The value of one word

The Economist is an outstanding publication for two reasons:

1. Its reporters — and, more surprisingly, its opinion-writers — never forget that their goal is to inform. They do so with insight and the occasional bit of wit.

2. It’s nonpartisan but not strictly objective. It has a bias toward values that ought to be universal — toward prosperity and enlightenment. If anything is controversial about The Economist, it’s the notion that prosperity and enlightenment go hand in hand. Its wonderful mission statement is

to take part in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”

When mission statements were all the rage in journalism in the 1990s, I don’t think anyone came up with anything like that.

And yet, The Economist occasionally has a blind spot. Like any publication that defends an idea, it sometimes sees offense where it does not exist.

That explains how its lead editorial, often the best part of the publication, is not quite right this time around.

Capitalism and its critics: Rage against the machine | The Economist.

The piece starts out on firm ground. It warns of the dangers of populist anger, sadly without much detail, then offers this succinct summary so typical of The Economist:

Neither of the main Western models has much political credit at the moment. European social democracy promised voters benefits that societies can no longer afford. The Anglo-Saxon model claimed that free markets would create prosperity; many voters feel instead that they got a series of debt-fuelled asset bubbles and an economy that was rigged in favour of a financial elite, who took all the proceeds in the good times and then left everybody else with no alternative other than to bail them out.

Then it loses the plot. It lurches disjointedly into an unsupported argument to make the rich pay more taxes by eliminating “loopholes” while lowering marginal rates — possibly a worthwhile point, but it begs the question of whether all “loopholes” are evil. Then comes a muddled paragraph confusing three separate points — a critique of government overspending, a critique of personal overspending (“property,” presumably housing), and the fear that the protests will turn against globalization.

The Economist can and often has raised these points in informative news and opinion pieces. But tossing them into a word salad at the end of a piece fretting over the “Occupy X” movement looks like the work of someone who desperately wants to find fault with the movement but can’t quite put the argument together.

In The Economist‘s week in review nuggets, we see the problem. The “Occupy” movements are called “anti-capitalist protests.”

They are not. They are anti-oligarch.

The protests are not about globalization or government social programs. They’re about the behavior of the financial elites and whether the government is doing enough to check them.

And when you change the label from “anti-capitalist” to “anti-oligarch,” the argument changes.

That’s not a value judgment on the movement or its critics. It’s a plea for accuracy in talking about what has become Topic A in the Western world.

Listening to normal people

When I pointed out to an editor that the comments on our website were mostly from wingnuts, he said those comments were still important because they told us how people were thinking.

I was too flabbergasted to give the obvious response: No, they don’t. They tell you what cranky people are thinking.

The good news: The Washington Post is making an effort to find the sane ones. If you’re curious about such things, follow their comments for the next few months.

Ideally, comments would give reporters important feedback from knowledgeable people. The Holy Grail of comments on websites is to turn it into “crowd-sourcing,” getting people to share information and insights. And yet the reality is that most comments are full of hostility and crap.

Sadly, most news organizations have cut off the easy ways of contacting journalists. (I disagree with the Poynter conclusion that every journalists’ phone number should be out there — if journalists are getting 50 calls a day, they’re going to stop answering the phone.) The comments are good for people who want to shout at each other or perhaps, on rare occasion, form a “community” of half-reasonable people. Provide a direct line to journalists, and the quality of discourse improves.

Reasonable people, the ones journalists need to be speaking with, have the common sense to know that they’re more likely to get a reply or do some good if they write reasonably. Unreasonable people are often taken aback and a little chagrined when they find that someone actually took the time to read their crap and write them back without returning the hostility.

But in any case, if you want to reach people who aren’t devoting large chunks of their lives to shouting in whatever forum you give them, you have to make it easy for them. We have lives.

John Oliver demonstrates: