Wednesday, April 6, 2016

How did media get it so wrong on Sanders and banking?

Mike Konczal is a respected economic scholar. He has multiple directly-related science degrees, including an M.S. in Finance. This, to use a much-neglected concept from science and academia, is his "field". While he naturally wanders into other topics from time to time, the overwhelming majority of his work focuses, as he puts it, on "financial reform, inequality, and a progressive vision of the economy"; these are the things that he has produced original scholarship on, that he has studied and kept-up with deeply and rigorously, and that we know that he knows about.

Similarly, Peter Eavis has been a financial reporter for over twenty years. To use another much-neglected concept, this one from journalism, this is his "beat". While he does not have the formal academic background that Konczal has, and does not participate in the scholarly community, he has decades of professional background under his belt. This is how journalists build knowledge: by immersing themselves in a particular world over a long period of time. We can't expect them to have the deep and sophisticated knowledge that academics have, but we may eventually expect them to know more than the average reporter or reader.

So when both Konczal and Eavis consider Bernie Sanders' recent comments on breaking up the banks, we shouldn't be surprised that they arrived at similar conclusions. Konczal:
Bernie Sanders gave some fairly normal answers on financial reform to the New York Daily News editorial board. Someone sent it to me, and as I read it I thought “yes, these are answers I’d expect for how Sanders approaches financial reform.”
Bernie Sanders probably knows more about breaking up banks than his critics give him credit for.
And we should not, for that matter, be surprised that they consider Sanders' comments fairly sensible. After all, Sanders, too, has focused on this field of policy for much of his national career, and he's advised by professionals who research this stuff for a living.

So how did so many critics in the media, in direct opposition to this scholarly consensus, conclude that Sanders' ideas about breaking up the bank were so radically off base? Some brief quotes and CVs from the pundits Konczal mentions:

  • Caitlin Cruz wrote that Sanders "struggled to detail how he would break-up the big banks". She is a journalist who started writing cultural pieces in 2010, moved on to local reporting, and has since generalized into covering "politics, policy, and national news".
  • Chris Cillizza called Bernie's comments "pretty close to a disaster" and accused him of "dodging as he sought to scramble back to his talking points." He has an English degree and writes generally about national politics.
  • David Graham said that Sander's answers "raises some questions about his policy chops." Graham has a B.A. (B.A.s?) and studied history, Arabic, and Islamic studies.
  • Tina Nguyen says that Sanders "displayed a lack of familiarity with economic principles" and "isn't sure how to break up big banks". She has a B.A. in government and covers "politics, current events (domestic and global), the media, fools and trolls".
One could go on. Some of the more serious journalists have been relatively even-handed: for example, MarketWatch fiscal policy reporter Robert Schroeder, who Eavis cites, avoids editorializing and merely reports what relatively credible critics have said. But for the most part, the media is crawling with generalists and dilettantes who have no significant background in the field. And they are loudly declaring - at odds with the assessment of actual scholars and credible professionals - that a major national figure advocating an agenda backed by millions of Americans doesn't know what he's talking about.

Much has been written on the media's cult of the expert, which usually amounts - as Adam Johnson puts it in this excellent piece - to "a lazy appeal to authority that shortcuts actually showing one's homework - how one got from premise to conclusion". But objections to the rhetoric of expertise should not be understood as objections to expertise itself. 

In fact, as we see here, a major - major - problem in modern journalism is a widespread lack of expertise. It's not just that journalists are editorializing; they're editorializing on topics where they have no background or claim to knowledge whatsoever. Pundits who know little more than their readers, and often demonstrably less, are given massive corporate platforms to do this; their misinformation is relentlessly marketed and disseminated with massive promotional budgets, quite often under the imprimatur of prestige publication brands. 

This is not entirely the fault of the names in the bylines; journalists have bills to pay like the rest of us, they have often ruthless content quotas and deadlines to meet, and they often don't even have the luxury of taking their time and getting it right. The problem is structural, and ultimately comes down to the ways that capitalism 1) places unreasonable production demands on workers and 2) systematically incentivizes biased reporting. Regardless, the Sanders banking debate is a paradigm example of how this plays out in practice, and how it warps our discourse and our politics. The relatively tiny fraction of writers with even minimal credibility, who spend most of their time researching and toiling in obscurity, are inevitably drowned out by this enormous machine of elite infotainment.