himself against charges of patronising his readers, Lane can’t resist saying “we rather like them“. Yes we do, the chubby little rosy-cheeked scamps that they are! Pip pip! Reminds one of Jonathan Miller and Peter Cook confiding in the Beyond the Fringe audience that “Alan and Dudley are … working class! But they’re doing awfully well, aren’t they? Oh awfully well!”

63

ajay 03.19.07 at 9:51 am

It would be probably be unpopular to remind everyone that the most famous Oxford Union debate ever was on the glib, superficial subject “This House would not fight for King and Country” in 1936. I probably shouldn’t get in the way of the Colonial Cringe (US towards Britain) and the Polytechnic Cringe (everyone else towards Oxbridge) which are both on such prominent display here.
Perhaps we should just all agree that, while they sound cleverer, we are all sure that we are far more intelligent, better read, more moral and more in touch with our working class roots.

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Glorious Godfrey 03.19.07 at 11:45 am

“Jane”:

That young and talented Economist writers are not suckled with the “simplify, then exaggerate” line does not necessarily mean that it is not of some relevance now, as it was back then.

Lane:

Those familiar with Schopenhauers Eristische Dialektik will not have failed to notice that Lane was resorting to the well-known Kunstgriff 26 or retorsio argumenti i.e. the use of an opponent’s argument against him or her (“it’s the critics of the Economist who are condescending!”). This can be just as easily countered with a retorsio of the retorsio , as per #59. Lane also resorts to Kunstgriff 1, when he implicitly accuses Scocca of expounding at length on the magazine’s more-or-less stylized “Oxford-Union” smart-arsery. In fact, Scocca is merely trying to provide a few examples of how the magazine’s content is not really that good at all these days.

Those familiar with pro wrestling will not have failed to notice that Lane was talking smack.

It is at any rate more interesting to concentrate on substantive matters. This repartee could conceivably turn into a little Q&A session as well, and those are generally very exciting for the fans. It would thus be really nice if, for starters, either Lane or “Jane” were so kind to explain:

1) The magazine’s disgraceful provision of justifications for the Iraq war in the run-up to the conflict, as displayed by its willingness to buy into the WMD scaremongering, and more in general by its parroting of pro-war talking points (see e.g. how the line “determent does not work any longer with these people, who don’t care about self-preservation” crept into a few editorials, and how the exact identity of “those people” tended to be left suitably vague).

2) The magazine’s unwillingness to own up to 1) above, and general wishful thinking and cluelessness in its subsequent coverage of the Iraq war. This cluelessness has become manifest in the magazine’s continued willingness to push the party line (see e.g. its early praise of “Iraqization”, which failed to give due consideration to the possibility that the Coalition’s attempts to build up an “Iraqi” army could exacerbate the sectarian conflict or become fraught with corruption). For an occurrence of naive wishful thinking see e.g. the old assertion that “the Sunnis should just accept the new constitution! It’s the only realistic thing to do!” that is being cruelly belied, just as we speak, by the US administration’s newfound tolerance towards Saudi Arabia and Sunni radicals in the Middle East.

(BTW, do Economist staffers still think that Iraq is on track to become a member of the European Union, as the magazine –in the heady days after the fall of Baghdad– hinted that the case should be?)

3) The magazine’s fascination with Bjorn Lomborg, as well as its quainter outgrowths, such as the article “Defending Science”, where Mr. Lomborg’s “apoplectic” critics were urged to “stand in line for a pie in the face”.

4) Whether, if asked to arrange ten different covers of the Economist in a neat row and asked to think of one colour, the answer would be other than “yellow”, and whether, unlike the book in the famous idiom, a magazine like the Economist deliberately uses its covers to provide an indication of the quality and tone of its content to would-be buyers.

5) Whether they are at all surprised that some people are opinionated about a magazine that is itself so opinionated.

6) Where they deem the exact merit of the magazine’s in-your-face attitude to lie, regarding in particular the promotion of those causes that have been central to the magazine’s editorial line since its inception. In other words, whether they deem the magazine’s tone to be associated with some form of added value with respect to e.g. the economic coverage provided by the Financial Times , which manages not to be annoying or tendentious while not being precisely noted for its Marxist leanings.

Thank you.

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Jane Galt 03.19.07 at 1:52 pm

Godfrey, our precise point is that our critics are not upset because we have opinions, or our work is somehow shoddy; they’re upset because we have opinions that disagree with theirs, and our work is not shoddy, so they can’t just write us off as right-wing tossers. Disagreement becomes not, disagreement, but proof of our inhumanity, our shoddy thinking, our barbarous lack of values.

Obviously, we’re not going to comment on the editorial line of our newspaper, any more than you’ll start commenting on your company’s strategy here. I may agree with all of it, but what does it matter–you won’t believe me if I say so.

The value of our coverage is what our readers find in it. I realise that this distresses you, but look! You’re not reading it! And we fully support your right not to do so. You may have noticed we are not flooding your home with intrusive free copies.

I’d say they like the fact that we tell them what we think about the week’s news, so they have a good idea of how we’ve chosen to boil down what we’re presenting them. The FT, which includes almost everything, doesn’t need to do this. That doesn’t mean, however, that our news stories push an editorial line; when I write a story, I get to say what the likely problems are with any approach, (and what complaints don’t have much validity), but I don’t get to say, for example, “America should repeal its bankruptcy reform” or “Europe should privatise healthcare”.

D-Squared, Lane is a nice Georgia boy from a solid proletarian background. Though I confess he did attend Oxford, he was using the word “rather” in its American sense, not the bizarre Dickensian sense you’ve imputed.

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Glorious Godfrey 03.19.07 at 2:22 pm

Nobody has said that you lads are tossers; just tendentious, ridiculously overrated, painfully ham-handed and nowhere near as indispensable as you market yourselves to be.

On a more general note, if the discussion has to revolve about the admission that “you’re not an idiot if you read the Economist , and you aren’t one either if you don’t”, then I suppose that said discussion will have reached a level of banality that will warrant dropping it. I guess that everybody’s minds are firmly made up at this point.

OTOH, of course, this can go on for as long as you lads want and the moderator will allow.

Oh, and I’m not distressed; thoroughly amused would be more like it. My low opinion of your magazine does not extend to the staff’s intelligence: I’m sure that you must have some understanding for the mischievous glee that is derived from being a tad opinionated. Must come with the job, mustn’t it?

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dsquared 03.19.07 at 2:49 pm

Lane is a nice Georgia boy from a solid proletarian background.

gosh hasn’t he done well!

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Roy Bland 03.19.07 at 4:15 pm

So what publications are acceptable to today’s intellectual colussi?

Hey D2, you are the smartest being in the universe – what do you read?

** stands back waiting to be awed **

(Full disclosure: I’m not clever enough to realise when I’m being talked down to by Oxford chaps, so I quite like Economist)

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Dave 03.19.07 at 4:32 pm

I agree that the uniform perky tone of the newspaper can become grating; that the wit can feel at times like a mere reflex action, bypassing thought; and that the news articles can sometimes be a little superficial—especially if you know something about the country in question. But the self-assured tone is just part of the brand, a selling point, and at least they tend to write clearly and succinctly. Imagine how ponderously it would read if it was written—God forbid—by your average jargon-impaired academic, for example.

On the plus side, the news coverage is wide, the party line is easy to spot (quite frequently it is just grafted on to the opening and closing paragraphs), and the “Economics focus” section is usually an interesting summary of some piece of recent research. I also like the technology quarterly and the science section.

In fact, The Economist‘s journalists often seem more like, dare I say it, philosophes, mild eighteenth century men (and women) of letters, a link between the specialists and a wider public, as filtered through doctrinaire free-market republicanism, but in above-average prose.

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Henry 03.19.07 at 4:34 pm

We disagree about whether this was, or was not, a significant omission, in part because we disagree about what the point of the story was. You seem to have thought that the point of the story was to perform a muckraking analysis of the slaughterhouse industry. Our editors erroneously believed it was a story about immigrants in America.

Let’s go back to the relevant bit of _Economist_ reportage, shall we?

Consider Alberto Queiroz, who crept across the border 12 years ago. … picked blueberries for $5 a box … this job lasted only two months …So he sought more stable employment, which he eventually found at America’s largest hog slaughterhouse. Smithfield Foods’ plant at Tar Heel, North Carolina, turns some 32,000 pigs a day into hams and loins. Thanks to selective breeding and efficient, hygienic processing, American meat has grown steadily leaner, cheaper and safer, says Joe Luter, Smithfield’s chairman. … Human Rights Watch, a watchdog from New York, issued a report in 2004 … Slaughterhouses are harsh and dangerous places to work, said the report, and illegal immigrants, who form a large chunk of the workforce, find it hard to defy abusive employers. Mr Queiroz takes a more benign view. Yes, the work is hard. The line goes fast and you have to keep cutting till your hands are exhausted. And yes, it is sometimes dangerous. He says he once saw a co-worker lose a leg when he ducked under the disassembly line instead of walking round it. But many occupations are risky. Taxi-drivers are 34 times more likely to die on the job than meatpackers. Mr Queiroz does not think Smithfield was a bad employer. Wages of more than $10 an hour enabled him to buy a house back in Mexico.

We have here a pretty godawful piece of reporting, resting on refutation-by-anecdote. The very clear message that the reader is supposed to take away is that even if silly human rights organizations complain about the dangers of slaughterhouses and the difficulties that illegal immigrants face in defying abusive employers, these slaughterhouses are in fact tough but fair places, where employees only lose legs when they’re silly enough to take shortcuts, and where hardworking immigrants earn enough to start their own businesses back in Mexico. We know this because Mr. Queiroz tells us so. _Of course_ it must be true. What the _Economist_ fails to mention at all is that the slaughterhouse where Mr. Queiroz worked has been found by a federal court to have _illegally abused_ immigrant workers (threatening to report them to immigration authorities if they voted for a union), to have “egregiously” violated labour laws, to have beaten up a union organizer and engaged in sundry other forms of nasty behaviour. Megan feels that this somehow is not germane to the issue (raised specifically by the _Economist_ writer, only to be shot down immediately by Mr. Queiroz’ Horatio Algeresque anecdotes) of whether or not immigrants indeed face difficulties in defying abusive employers. I myself hold to the view that when a politically convenient anecdote holds up one side of an argument, and court rulings that the employer in question has chosen not to appeal holds up the other, the court findings should be taken to be dispositive, barring quite unusual circumstances. I also hold to the doubtless old-fashioned view that failing to report awkward facts of this kind make for a story that is at best flawed, and at worst rather dishonest.

our precise point is that our critics are not upset because we have opinions, or our work is somehow shoddy; they’re upset because we have opinions that disagree with theirs, and our work is not shoddy, so they can’t just write us off as right-wing tossers.

Patently not true. It’s precisely the shoddiness of the work that I and others have complained about, as should be quite obvious if you care to go back and read my criticisms, or the criticisms of Brad DeLong, who is not precisely a raving right-winger, nor someone who doesn’t understand economic reasoning – “as he describes it”:http://delong.typepad.com/sdj/2007/03/cringing_and_wh.html

As a longtime reader of the Economist, let me just say that in the past six years I have come to the conclusion that in five important issue areas–U.S. politics, U.S. economics, finance (U.S. and global), Middle Eastern politics, and African politics–anything the Economist states that I did not already know is likely to be wrong. That’s a terrible thing to have happened. And it’s the reason I pay much more attention these days to the Financial Times.

The common thread of the complaints here is that when the _Economist_ touches upon issue areas that a particular reader knows about in detail, it gets them wrong. The illusion that this is all nasty leftwingers expressing their bias is a convenient one; it means that there’s nothing disreputable about what the _Economist_ is doing. But that doesn’t make it any less an illusion.

71

Lane Greene 03.19.07 at 5:17 pm

I promised I wouldn’t go into defending the magazine, and I’ll hold myself to that–rather than answering Godfrey’s questions, I’d advise him to read the magazine to find out what we think, or to ignore it if he chooses to.

The point of my post was to defend our readers — nice work, dsquared, omitting “respect” from my saying “we rather respect and like them”. Why do we respect them? We know from our research that they are extremely educated, successful in government, business and academia, and internationally-minded. We know from our letters that they are witty and engaged–no one likes to point out a mistake, or make a crack at our expense, more than our readers. We know from personal experience that even when they hate our editoral line, they appreciate the reporting. I can’t remember how many times someone in New York or Europe has told me how much they detest our line on CSR or Iraq, before saying they still feel like it’s an important read.

Sure, readers could be wrong. Sure, we can be wrong, and we’re certainly not perfect. You are more than free to think we are over-rated. What is confusing me is your notion that The Economist is little more than a confidence-trick, and quite a lot of pretty bright people are falling for it. Not only do we respect our readers, we respect markets, as our pages make almost droningly clear. That means that I think in a world with a lot of excellent journalism and thousands of free and outsanding blogs (among which I really do count this one), a magazine as poor as the one you describe wouldn’t last long. As Henry says correctly, glibertarianism, along with glibanythingism for that matter, aren’t exactly in short supply.

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Henry 03.19.07 at 5:31 pm

I should add in fairness that the _Economist_ emerges better on one of Godfrey’s indictments than it appears at first. While they actively supported the Lomborg ranking exercise, which (regardless of the underlying merits of the positions) seems to have been prebaked hackery, they also “reported”:http://crookedtimber.org/2005/02/08/manipulating-choices/ afterwards on the serious misgivings that two of the panelists had about the process.

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dsquared 03.19.07 at 5:31 pm

nice work, dsquared, omitting “respect” from my saying “we rather respect and like them”

What, like that makes it any better? Try telling your wife that you “rather love” her this anniversary.

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Roy Bland 03.19.07 at 5:59 pm

So what’s it to be – Lane’s defence is invalid because popularity is no measure of quality if the voters are thickies (The Da Vinci Code is not the greatest novel of all time). Sadly that means implying Economist readers are thickies, but yes I think that’s acceptable, half of them wear suits and fancy watches. Ghastly bunch really.

D2 what is your point? Is it that Lane used “rather” in that way makes him sound like Stephen Fry (Oh no! Oxbridge Posho!) – in which case he could well say it to his wife, “Do you know old fruit, I think I rather love you” – but that’s not patronising, just posh*.

Or do you think he used “we rather respect them” as in “we respect them a little bit” as in your wouldn’t say that to the wife point? Patronising perhaps, but not a very plausible reading I’d say.

*A rather nice way with words, one could say. Oops have I just patronised him?

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dsquared 03.19.07 at 7:57 pm

Put it this way; if I said “I rather like and admire the Economist’s style”, but Henry said “I like and admire the Economist’s style”, and Kieran informed you that one of us was taking the piss, who would bet on Henry?

Or put it 11-plus style; which name from group B goes with which phrase in group A?

Group A

1. I respect and like _________
2. I rather respect and like __________

Group B:

X: The Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman
Y: Billy Smith, a bright twelve-year-old with a blog about politics.

It’s (1,X) and (2, Y), isn’t it?

I remain ignorant of this “American” sense of “I rather like and respect” which means something other than “I like and respect, to some extent”. It certainly isn’t in the Economist stylebook, for example.

I don’t know why anyone is making this utterly unsupported and quite likely false sweeping empirical claim about the magazine publishing industry, by the way, that magazines which patronise their readers don’t succeed. Der Spiegel patronises its German readers, the New Yorker talks down to its readers, even Vanity Fair does. It’s almost as if Lane had decided on what point he was going to make and then invented an airy generalisation to support it, although since he is a staff writer at the Economist that would surely be out of character.

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dsquared 03.19.07 at 8:04 pm

only use of the word in the relevant sense in the Economist that I can find is here and looks pretty patronising to me.

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Phantom 03.19.07 at 8:17 pm

Sigh…it all goes back to Iraq, doesn’t it? The first two points of Moveon.Godfreys substantive Q&A revolve around Iraq and the how-dare-they-support-the-warmongering-lying-devil-himself liberalish view.

As for the magazine’s continued willingness to push the party line, I direct you to the January 11th leader on Bush’s “surge” plan:

After everything that has gone so wrong, it would be foolish to argue that Mr Bush’s plan is certain of success. Even if it does succeed, this would not be “victory” in any normal sense. Iraq is likely to be violent and unstable for years to come. Contrary to what Mr Bush said this week, the dream of turning it into a democratic model for other Arabs has died.

It is a characteristic of democracies to aim high and lose patience quickly when success is elusive. The people of the United States thought they were ridding the world of a dictator who was building an atomic bomb. They hoped to be greeted as liberators, not invaders. More than the cost in soldiers’ lives and squandered dollars, it is the feeling that they are doing no good that has turned them against this war. Instead of a high-minded victory, they have witnessed a debacle.

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Glorious Godfrey 03.19.07 at 9:59 pm

Phantom:

Sigh…it all goes back to Iraq, doesn’t it? The first two points of Moveon.Godfreys substantive Q&A revolve around Iraq and the how-dare-they-support-the-warmongering-lying-devil-himself liberalish view.

I hope that your sigh is like the one described in Chapter III of “Alice through the looking glass”:

“The little voice sighed deeply: it was VERY unhappy, evidently, and Alice would have said something pitying to comfort it, `If it would only sigh like other people!’ she thought. But this was such a wonderfully small sigh, that she wouldn’t have heard it at all, if it hadn’t come QUITE close to her ear. The consequence of this was that it tickled her ear very much, and quite took off her thoughts from the unhappiness of the poor little creature.”

I couldn´t live with any other kind of sigh.

I do apologize for my frivolous interest, shared with many of the “liberalish” set, in picking through the rubble of the Iraq war. It must be bothersome, this background noise of discontent. Some people should let bygones be bygones. But it´s an important-ish topic, anyway. Or it was and is sold as such. Do you remember all that “central front in the Global War on Terror” thing?

There is no merit whatsoever in the January the 11th Leader you cite, anyway. So they are bailing out, after four years. Do allow me to shrug. With a Kirby Krackle.

The “substantive” Q&A, irrespective of whether it deserves the adjective or not, is certainly not exhaustive. I let my subscription lapse early in 2004, and the occasional issues that have dropped in my lap after that point have only received cursory glances.

It´s not all about Iraq, mate. Do I have to provide a few examples of their lacklustre and often unrealistic, petulant and downright ignorant European coverage? Of the recent profusion of distracting comparisons between Europe and the US that pollute many of their articles, and the obvious purpose of which is to cater to the conceits of the stateside target audience?

Incidentally, and since everybody is tossing “full disclosures” around, here´s one of my own: I´m Romanian, and I´ve lived in Spain, France, the Netherlands and Germany. I´ve found the fact that the discussion of the magazine´s “mid-Atlantic” line (to use Henry´s polite term) has sparked a short Anglo-American squabble a tad perplexing, to be honest.

Do we really have to bother to comment on the slipping standards of economic coverage? On the increasing proportion of articles that follow the pattern: “this guy says this; this other guy says that; only time will tell; whatever the case, remember that you can´t go wrong with the editorial line”? On the fact that they´ll innocently slip here and yon the odd reference to, say, the Austrian School, without the proper qualifications (i.e. a mention of the fact that they are not exactly mainstream, or that their prescriptions to overcome recessions tend to command less respect than their descriptions thereof)?

Moveon.Godfrey is hilarious, by the way.

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mick angel 03.19.07 at 11:03 pm

I think to much is being made on the specific words used in in Lane’s reply rather than the intent behind them.

The economist’s style can certainly be grating and patronising. The arrogant/matronly tone shouldn’t get in the way of good journalism or insightful articles and it usually doesn’t. It’s a ‘house style’ in a way and comes with the territory.

I have come close to unsubscribing a few times; mostly when the ‘party line’ proved to be incredibly incorrect and yet the editor plainly chose not explain why it got things so spectacularly wrong. Bush/Iraq is the most obvious example where the editorial tack chosen seemed to be at the expense of quality (namely more level-headed analysis). I’m sure the editors of Boy-Band fanzines aimed at 15-year old girls know better than to take the words of politicians at face value (even when they are saying what you want to hear) yet the Economist fell for the spin and flawed Iraq intelligence hook-line-and-sinker.

I think Iraq was a good test of the Economist’s strength in rational analysis and sadly it got it so badly wrong that a lot of trust has been lost. At the moment I trust it on very little; its journalism is shallow and often too anecdotal, its analysis is slightly better but the Blair/Bush/Iraq cloud hanging over the editor’s head means that any article that goes near these subjects has me reaching for the pinch of salt. More often than not I simply skim over the subjects they have verifiably gotten horribly and misguidedly wrong, rather than read those articles as deeply as other subjects.

Ignoring the poor political judgments it has made it has now sadly started making some glaring mistakes in the fields of technology and ecology.

The mistakes and ‘skim-only’ topics does mean there’s less and less to read of any value in each edition but I live in hope that the trend will reverse. It can’t get everything wrong surely.

The reason I haven’t unsubscribed is that even when the Economist gets it wrong the writing style still forces you to reason against it rather than merely throw the magazine into the bin. The glib throw-away lines hoping to steer your opinion or hide a shallow article are sometimes non-obvious and I find that spotting them is good mental exercise.

As someone else has mentioned in the comments above the Economist is neither “stupid” or “dishonest” (yet?) and it has a better chance of being ‘a good read’ than almost anything else.

I wish the writers at the Economist well and hope they can pull the level of analysis and insight up a few notches. After some years of reading their articles ‘I rather respect and like them’.

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Glorious Godfrey 03.19.07 at 11:06 pm

I promised I wouldn’t go into defending the magazine, and I’ll hold myself to that—rather than answering Godfrey’s questions, I’d advise him to read the magazine to find out what we think, or to ignore it if he chooses to.

To be honest, I asked knowing full well that you can´t comment on your employer´s policy. It´s trashy, but what´s one going to do?

The point of my post was to defend our readers… We know from our research that they are extremely…

They´re wunnerful, truly. I know that for a fact because I used to be one of them.

You´re latching onto the frankly inane notion that I and others deem your readers to be gullible idiots, who buy into the magazine´s blandishments without having the slightest idea of what proper journalism should look like.

Sorry, that´s not going to fly.

Make no mistake, you do strive to flatter your core readership. This and other assorted mannerisms of the magazine are an important factor of its success. But the Economist is not a rag. OF COURSE NOT. You just don´t happen to be at all that good, IMO.

Don´t you agree that you´re making a run-of-the-mill appeal to authority? A glorified “50 million Elvis fans can´t be wrong” ploy?

Are you trying to say that “prestige” (or “notoriety”) and “informational value” are equivalent in journalism?

That the concept of “informational value” is simple? That when people read about news item X in notorious news source Y they are only interested in grasping the objective reality of X, without attaching value to the observation of Y´s biases or lack thereof vis-à-vis X?

What is confusing me is your notion that The Economist is little more than a confidence-trick, and quite a lot of pretty bright people are falling for it.

No, it´s not “my notion”. It´s never been. You keep trying to trot out that straw man. See above. Or Dsquared´s last post.

And you´re not confused. I´d wager that you´re a remarkably sharp lad.

We´re running in circles here.

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Glorious Godfrey 03.19.07 at 11:20 pm

Moveon.Godfrey in a nutshell:

Mick Angel is a better man than I.

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mick angel 03.20.07 at 12:10 am

Dear Glorious,

“Mick Angel is a better man than I.”

I wouldn’t bet on that. :-)

Your post gives me a chance to say something I thought of after my post.

I subscribe to two magazines: Private Eye and The Economist and something strikes me as very different between the two ‘organs’ (apart from the obvious):

When Private Eye gets something wrong (which it often does) it does so with what you guess are the best intentions and sensible thinking, you could say it gets things wrong in the right way.

When The Economist gets things wrong, its original positions seem so empty, foolhardy or groundless in hindsight that it is sometimes embarassing: it seems to get things wrong in the wrong way.

If I had to choose one over the other I’d take Private Eye over The Economist any day.

Time for bed.

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Joanne 03.20.07 at 1:53 am

“Joanne, darling, try to relax.”

Eeeuh. How smarmy.

Well, I didn’t know that you were referring to the article. That wasn’t clear. I only skimmed the thing very briefly. And I was perfectly relaxed when I commented the last time. I did it on impulse, but I wasn’t anything but relaxed.

Anyway, even if such Americans exist, and Martin may be right about that, I think that he himself shouldn’t have gone off on such a tirade based on one writer. And James Fallows is a distinguished journalist who, I suspect, doesn’t feel inferior to anyone.

No, Martin, you should take your own advice. Take it easy in your own language. And if some Americans feel that way, it’s too bad for them. We don’t need even more arrogance from Brits only to reinforce that feeling of inferiority.

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Martin Hinton 03.20.07 at 9:13 am

Oh dear, I am sorry, truly. The smarminess was purely intentional and patronising in a self-mocking way but nevermind… the original post was about an article. I based my comments on that article. You only ‘skimmed the thing’ so it’s unsurprising you didn’t know what I was talking about. You felt I was insulting your proud nation so sprung to its defence. Very admirable. I do hope we can now be friends.

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Martin Hinton 03.20.07 at 9:16 am

Please enjoy yourself at my expense spotting the grammar/spelling (you choose) mistake in the above. And please, have a nice day!

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Dave 03.20.07 at 9:43 am

“I remain ignorant of this “American” sense of “I rather like and respect” which means something other than “I like and respect, to some extent””

If understatement is indicated or intended—as it is in upper-class British English, and perhaps in contemporary standard American English (I don’t know)—then “rather” can mean the opposite of “to some extent”, carrying the sense of “quite a lot” or “very much”. Therefore, “I very much like and respect”.

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Phantom 03.20.07 at 5:39 pm

I’m an atheist, see, so that means I don’t believe in Godfrey.

I do believe that you are incorrect in stating that The Economist suffers from slipping standards of economic coverage…although I enjoyed the fact that not long after the “Incredible Shrinking Dollar” cover the dollar spent the next 12 months rebounding versus the Euro. As anectodal evidence, check out this Buttonwood column from the Feb 17th issue…10 days before the recent spike in global equity volatility:

***An uneasy calm has settled over financial markets

IT IS a scene familiar to all Western lovers. The cavalry is riding through a mountain pass. One officer turns to a comrade. “I don’t like it,” he says nervously. “It’s too quiet.” The next second, an arrow hits him in the chest.

The financial markets are in a similar state of nervous anticipation. Things have been going extremely well. According to David Rosenberg of Merrill Lynch, the American stockmarket has sustained its longest run since 1954 without a day’s decline of 2%. The interest-rate spread offered by high-yield, or junk, bonds over Treasury bonds is thinner than ever. Volatility is low. A market “correction”, aimed straight at the chest, seems overdue.***

The crystal ball was working that day, at least.

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Glorious Godfrey 03.20.07 at 11:35 pm

Hey, the thread isn´t closed yet. Awesome. This is, like, a discussion FOR YOUR EYES ONLY! ZOMG the readings on my orgasmatron are off the scale.

The magazine´s economic coverage remains at least adequate. It´s not called the Linotypist , after all. It is however clearly outclassed at least by the Financial Times and a handful of select blogs (taken all together, that is), and for day-to-day coverage it obviously has a bit of a handicap.

And from what you could call a purely conceptual POV it does leave a lot to be desired. The fact that the editorial line gets in the way wouldn´t be so bothersome if it didn´t happen in underhanded ways. I´ve already mentioned those Austrians, although perhaps they may have faded into the background somewhat lately (I wouldn´t know, since I´m no longer reading the thing). As it happens, back in 2004/2005 or so the “global imbalances” were a bigger concern than these days, what with all the –not entirely uncontroversial– research fleshing out the global savings glut thang and the so-called Bretton Woods II system that has come down the pike in the intervening months.

I´d wager that the Economist´s take on these developments went like this: “some say that everything is tickety-boo. Others answer that there is always people who argue that ‘this time is different’ before a recession. Only time will tell. In the meantime, don´t forget your glibertarian vitamines, kids.”

This is a bit of a change of topic, anyway. We were exchanging below-the-belt blows on whether “it all goes back to Iraq” or not, remember? If you´re willing to accept that my dislike for the Economist is all-encompassing and pure, endearing in its crankiness, then we can be pals.

I´m an agnostic myself, by the way. I think that Godfrey´s existence is beyond the domain of empirical evidence, and that for each and everyone of his alleged postings there is a parsimonious explanation

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