Reihan LOL

Reihan Salam wrote a piece against using non-market incomes to reduce poverty. A critical part of the piece claims that this doesn’t reduce poverty under the official poverty metric because that metric only tracks earnings:

The official poverty measure is very useful because it tells us how much people are earning.

Anyone remotely competent knows this is not true. I pointed out its falsity at Demos:

No it doesn’t. The OPM counts as income all cash income from any source except tax credits. If you actually only track “earnings,” the poverty rate using the OPM poverty lines in 2012 would have been 60% higher (74 million impoverished instead of 46.5 million). This sentence is so misleadingly false that Slate should issue a correction. It is indisputably incorrect that this metric measures earnings.

Much to my amusement, Slate did in fact issue a correction:

LOL. Maybe we could use some occupational licensing after all, at least to make sure journalists deep into their careers have basic understandings of the topics they write about.

So long as your goal is to deprive the poor, facts, it seems, don’t really matter.

What Do Journalists Do?

The latest edition of Jacobin came with a wonderful piece from Jennifer Pan about the public relations industry, journalism’s treatment of it, gendered labor, emotional labor, and so on. You should read the piece. It’s very good.

At one point, Pan discusses the reaction journalists had to an article titled “11 Things the Media Does That Piss Off PR,” which was written in response to a slew of articles making fun of PR workers. She writes:

Matt Pearce, a reporter for the LA Times, smirked on Twitter, “I am not sorry about most of these things.” David Herndon, a video coordinator for Downriver, Michigan’s The News-Herald, further huffed, “I’m serving the public, not the PR lacky’s best interest.”

I remember when this all happened a few months ago. I also remember finding myself amused by how noble journalists seemed to think their job is, a sentiment that is well-summarized by the notion that journalists are “serving the public.”

The extent to which a given journalist can be said to serve the public varies, I guess. Maybe some journalists can be seriously described that way. Overall though, it seems like the primary job of journalists is to provide entertainment to the kind of people advertisers also want to reach.

For instance, consider Vox, which the New York Times wrote this about a while ago:

Others are catching up, but the rich graphic interface and facile reader interaction have helped Vox earn a reputation for quality and attract a highly desirable audience: its largest demographic is educated households headed by individuals under 35 years old with incomes over $100,000.

I mention Vox here only because I remember this story. I assume that all the other similar media outlets — FiveThirtyEight, Upshot, Wonkblog, Atlantic Business, and so on — are courting the same demographic.

These are exceptionally affluent households, even among the college-educated. The median below-40, non-college-educated household has an income of $32,000. The median below-40, college-educated household has an income of $58,000.

If young, college-educated households with a great deal of money are “highly desirable,” then that suggests that those with less money and less education are undesirables. And that’s correct, at least from the perspective of the advertisers to whom it is the journalist’s job to bring an audience.

As journalists climb the prestige ladder, which I assume like any other profession is the goal, their audiences get increasingly richer and increasingly more educated. A career trajectory that consists of becoming more and more estranged from the public at large is not one I’d describe as nobly “serving the public.”

That’s not to say it’s a bad thing to strive to write for a more and more economically elite audience. It’s probably fun and fulfilling, if nothing else. It’s just not the kind of thing to get on your high horse about. The elite journalist’s job functionally consists of trying to make rich companies richer by exposing their wares to rich consumers. Is the corporate PR job really that different?

On FiveThirtyEight

Nate Silver launched FiveThirtyEight this week along with a really long manifesto. In it, he attacks a lot of other journalism and especially opinion writers. This is easy to do because a lot of journalism is pretty bad, often for the reasons he provides.

A number of other writers did not take kindly to Silver (I, II, III, IV). The criticisms are varied, some defending other journalism, others questioning whether Silver can actually accomplish what he says he will.

It is a bit early to say whether Silver’s project will actually be worthwhile. With that said, people should be skeptical of anyone who says they can cover politics in a just-the-facts, data-driven way (and I say this as someone who heavily relies upon data crunching, probably more so than 95% of political writers). There are political and economic topics for which pure data is interesting and illuminating, but not very many. The rest are deeply entangled with normative judgments that you cannot avoid. So Silver will either have to keep his project modest in its topical scope, rendering it boring, or expand it into normative subject areas, rendering it incompetent.

Perusing the site as it currently exists, things don’t look very promising at this very early stage. In a republished piece titled “What Is Driving Growth In Government Spending?”, Silver copies a bunch of charts from a website that tracks U.S. government spending over time and concludes strangely:

Nevertheless, the declining level of trust in government since the 1970s is a fairly close mirror for the growth in spending on social insurance as a share of the gross domestic product and of overall government expenditures. We may have gone from conceiving of government as an entity that builds roads, dams and airports, provides shared services like schooling, policing and national parks, and wages wars, into the world’s largest insurance broker.

Most of us don’t much care for our insurance broker.

This is utter trash and devoid of any rigor. If you told me Thomas Friedman wrote it, I would have absolutely believed it. Though it has a data gloss, it is weak hand-waving speculation as bad or worse than anything any other journalists ever produce. If this is the kind of stuff FiveThirtyEight plans to deliver, the only thing innovative about it will be its smart branding.