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Staying informed with today's media
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“If you don’t read the newspaper you are uninformed; if you do read the newspaper you are misinformed.”
- Anonymous, but often erroneously attributed to Mark Twain
A loyal Econ Soapbox reader (there are dozens of you!) recently asked me what media I read to stay informed about today’s news. Given the amount of misinformation, half-truths, and outright lies, it can be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. I’d like to consider myself fairly well-informed. So, what do I read?
As much as I can.
I wish that there was an easier answer. If only I could say “Read X for great, unbiased news coverage about today’s world.” Unfortunately, there is no X. Certainly not actual X-formerly-known-as-Twitter. Everybody has biases. Every organization has biases. There’s no way around it. Nate Silver, who has his own biases, has a wonderful post about what he calls the “Indigo Blob”, which is the amorphous lump of news organizations that are center-left. I think he is correct when he says “The US has a large mainstream media that on average has a modest left-wing bias — but with some stories that are very biased and others that aren’t biased at all — and a smaller (though still formidable) right-wing media which is flagrantly biased.” In other words, right-wing media is small but very right-biased, while mainstream media is somewhat left-biased but very large.
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Especially within the Indigo Blob, the biggest source of bias isn’t erroneous reporting or fake news, but choosing what to report on. A newsroom that is mostly left-of-center or right-of-center is going to have an unconscious bias. Put more poetically, when a person sees something they agree with, they ask “Can this be true?”, and the answer is almost always yes. When a person sees something they disagree with, they ask “Must this be true?”, and the answer is almost always no. In a balanced newsroom, there are enough checks and balances that this gets mostly filtered out. A left-of-center reporter will have a right-of-center editor (or vice-versa) and so there isn’t a lot of flagrantly biased reporting. But in the indigo blob, if two journalists write an article that is read by a third editor, it is likely all three individuals are left-of-center.
This leads to reporting that is probably factually accurate but is only being reported on because it furthers the conclusions of the newsroom. A great example of this is the Amy Klobuchar eating-a-salad-with-a-comb story. I don’t doubt that the story is true, but does it deserve to be the lead anecdote in a story that is basically a hit piece about a presidential candidate? It would make an okay op-ed, but it’s hard to argue that the article is objective news reporting to merely inform the reader. On the flip side, the same news outlet eventually half-endorsed Amy Klobuchar for Democratic nominee.
So, to be well-informed, the only option is to read news from a variety of different sources. Unfortunately, most people don’t have time for that. No one has time to be well-informed all the time, there’s always going to be some picking and choosing. So, what are some of the best?
The New York Times. Often called the Gray Lady because of its clear-headed reporting, the New York Times is the third largest newspaper in the US (US Today and the Wall Street Journal are one and two, respectively). The NYT has its problems. It is part of the indigo blob and has a moderate left bias. Their coverage of tech is terrible, especially given the companies they critique are rapidly becoming competitors.
But it’s the New York Times. They strive to be the paper of record for the United States, and while they occasionally come up short, they also have some of the best reporters out there. Their investigative reporting on child labor in America is one world-class example. If you only have 15 minutes each day to read the news, I would sign up for The Morning Newsletter. It provides a useful overview of what’s worth knowing and combines news-of-the-day with editorials and longer pieces from media across the political spectrum.
The Economist. My bible. The Economist is one of the few publications that doesn’t align with Democrats or Republicans, probably because it’s a British, as opposed to American, periodical. Instead, The Economist is classically liberal, meaning it embraces light-touch government regulation and individual freedoms. I agree with Wikipedia’s summary: “The newspaper typically champions economic liberalism, particularly free markets, free trade, free immigration, deregulation, and globalization. Despite a pronounced editorial stance, it is seen as having little reporting bias, and as exercising rigorous fact-checking and strict copyediting.”
The downside to The Economist is that it is a global newspaper. It doesn’t have a US focus. So if you want deep dives into American issues and don’t care about what’s happening in Yemen, its focus may not be useful. But if you want to be informed about world issues The Economist is the best. The American Foreign Service Association, the professional group that represents US diplomats, recommends reading two documents before taking the Foreign Service Officer Test: the US Constitution and The Economist. Enough said.
The New York Times and The Economist are my go-to. Less frequently, I read Bloomberg, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. They all have excellent reporting and are relatively unbiased.
While the quest for unbiased, balanced reporting is useful, biased reporting does have redeeming qualities. Especially for politically charged topics, it is useful to read both left-of-center and right-of-center reporting. Don’t expect to read an unbiased and objective viewpoint. Instead, expect to read about an issue in the best (or worst) possible light. The key is to find biased reporting that is still accurate journalism. That is, reporting that has a strong editorial stance but is still factually accurate. Often it’s not that hard to suss out the difference. If a media source uses inflammatory language, relies on insults/ad hominem attacks, and is written in a simple or loose writing style, then it’s probably not reliable. Below are some biased media sources that still deliver a good product.
The New Yorker. It’s pretentious. It’s verbose. It suffers from a serious case of negative TDS (Trump Derangement Syndrome) - everything Trump does is by default bad, and anything his political opponents do is by default good. But, the quality of writing is just too damn good to ignore. From the sham that is the Iraq judicial system to a discussion of what will happen when a giant earthquake hits the Pacific Northwest, the New Yorker puts out a constant stream of fascinating articles. There’s nothing else like it.
The Nation. Published for over 150 years, The Nation is one of the best-known periodicals that has an overt left-wing perspective. Its writers will always assume that a bigger federal government is better (unless it’s the military or law enforcement), that big business is evil, and that communism would work if we only give it one more try. However, The Nation has always led the way in promoting civil rights, the environment, and other issues that were on the leftist fringe 30 years ago but are now mainstream.
Reason/Reason.com. The conservative twin of The Nation. The Reason Foundation is the largest libertarian think tank in the United States. Its writers will always assume that smaller government is better, that the private market can solve any ill, and that progress is inevitable if the government will just get out of the way. At the same time, Reason is great at investigating and shining light on government overreach, and provides persuasive arguments as to how we would be better off with less Big Brother.
National Review. Founded by William F. Buckley in 1955, the National Review wants to be the conservative twin of the New Yorker. Unfortunately, it comes up short on that score. The writers of The New Yorker are the best in the game, and most great writers aren’t going to want to write for a conservative magazine. On the plus side, the National Review offers sound reasoning for supporting small-c-conservative policies and draws attention to issues that left-of-center publications would rather ignore.
Finally, try to find journalists that you find reliable. Some writers preach to the choir, rely solely on great writing, and pander to their base. Other writers can both write well and ground their arguments with facts and reasoning. Pay attention to the byline (authorship) of good articles. Continue to read that writer, even if you don’t always agree with what they say. In today’s age, where a generation of writers have moved to Substack or other independent sources, this is crucial. Below is a list of writers that I enjoy reading and find them to be intellectually honest, if not always in agreement with myself. Along with their respective outlets I recommend following all of them on Twitter.
Josh Barro: I love his political podcast “Serious Trouble”, done with a lawyer named Ken White. Every claim made is supported with evidence and most conclusions are given context and likelihood. Also runs the Substack “Very Serious”.
Preet Bharara: Runs the excellent podcast “Stay Tuned with Preet”. A former prosecutor, he is one of the best interviewers around.
Matthew Yglesias: The first big name to move to Substack. Runs “Slow Boring”.
Ezra Klein: Writes for the New York Times, along with other media.
Ben Taub: An amazing journalist that goes to dangerous places around the globe and writes about it. Staff writer for The New Yorker.
Nate Silver: Formerly of FiveThirtyEight and currently running the Substack “Silver Bulletin”. Nate Silver forever changed election forecasting and arguably invented data-driven journalism. When you see an election with a probability next to it rather than an outcome prediction, thank Nate Silver.
Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok: Started the long-running blog Marginal Revolution. A great source of information from around the web (and world).
So there you have it. Read as much as you can. Find outlets and journalists that seem to care about the truth, even if they don’t share your worldview. Then, you too can be (mis?) informed.