Why I’m excited about Wonkblog

Over the past several weeks, Washington Post blogger/columnist/reporter Ezra Klein has both hired three reporters to work under him and rebranded his blog. It’s now called Wonkblog, and here’s what Ezra has to say about it:

The idea for Wonkblog came out of another group project: Wonkbook, the morning policy e-mail that I write alongside Dylan Matthews. Every morning, I wake up to a half-dozen stories that are clearly important and that any policy site should be trying to follow in some detail. Stories about the troubled implementation of the health-care and financial reform bills, stories about the wrangling over infrastructure spending and energy regulations, stories about the unusual power a bureaucrat or backbencher is exerting over an issue that affects us all. Stories that matter, but that I simply didn’t have the bandwidth to cover.

A few months ago, I went to my editors with a proposal to hire three reporters who could help cover those stories. At the time, I didn’t think it likely that they would say yes. But they did. I also didn’t think it possible that we could get journalists as good as Brad Plumer, Suzy Khimm and Sarah Kliff, and I wasn’t willing to go forward with the project if we couldn’t find the right people. But we did.

The first thing that’s exciting here is that the Post is willing to continue to invest in Ezra’s success focusing squarely on policy over politics. With some notable exceptions, much of my favorite policy writing happens outside of the mainstream media, on the blogs of academics or think tank fellows. Too much “Politics” coverage either fixates on the horse-race of campaigns and political strategy, or covers policy from a useless “view from nowhere.” (Another pet peeve of mine is that much of the best policy journalism takes place in the “Business” section… Leonhardt, Ezra, Derek Thompson.) So it’s good that the Post feels financially comfortable expanding Ezra’s resources.

The second thing I like about this is that Ezra is referring in his initial post to “reporting” rather than opinion. I think Ezra (and from what I’ve seen so far, his staff as well) represents the blog-reporter ethos which I discussed here. Part of why political journalists get sucked into the he-said-she-said “view from nowhere” trap is because they aren’t comfortable applying any measure of their own analysis to policy questions.

Anyone who reads Ezra knows he doesn’t suffer from that. At the same time, I wouldn’t classify most of what he does as opinion. Much of his best work is what I’d call reported analysis. It’s akin to the News Analysis that Jackie Calmes and others at NYT do, but with more voice and personality (Ezra’s blogging roots show).

I mean all this in the best possible way. I think Ezra does an admirable job of keeping his opinions rather muted. He clearly has a worldview that informs his writing, but he’s doing his best to portray the facts of the matter as accurately as possible. And when he is interjecting pure opinion, he tends to caveat it as such.

The blog-reporter ethos, also known as the magazine-reporter ethos, is as follows:

* original reporting on first-hand sources
* a frankly stated point-of-view
* tempered by a scrupulous concern for fact
* an effort to include a fair account of differing perspectives
* ending in a willingness to plainly state conclusions about the subject

I believe this sort of approach is necessary to do good policy journalism. I think Ezra’s at the top of his field because he embraces this kind of ethic. That he’s able to hire three new reporters to do this kind of reporting and analysis is encouraging.


Are HuffPo’s bloggers the same as sources?

Ezra Klein says so. The comparison isn’t quite 100%, but it’s a lot closer than most people think. I agree with pretty much everything below:

At the New York Times, academics and activists and authors lend their time, name and authority to the publication. The payoff? A quote in the paper, some influence over the story, a bit of publicity for their work and a role in the broader debate. But no money. Never any money. The New York Times would fire a reporter for offering sources money.

At the Huffington Post, you’re seeing the same transaction, but run more efficiently: Academics, activists and authors lend their time, name and authority to work they’ve written themselves, that gets published at its full length, where their names always appear up at the top. The tradeoff is that, in most cases, fairly few people see their work. But that’s better than no one seeing their work, which is often the realistic alternative.

Are these unpaid writers helping to make Arianna Huffington rich? They are. But the insight, expertise and inside information of unpaid sources has made many newspapers rich, too. And the fact that the work those sources put into those subjects appeared under someone else’s byline made it worse, not better.

At its best, journalism brings a lot of different perspectives into the conversation. But it’s always been the people aggregating these perspectives who got paid. That remains true at the Huffington Post, and perhaps it’s something that the Huffington Post’s unpaid contributors should be angry about. But it’s not something that the journalists and news outlets have much standing to condemn. We’ve long been asking people to contribute pro bono labor to the products sold by our for-profit companies.

Also, you don’t have to buy this comparison to realize this suit is ridiculous. And can we please not turn this into a lefty protest? More good thoughts on that part from Matt Yglesias.


Ideology, pragmatism and sacred values

Ezra Klein had a post this week titled “Obama’s budget is policy, not ideology” that contained this bit:

Obama’s budget is not philosophy…it is the product of a negotiation process, as opposed to an opening bid. It is, in other words, policy. You could argue that this is a philosophy, and that philosophy is pragmatism, but I think that’s getting too cute. This is the sort of policy that night pass and might work.

Ryan’s budget is purer, but it is also more fantastical. It posits the government it wishes were possible, and the policies it wishes would work. It is an opening bid so ideological that it leaves little room for a process of negotiation.

Krugman took issue with this general framing (not just by Ezra) in a post titled “Everyone Has An Ideology.” His basic point:

But I’d also like to register a philosophical protest. There’s an old joke to the effect that you’re an ideologue; I’m just being sensible. The point is that everyone has an ideology — which is another way of saying that everyone has (a) values and (b) some view about how the world works. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

As a philosophical matter I believe Krugman is correct. There is no policy without ideology/philosophy. Yet Ezra offers a relevant distinction between ideology and policy: the former ignores the prospects of an idea becoming law while the latter takes that into account.

Ezra’s distinction is potentially useful, and shows that we tend to define “ideology” and “ideological” in ways other than its purely philosophical designation. I want to offer my own definition of “ideological” in the context of modern politics and then tie it back to a previous post on how we identify values in political arguments.

How I think about ideology in modern politics

To me, a person is “ideological” to the extent that they place value on government’s role in a certain sphere of policy, on one side or another. For instance, if you place value on government not involving itself in the provision of healthcare, that makes you ideological. It may still be that once the facts are considered, you end up supporting a role for government, but your starting point places initial value on finding a solution that doesn’t require government. Your scales for considering the issue come pre-weighted against government involvement.

Or take the issue of taxation. If you place strong value on private property, you might approach taxation with the scales pre-weighted against raising rates; arguments in favor of more taxation thus have a higher bar to overcome. These values are perfectly legitimate; but I call them “ideological” because they approach one of the major questions of modern American politics, the appropriate role and scope of government, as at least partially a question of values. (This can occur on both left and right, though I tend to think the right is more likely to apply values to this particular question.)

It is in that sense that I believe Obama is truly a pragmatist. On the question of the scope of government he is likely to ask “what does the government do well, and what does it do poorly, relative to our other goals”, whereas a more ideological figure would ask “does government do x well enough/poorly enough to overcome our presumptive value for/against its involvement in this sphere”.

Identifying ideology

So what’s the point of all this? I wrote a post a while back on Exposing sacred arguments that touched on something similar. As I wrote then:

I see the identification of sacredness as a crucial challenge in the public sphere, and therefore a crucial challenge within media.

I want to use the definition of ideology that I’ve laid out to give a semi-concrete example of what I mean. Let’s assume that when it comes to healthcare, Obama is a pragmatist in the sense I’ve discussed. He’s worried about welfare, equality, etc. but approaches the question of the role of government in healthcare pragmatically. But does Paul Ryan approach that question in the same manner? Or is it possible that when considering the appropriate role of government in healthcare, Ryan’s scale comes pre-weighted, perhaps even just slightly, against government involvement. Perhaps limited government is a “sacred value”, in a Haidtian sense, to him and to his supporters.

If so, that’s something we, the public, should know. So how do we find out? One way is simply to get the facts straight. If we weigh the arguments on the unweighted scale, find the argument for government involvement compelling in that context, and then see Ryan still favoring less government, that might suggest the existence of a sacred value. So classic fact-checking and analysis can help us back into the identification of values.

But I wonder if we might also do some work on the opposite end, by identifying the values first. And I wonder whether that might help us back into our analysis of the issue. If we can identify up front that Ryan places inherent value on limited government (what I’m calling an ideological approach) then we can treat his arguments about the pragmatic merits a bit differently. Perhaps it means we are less likely to trust certain arguments of his. Perhaps we just bear in mind that in his view arguments against government involvement have a lower bar to clear. In any case, it’s something we want to know and something we may be able to use media to help uncover.