Saturday, December 06, 2014

On Chait on Klein on Chait on TNR

I don't want to waste anyone's time (even my own) on an inside journalism debate, but I can't help myself. I am just going to cut and past with one or two snarky comments.

Jon Chait feels obliged to write about something Klein wrote about what Chait wrote about The New Republic.

"The New Republic and the Imperfect Media Market

A reply to Ezra Klein, FWIW."

The subtitle is extraordinarily modest "FWIW" for what that's worth, and makes it clear that Chait felt obliged to comment on Klein and felt that "I agree with Ezra" was not an acceptable comment. I think there is something odd and very characteristic of Chait wrong with his reply -- basically Chait is so drawn to polemic that can't resist attacking people, with whom he agrees. I fear that the reason my only other complaint about Chait is that he doesn't blog enough is that I enjoy attacks on the people he usually attacks. Of course Chait's extremely intense feelings about TNR must affect his judgment.

update: the post below is a total waste of pixels. But there is someting so odd about Chait's post, that I want to add a bit which might be interesting. Chait begins "Many journalists, myself included, are currently mourning the meltdown of The New Republic, a century-old liberal magazine currently abandoning its historic mission. But Ezra Klein has a contrary take." I too find Klein's take to be "contrary," because he much more nearly agrees with Chait than anyone else I regularly read. So why did Chait comment on Klein and not the many people who totally disagree with Chait ? I'm sure a large part of it is that Chait wrote he reply before these other people wrote their attacks on TNR, but I suspect that he does not consider them worth his time and attention -- maybe he doesn't read them or maybe he reads but doesn't feel that they are important enough for a reply. Unlike Klein, many writers write that nothing much will be lost as TNR fundamentally changes. Brad DeLong in reply to Klein

The Washington Monthly and The American Prospect at their peak and in their prime may have been better at thinking than today's digital successors. But I am wracking my brains trying to think of examples in which the Martin Peretz-era New Republic was better at thinking.
Max Fisher (at VOX edited by one Ezra Klein) Atrios Atrios again Booman Charles Pierce John Cole Billmon Chait begins

Many journalists, myself included, are currently mourning the meltdown of The New Republic, a century-old liberal magazine currently abandoning its historic mission. But Ezra Klein has a contrary take, summarized in his headline “Even the liberal New Republic Needs to Change.”
Now the fact that Chait makes his claim that Klein's take is contrary after quoting nothing but the title. This does not prove that Chait made the irreversible decision that he and Klein disagree after reading only the title of Klein's post. However, I think the quotations below prove that Chait must have done that -- that there was nothing Klein write after the title to shake Chait's conviction.

Chait himself explicitly notes only one substantive disagrement with Klein.

"Having read through Klein’s story, my substantive disagreements are actually small. He describes TNR as a “policy magazine,” a description he qualifies by noting its tremendous culture section, but doesn’t qualify enough. " -Chait

Not quite a confession that he began writing his reply and maybe typed the word "contrarian" before reading Klein's post, but damn close to one. Of course one can erase typed pixels (I just did when I found I was about to make incorrect claim about Chait's piece based on an incorrect memory of the bit I just quoted).

I quote from Klein "The New Republic, in particular, had an amazing culture section."

I wonder if "tremendous, spectacular, amazing, wonderful, amazing cultural section which consisted of no fewer pages than the policy focused part" would have been sufficient qualification.

Chait describes this as his main substantive disagreement. I think after typing that, he should have realized that there was no good reason for him to write a reply to Klein, and just refrain from posting (as I should just not post this crap).

It is possible that Chait considers the following bit a further substantive disagreement.

TNR has never been a policy magazine. It is and always has been a magazine of politics and culture pitched at a high intellectual level, which necessarily limits its appeal to a slice of the public too small to be financially viable.

Crucially, nothing has changed to make the magazine less financially viable. It has required subsidy for its entire existence.

Now if Klein's claim had been that the New Republic needs to change because it has ceased to be profitable and magazines need to be profitable, the fact that it has always required subsidy would be be substantive and even crucial.

Again I quote Klein

"the TNR of yore, even if it lost money indefinitely (as it has in the past)"

I guess "in the past" doesn't imply "every year since it was founded," but there is no hint anywhere in Klein's post that he thought TNR needed to change because it was losing money in the past. No sensible person would imagine for an instant that Klein doesn't understand the economics of high brow publications (he is editing one). Yet, in spite of the fact that the post contains evidence (not amounting to proof beyond reasonable doubt) that Klein knows all about this, Chait insists that Klein wrote, in effect, "publications always are and should be required to be profitable, so the TNR needs to change".

Am I really claiming that Chait ascribed such a crazy view to Klein ? I quote

The odd thing about Klein’s column is that, other than this small disagreement about TNR’s character, I cannot find anything in it with which I disagree. He straightforwardly described the problem of highbrow magazines that serve a public-interest function and have always lost money. He proceeds from that accurate description straight to the conclusion in his headline — TNR must change — without explaining why. One could just as easily conclude that TNR will always lose money, and its value should be assessed in non-market terms and subsidized accordingly by a willing donor. That unacknowledged leap of logic contains nearly all our disagreement. It seems to be rooted in a deep faith in the power of the free market when it comes to media.
First I note that the disagreement about TNR's character is whether "amazing culture section" is a strong enough assertion. Second I note that when one writes "seems" one should reconsider. Chait should ask if he really thinks media should be judged in market terms (so VOX would rate way behind Hustler). He should (and did) look for evidence. When the best evidence he can find is that Klein defends The Huffington Post's "What Time is the Superbowl" articles as follows
People always bring up that Huffington Post article. What I think is missed in that discussion is that that article is super useful. Every year I need to know when the Super Bowl is. I always forget. I often find that article. It tells me exactly what time the Super Bowl is.
Note nothing about markets or profits. He says he finds "that article" useful. Chait concludes that therefore Klein thinks that the market is a perfect judge of media. Evidently Chait considers it unacceptable for any media to transmit the time the Super Bowl starts and that this is an offense serious enough to outweigh everything else except profit, so any defence of a web journal which reports when the Super Bowl starts is proof that the defender considers profit the be all and end all of journalism. I think this is an entirely fair summary of Chait's argument. And this after (just after) Chait said he had no substantive disagreements with Klein except for the "amazing culture section" stuff.

Ah but Chait notes that Klein's conclusion is inconsistent with the wish that TNR might continue as it was losing money. I quote the last words in Klein's post "something is being lost in the transition from policy magazines to policy web sites, and it's still an open question how much of it can be regained."

Yep sure sounds as if Klein is celebrating the change. No hint that he thinks there could be anything wrong there.

I think most of what went wrong with Chait's post is that he drew a conclusion based only on reading Klein's headline and the wouldn't allow any evidence to make him question Chait's conclusion. Note "the conclusion in his headline". This doesn't necessarily imply that Chait's final guess as to what conclusion Klein reached was based entirely on the headline, but it is a bit more evidence.

Chait entirely ignores Klein's discussion of the influence of TNR

That's why it was believable that The New Republic was the "in-flight reading on Air Force One." President Bill Clinton was a policy wonk. What else was he going to read? But they're no longer the center of the policy conversation in Washington. That conversation has spilled online, beyond their pages, outside their borders. The in-flight reading on Air Force One is probably saved to President Obama's iPad.
Now if one is writing a policy oriented (front half of a) magazine, influence on policy makers is a central concern. This is a "non-market" issue (unless the policy makers are corrupt bribe takers).

In fact, one might even imagine that Klein cares about policy, so he cares about in flight reading on Air Force One because he cares about what that reader will do and not because he cares about the writers. The fact that Chait completely overlooks a discussion of what the President of the USA reads makes me wonder what motivates Chait.

Chait seems to interpret "a viable web publication, in a world where viability — and, arguably, influence — requires web traffic" as Klein saying policy journals *should* be required to have high web traffic. But the full sentence is "Hughes believes his charge is to make it a viable web publication, in a world where viability — and, arguably, influence — requires web traffic." The sentece does not state Kleins view but rather the view which he ascribes to Hughes.

I note that the title is ambiguous. Words all have multiple meanings. Extremely brief statements are often ambiguous with context necessary to disambiguate. In particular "needs" is abiguous. "Needs to Change" might mean "is being compelled to change" or "is morally obliged to change". The literal meaning of "TNR needs to change" and "TNR must change" are the same, but the second is more amenable to Chait's interpretation. The last sentence of Klein's piece is consistent only with "is being compelled to change" and definitely not with "Is morally obliged to change".

My conclusion is that one should read the post before beginning to write a reply to it (this is a do what I say don't do what I do conclusion as I usually comment before finishing posts)

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