WaPo: Surveying the flaming wreckage

by John Quiggin on July 15, 2009

A DC-based friend wrote today to say that he had finally abandoned the Washington Post, a paper he used to really like. The final straw was this piece allegedly written by Sarah Palin, a substance-free rant claiming that a cap-and-trade scheme for CO2 emissions would be economically ruinous. But much more damaging is the observation that, if this piece had come out (with the obvious stylistic variations) under the byline of George Will, Robert Samuelson, David Broder or any of the other rightwing/Villager hacks on the Post op-ed page, it would have slipped by without any real notice. The sooner this insult to the memory of Katherine Graham and Ben Bradlee1 goes out of business, the better.

1 Yes, I know Ben Bradlee is still alive, and even still associated with the paper. But his memory will be forever associated with the Post in its glory days, and not with the travesty produced by Fred Hiatt and Katharine Weymouth.

{ 54 comments }

1

Righteous Bubba 07.15.09 at 4:52 am

In Alaska, we are progressing on the largest private-sector energy project in history. Our 3,000-mile natural gas pipeline will transport hundreds of trillions of cubic feet of our clean natural gas to hungry markets across America.

I can picture her writing that. It’s terrible.

2

Chris Bertram 07.15.09 at 8:04 am

3

Tim Worstall 07.15.09 at 9:10 am

“But much more damaging is the observation that, if this piece had come out (with the obvious stylistic variations) under the byline of George Will”

Possibly, although I see nothing particularly hacktastic about Will’s recent column on “green jobs”.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/24/AR2009062403012.html

An interesting question well worth addressing: does the subsidising of specifically green jobs create more or less employment overall?

4

John Quiggin 07.15.09 at 9:49 am

It seemed pretty hacktastic to me, I have to say. No doubt the phrase “green jobs” has been used in connection with wind turbines, but evaluating the program on this basis is like evaluating the Apollo mission as a cost-effective source of frypan technology. And the sources cited are of a category so routinely dishonest that it’s not worth paying attention to them – the only way to check out something from the AEI, Heritage or some similar source is to replicate the entire study from scratch.

But that’s by the bye. Nothing (not even Palin) is going to match the hacktasticity of Will’s stuff on climate science. After this, there is no point in paying attention to anything he writes.

On the general question, my approach would be to look at labor intensity. The stereotypical green jobs programs (expanding/upgrading national parks) seem likely to score pretty well. Wind turbines maybe less so.

5

Tim Worstall 07.15.09 at 11:57 am

This is the Spanish paper he was referring to:

http://www.juandemariana.org/pdf/090327-employment-public-aid-renewable.pdf

That increasing the cost of electricity might destroy more jobs than are created in the windmill program sounds at least potentially believable.

6

bert 07.15.09 at 1:02 pm

There’s a simple explanation for why this piece is indistinguishable from standard WaPo product.
It was written for her (prime suspect: Kristol, W) and her name was put at the top.
Surely we know that if she’d tried to produce an oped unaided, we’d now be hooting with delight.
In this case, though, the natural response is weary contempt. Which tells us it comes straight from a tediously familiar source.

7

Barry 07.15.09 at 1:04 pm

JQ: “Yes, I know Ben Bradlee is still alive, and even still associated with the paper. But his memory will be forever associated with the Post in its glory days, and not with the travesty produced by Fred Hiatt and Katharine Weymouth.”

I wonder if the more accurate way to look at the WaPoo would be to consider their breaking of the Watergate story as an aberration; one that they’ve ridden on for far too long.

8

Tom Hurka 07.15.09 at 1:33 pm

Well, she’s only trying to take the JFK route to the Presidency. The only difference is that she won’t get a Pulitzer prize for what she didn’t write.

9

NomadUK 07.15.09 at 1:35 pm

Neither will whoever wrote it, as it’s utter drivel.

10

kth 07.15.09 at 2:00 pm

But much more damaging is the observation that, if this piece had come out (with the obvious stylistic variations) under the byline of George Will, Robert Samuelson, David Broder or any of the other rightwing/Villager hacks on the Post op-ed page, it would have slipped by without any real notice.

With all due respect, it doesn’t sound like you’ve actually read Palin’s op-ed, which is several degrees worse than the Post’s usual mendacities and banalities. Palin is arguing against cap and trade, yet nowhere in her essay do the words “emissions”, “carbon”, “warming”, “climate” appear in it, nor any reference to those concepts. She instead refers incessantly to energy independence, as if that were the object of cap and trade. I have no doubt that she fundamentally misunderstands what is at issue, and this on a topic on which she purports to be an expert.

And for similar reasons, I’m quite confident that she wrote it, though copy editors no doubt polished her diction and syntax. It’s too obtuse, too beside the point, to have been written by anyone else in American political life or letters.

11

Uncle Kvetch 07.15.09 at 2:29 pm

It was written for her (prime suspect: Kristol, W) and her name was put at the top.

I don’t know. Kristol may be a pathological liar and not particularly bright (well, no “may” about it, really), but can you really imagine him submitting a piece containing the sentence “Westerners literally sit on mountains of oil and gas”?

It’s so damn sad. I was an avid daily newspaper reader for the first 35 years of my life. Now I don’t think the things can die off fast enough.

12

ajay 07.15.09 at 2:49 pm

Oh, Timmeh. The Instituto Juan de Mariana is a right-wing think tank that shares its director and at least one fellow with the Heartland Institute’s anti-CC conferences. I think that puts them in the same category of reliability as AEI and Heritage.
And the study Will cites was, as Will admits in the article, backed by the Institute for Energy Research, which is oil-industry-backed and headed by the former director of PR for Enron – and which, as Will admits in the article, has also paid Will’s rent in the past.

And you think there’s nothing particularly hacktastic about it?

Well, I suppose you wouldn’t…

13

engels 07.15.09 at 3:32 pm

I was an avid daily newspaper reader for the first 35 years of my life.

You must have been a precocious 1-year-old :)

14

Uncle Kvetch 07.15.09 at 3:46 pm

Picky, picky…

15

musical mountaineer 07.15.09 at 5:32 pm

Thanks for the link, Tim. I’d read about that somewhere, but would have had some trouble finding it.

Other commenters are are quick to point out that AEI, Heritage, Juan de Mariana and so forth are not to be trusted, suffer from conflict of interest, and so forth. Well, okay. But I suggest that the far greater conflict of interest is on the other side. Suppose that honest research would indicate greater costs than benefits from “green jobs”. Who, besides these untrustworthy, conflicted parties, would say so?

We’re supposed to believe we can’t trust anyone who may have a financial incentive to say a particular thing. Yet the proponents of “climate-friendly” policy stand to gain such political power that any amount of mere money looks like a sucker prize by comparison.

Anyway, who needs all these think-tanks? You can be stupid enough to write the phrase “hungry markets” and still see that fire is hot, water is wet, and green policies are economic suicide. Indeed, many greens (the ones on the street, not the ones in the bully pulpit) are happy to say that economic suicide is exactly what’s needed.

16

alex 07.15.09 at 5:47 pm

“…the proponents of “climate-friendly” policy stand to gain such political power that any amount of mere money looks like a sucker prize by comparison…”

And just how the fuckety-fuck fuck is that?? And what the crappety-crap crap does it even mean? Al Gore deciding who lives and who dies [by Powerpoint, of course]? Climatologists cackling maniacally as they eat the babies of helpless former oilmen?

Praise the Lord and pass the tin-foil hats…

17

bert 07.15.09 at 5:52 pm

I’m curious about how climate denialism dovetails with europhobia.
Is this what prevents hardened ukippers from joining the New Tory throng?
Presumably liberal elites are involved at some point.

[John, has the current version of this post been tweaked at all?
If not, I may be losing the plot.
Which is entirely possible.]

18

musical mountaineer 07.15.09 at 5:54 pm

Alex’s argument, especially the crappety-crap crap part, is so devastating I must admit defeat.

19

kid bitzer 07.15.09 at 6:25 pm

you sure you want to lionize ben bradlee? husband of sally quinn?

she of the hit-pieces on the clintons? the ultimate village insider, who declared that washington is “our town”, to whom david broder spoke the immortal line that clinton “came in and trashed the place”?

from her wiki page:

“Regarding Whitewater independent counsel Ken Starr, she wrote:[5] “Similarly, independent counsel Ken Starr is not seen by many Washington insiders as an out-of-control prudish crusader. Starr is a Washington insider, too. He has lived and worked here for years. He had a reputation as a fair and honest judge. He has many friends in both parties. Their wives are friendly with one another and their children go to the same schools.” Starr had won the gratitude of Quinn’s husband Ben Bradlee in 1987, as an Appeals Court judge, by dismissing a $2 million libel suit against the Washington Post. [7]”

i dunno–maybe you just meant to say, “he ran a decent newspaper.” but the fact is, if you think that the wapo’s current state of mendacity is just the natural evolution of the villagers taking care of the villlagers, then you should place the blame squarely on the ultimate villagers, ben and sally.

20

kid bitzer 07.15.09 at 6:26 pm

probably worth seeing her article in all its glory, just so you can see how she led the war on the clintons which led to the on gore that gave us bush.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/clinton/stories/quinn110298.htm

21

bert 07.15.09 at 6:32 pm

Having been snarky at #17, let me take the argument seriously for a second.
I always took the “green jobs” pitch as a zero-sum argument.
If you accept the science, then the world economy will necessarily run on a reduced carbon basis. Green jobs will come to those countries who have prepared for this, for instance by having made public investments early on in alternative energy. That’s certainly the case that was made for the German move into solar power: get your comparative advantage in first.
As such it was a useful rhetorical counter to those complaining about the costs of being a first-mover.
Some may have been claiming that a low-carbon world economy will have higher employment overall, in the way Worstall suggests, but that’s not the “green jobs” argument I’ve heard over the years.

22

JM 07.15.09 at 6:53 pm

You can be stupid enough to write the phrase “hungry markets” and still see that fire is hot, water is wet, and green policies are economic suicide.

Apparently.

23

idlemind 07.15.09 at 7:12 pm

If anthropogenic climate change, peak oil, and other issues tied to our dependency on fossil fuels have any reality, “green jobs” have an impact far beyond whether they equalize jobs lost from green policies. Any positive effect on the present economic crisis is questionable, making it a weak argument indeed to promote them as a solution to our immediate needs. But the effect on the next generation of forgoing a push into green jobs may be dire.

24

StevenAttewell 07.15.09 at 7:48 pm

I dunno about the Washington Post in its glory days. Considering that Broder was there at the time arguing that Woodward and Bernstein were destroying the presidency, I’m beginning to think that it was all a fluke.

25

kid bitzer 07.15.09 at 7:57 pm

a fluke, or a fundamental schizophrenia between the reporting staff and the editorial staff, such as the wsj perennially manifests.

after all, there are still a few decent straight-forward reporters at the wapo, like pincus and froomkin.

(oh. yeah; forget that last one.)

but i think the editorial staff was always corrupt, and gradually dragged the reporters down, too.

26

Matt 07.15.09 at 8:13 pm

My understanding (I’m happy to be corrected if this is wrong) is that Woodward (and I believe Bernstein, as well, were on the city beat for the Washington Post when they started getting the tips that lead them to break the Watergate story. That is, they were fairly low on the totem pole and explicitly not working primarily on political topics.

27

belle le triste 07.15.09 at 8:14 pm

there’s an argument that the wapo’s investigation of nixon’s administration was merely the reaction of an insider elite against the outsiders who were trashing the place — certainly nixon saw it in those terms (except he felt ads president he had the executive right to trash)

(broder of course deplored the woodstein outrage)

28

kid bitzer 07.15.09 at 8:38 pm

interesting, belle. i have not heard that before, but it’s plausible. the franklins vs. the orthogonians again. that would certainly cohere with one aspect of the coverage that i remember from that period, which was the extremely unkind treatment of martha mitchell, wife of atty gen john. i remember that the wapo went to lengths to portray her as a crass, déclassée, trailer-trash drunk.

i’m not saying that martha or john deserved any kindness, either, just that it is interesting that they were treated that way by a paper that was extremely willing to overlook the foibles of those it took to its bosom. if you are part of our town, then a wee drinking problem/mistress/wire-tapping is just a small secret among friends. if you are not part of our town, then the truth must be found!

katherine graham was extremely friendly with the reagans, for that matter–they were, for whatever reason, accepted as the right sort of people.

29

Bloix 07.15.09 at 8:44 pm

” Suppose that honest research would indicate greater costs than benefits from “green jobs”. ”

What does this mean? Excluding the costs relating to climate change, I suppose? Are we talking about some sort of “crowding out” argument whereby government money spent to subsidize green jobs pulls money out of the private sector and thus causes a rise in unemployment equal to the rise in the number of jobs due to the subsidy? Because that kind of argument just doesn’t fly in the middle of a depression.

30

John Quiggin 07.15.09 at 8:46 pm

Bert, I don’t think you are losing the plot. I added the “allegedly written” a bit later. I’m not sure if I added it without reading your comment or if you commented without re-reading the post. Either way, Snap!

31

Ben Alpers 07.15.09 at 10:20 pm

there’s an argument that the wapo’s investigation of nixon’s administration was merely the reaction of an insider elite against the outsiders who were trashing the place—certainly nixon saw it in those terms (except he felt ads president he had the executive right to trash)

Or to put it another way, Nixon might have gotten away with it had he kissed up to the press a little, rather than relentlessly treating them as the enemy. In this sense the Bush administration did learn the lessons of Watergate (though to please the base they had to also sing from the Spiro Agnew “Natering Nabobs of Negativism” hymnal on occasion).

32

musical mountaineer 07.15.09 at 10:22 pm

What does this mean? Excluding the costs relating to climate change, I suppose?

You suppose correctly. What I imply is a debate where someone says that creating green jobs will be a net plus for the economy, employment, what have you, without getting into the relative benefits of not having the planet explode.

Are we talking about some sort of “crowding out” argument whereby government money spent to subsidize green jobs pulls money out of the private sector and thus causes a rise in unemployment equal to the rise in the number of jobs due to the subsidy?

In practice it’s considerably worse than that, but basically yes.

Because that kind of argument just doesn’t fly in the middle of a depression.

What depression? And why not? What is it about being really sick that makes bleeding the patient a good idea?

33

John Quiggin 07.15.09 at 10:32 pm

MM, you imply such a debate, but there isn’t one. In the face of an ignorant rant like Palin’s, or a more professional presentation of the same points by Martin Feldstein, saying that the gross costs of an emissions trading scheme are large, lots of people correctly point out that there are offsetting benefits – green jobs will expand while ‘brown’ jobs will contract. In political rhetoric, it’s common to suggest that there will be a net benefit.

What the standard economic studies (Stern, Garnaut etc) show is that there will be a small (1-3 per cent) loss in the value of output (ignoring the economic value of climate benefits) and that the net impact on employment can’t be predicted with any accuracy, except to say that it will also be small relative to total employment.

I have been over this quite a few times, and I think you’ve commented before along these lines, so I’m not going to bother locating the links.

34

musical mountaineer 07.15.09 at 11:34 pm

In political rhetoric, it’s common to suggest that there will be a net benefit.

It’s not true but some people will say it anyway, so whatever, I guess.

If anyone commented before along these lines, it wasn’t me. No worries about the links; I was able easily enough to find the wikipedia articles on Stern and Garnaut. Of course, I tend to find the skeptics such as George Reisman more credible than the authors; it’s that tinfoil hat of mine. As for the papers themselves, I wouldn’t know how to read them (and neither would just about anyone commenting here, so you all may as well save your snark for another day).

Thanks for your civil and informative reply.

35

TSOL 07.16.09 at 3:34 am

So the Post’s pimping itself as a go-between for lobbyists looking for access to the Obama administration is less outrageous than a poorly-written op-ed by a former vice-presidential nominee?

Interesting priorities.

36

LFC 07.16.09 at 3:34 am

I think the Post was never quite as great in its glory days, nor is it as bad now, as the OP and several of the comments suggest. There have always been some good reporters at WaPo and there still are some, especially reporting from the foreign bureaus (Pamela Constable in Pakistan, to cite just one current example). I haven’t read David Broder much in recent years, but if he’s become a right-wing partisan like George Will that’s a fairly recent development. He was not that way in the years I read him, but rather someone concerned (perhaps obsessed would be a better word) with the decline of political parties and similar issues that I thought of as being more “process” issues than left-wing or right-wing. To the extent he had a discernible bent I would have said he was a Rockefeller Republican (or now you would say perhaps a Susan Collins or Olympia Snowe Republican), which is not where I ever was ideologically but is not, to be fair, a George Will/Charles Krauthammer position. Also, before he was an op-ed columnist Broder, unlike Will, spent years as a straight political reporter, and he was unquestionably one of the best in the business. If you don’t believe me, go back and read his coverage of, say, the 1972 Democratic presidential primaries. I was too young to vote in that election but I was old enough to follow it avidly, and Broder and his colleagues on the Post political staff produced first-rate reportage. Whatever Broder’s become in recent years, no one can ever take that away from him.

37

Henry (not the famous one) 07.16.09 at 4:32 am

Pardon me for pissing on the gravesite of St. Katherine, but some of us will always remember her as the owner who busted the printing trades unions at the Post (while their ostensible union brothers and sisters in the Newspaper Guild–Don Oberdorfer, we’re looking at you–crossed the lines because there were higher principles at stake).

38

John Quiggin 07.16.09 at 6:09 am

TSOL, I decided a while ago that I would ban the next person who wrote a comment along the lines “why are you getting outraged about this, when you should be outraged about that”, and you’ve made it easy, since Henry posted on this point on 2 July.

https://crookedtimber.org/2009/07/02/washington-post-really-crashes-and-burns-edition/

If your snark was directed at my friend, the ban applies for stupidity. What part of “the last straw” don’t you understand? (this question is rhetorical, I don’t expect an answer and will delete any that you provide).

Finally, this ban applies only to my posts, but any attempt to argue back, evade the ban etc will lead to an immediate sitewide ban under our comments policy.

39

Old-Timer 07.16.09 at 12:20 pm

Katherine Graham was a through-going establishmentarian. I decided this when I read part of the text (somewhere in her autobiography) of a speech she gave to the CIA saying that the inner circle should decide what the hoi poli needed to know.

Which is not to say that things haven’t gotten worse lately.

40

John Quiggin 07.16.09 at 12:26 pm

Following Old-Timer and quite a few others, I’m sure the Good Old Days™ weren’t nearly as good as I remember them from the other side of the world. But, that doesn’t mean things haven’t gotten a lot worse lately.

As with most papers that have gone downhill badly, I’m sure there are still good journalists working for WaPo (Pincus is one obvious case who’s been mentioned). Hopefully, as with Froomkin, they will find opportunities in the post-Post world.

41

Salient 07.16.09 at 1:45 pm

As with most papers that have gone downhill badly, I’m sure there are still good journalists working for WaPo (Pincus is one obvious case who’s been mentioned).

And Ezra Klein!

[At some point recently I told myself I just shouldn’t bother to read anything in the Post again, and the next day he up and announced he was moving his blog there.]

42

kid bitzer 07.16.09 at 2:26 pm

ezra’s case is a bit of a puzzle, since you don’t normally see rats jumping *onto* a sinking ship, esp. rats who are extremely intelligent.

i have to assume that ezra took a gamble that this will not impede his trajectory upwards to wonkish stardom. and i think it was a wise gamble–if he stays there for a few years, he will probably be able to move on to something higher profile, whether big media or political.

i think he’s an odd case in that his credibility among the progressive bloggy world is so secure that this will not hurt him much with that group. what he needed was visibility *outside* the world of people who readed tapped, delong, ct, yglesias, etc., and this he is getting.

what i do *not* think it means is that smart young progressives are putting their money and careers on the future of the washington post as a brand. ezra won’t be there in five years, and he knows it.

43

kid bitzer 07.16.09 at 2:27 pm

and yes, that was all speculation and mind-reading based on bupkis.

44

Salient 07.16.09 at 2:33 pm

ezra’s case is a bit of a puzzle, since you don’t normally see rats jumping onto a sinking ship, esp. rats who are extremely intelligent.

My guess is, someone at the Post made a damn good decision in offering Ezra a salary he couldn’t refuse. I’m probably not the only one in the vaguely-left population who is now returning regularly to the Post’s website for Ezra’s blog, and only for that reason. Maybe their net loss in traffic from firing Froomkin has been minimal for this reason. (And admittedly I still end up clicking around to see if there’s anything else interesting on the site, which presumably is part of what they were hoping for…)

45

Barry 07.16.09 at 2:41 pm

kid bitzer 07.16.09 at 2:26 pm

“i have to assume that ezra took a gamble that this will not impede his trajectory upwards to wonkish stardom. and i think it was a wise gamble—if he stays there for a few years, he will probably be able to move on to something higher profile, whether big media or political.”

In which case his real friends will make sure that Ezra keeps that in mind. It won’t take too long for (probably) the highest salary he’s ever earned to rot him.

46

kid bitzer 07.16.09 at 3:03 pm

as you wish, barry.

i think it’s pretty clear that we’re both just psychologically projecting on a stranger neither of us knows, so we’re at liberty to make up our own fantasies.

i fantasize about his nimbly climbing the pathway to stardom, you fantasize about his moral corruption thereby–and the more we go on, the less it has to do with young ezra at all. but fantasy is free.

47

Salient 07.16.09 at 3:35 pm

In which case his real friends will make sure that Ezra keeps that in mind.

Heh, about 1 hour ago he took the editorial page to task. It was mildly put, but really no moreso than the various take-to-tasks he’s written on previous blogs.

Not that this somehow disproves your claim about what’ll happen eventually (as kid bitzer said, conjecture is free). My cynical guess is, the Post will want Ezra to issue occasional rebuttals to WaPo editorials, to satisfy the left-leaning audience who they’re trying to draw in.

48

JM 07.16.09 at 4:31 pm

So the Post’s pimping itself as a go-between for lobbyists looking for access to the Obama administration is less outrageous than a poorly-written op-ed by a former vice-presidential nominee?

Probably because WaPo retracted the former and ran the latter.

“Priorities” must be based in realities.

49

Barry 07.16.09 at 5:43 pm

kid bitzer: “i fantasize about his nimbly climbing the pathway to stardom, you fantasize about his moral corruption thereby—and the more we go on, the less it has to do with young ezra at all. but fantasy is free.”

IMHO they are somewhat linked; if Ezra climes on the Broder bandwagon, he’s probably one generation too late to make a career of it. However, as you said, fantasy is free…

50

bdbd 07.16.09 at 10:45 pm

Adding injury to insult, the cost of the dead tree paper has jumped to 75 cents from 35 cents. Not only will I not read it, I won’t buy it either!

51

roy belmont 07.17.09 at 12:30 am

Bill Griffith, creator and keeper of the inspirational Zippy the Pinhead, today, on this very matter.
Cartoon at SFGate, which tried mightily to prevent its being linked to or manipulated, which creepy selfish IP attitude may be a secondary contributing aspect to the main fail of corporate newspapers generally.
On the other hand Griffith makes what little he makes mostly off syndication to the aforesaid unlamented dying corporate newspapers.

52

david 07.17.09 at 3:09 am

Graham was the insider’s union-busting the people sometimes don’t need to know insider, and George Will’s been plaguing the Post for far longer than the war on Clinton, Gore, and Iraq. I’m glad people have wised up to the fact that the Post sucks, but it’s been sucking for a long long time — when I started reading daily in 1987, Richard Cohen was just as bad as he is today, and Juan Williams worked there too, and was as irritating as he is at NPR and on Fox. Washington has forever been the land where Cokie Roberts is relevant. What’s interesting is the way that generally mushy NPR liberals have come around to hating on the Post like us left-wing cranks. It may be because they are more Republican than they have been, but really, when it came to blaming poor black people, women, gays, who have you, for screwing up normal people’s lives, the 2000s didn’t have all that much on the 1980s in that paper. And when it came to blowing up darker people in other countries, same as it ever was. I figure it’s a combination of Bush v. Gore, Iraq, and Katrina. But why the hell didn’t the slobbering over Grenada get this done a long time ago?

53

Walt 07.17.09 at 3:38 am

Because killing 100 is not comparable to killing 100,000.

54

david 07.17.09 at 4:06 am

No doubt, but the one was a pretty clear sign that the next would be encouraged. Not to mention Guatemala.

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