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Analysis isn't about liberals and conservatives

I don't want to seem ungrateful for the kind adjectives that Andrew Alexander, The Post's ombudsman, lavished on me over the weekend, but I found myself puzzled by the question raised in his column. There, Alexander notes that my Sunday pieces for the Business section tend to be analytical and reported rather than ideological and opinionated, but wonders whether readers should somehow be alerted to the fact that I'm "a well-established liberal." Perhaps something like, "WARNING: This column may contain liberal thinking, which has been shown to lead to universal health-care coverage in most industrialized countries."

I understand the world in which a reporter's job is to leave his opinions out of the work, much the way a psychologist might privately choose a side but never exhibit preference before the couple she's counseling. But if news reporters who hold private opinions can be honest and straight about the news they report -- or at least close enough to it for everyone to call it a day -- then analytical reporters can be similarly fair and rigorous about the conclusions they draw.

Reported articles, of course, have some advantages in this. They quote voices from both sides. They don't reach a conclusion, so they avoid angering people committed to one outcome or the other. Analysis is different. The point of honest analysis isn't that it quotes both sides, but that it considers the evidence fairly, and provides enough of it for people to see why and how the author is reaching her conclusions. That's why the test of it, I think, isn't in where the writers ends up, but how she gets there.

I supported health-care reform, which was the "liberal" thing to do. But I didn't support it because I was a liberal. I supported it because I thought it was good policy, and I argued that proposition extensively. You could disagree with my conclusion, but you couldn't be confused as to how I reached it. At about the same time, I was also arguing that the public option under discussion was not particularly important, which was manifestly not the liberal position at the time. Plenty of my liberal readers were frustrated by my position, but they weren't left in the dark as to how or why I reached it.

During financial regulation, I preferred the Zingales/Hart plan of using a market-based trigger to the Dodd/Frank plan of relying on regulatory discretion. Paul Ryan, the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, agreed. It wasn't a liberal position, or a conservative one. It was based, rather, on a reading of the worth of regulators during boom times.

The point here isn't to show that I've been at odds with some liberals on some things. Rather, it's to show that like most people, I have my own, slightly idiosyncratic, take on matters. That's why my Sunday column isn't identified as liberal or conservative, and neither is this blog. Both are identified by my name and my face. And in my view, that's proper. These aren't liberal conclusions and they're not conservative conclusions. These are my conclusions, and my job is to explain how, and why, I've reached them. People will find plenty to disagree with in those conclusions, but then, they find plenty to disagree with in reported articles, too, a fact I imagine Alexander knows better than most.

By Ezra Klein  |  July 6, 2010; 11:03 AM ET
 
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Comments

Just as the right test for a reporter is not "liberal" or "conservative," but "honest" or "dishonest," so too is the right test for an analytical writer based on honesty and rigor rather than their assumed ideology.


---amazing how the subconscious works isn't it?

Posted by: visionbrkr | July 6, 2010 11:20 AM | Report abuse

The problem I see is that the majority of our political reporting these days is so horse-race based, the only that matters anymore is what team you're on. Combine that with the general laziness of most reporters, and the conclusion is that one's opinions are shaped by whatever team they happen to support. I'll admit that I've succumb to this somewhat as well, to the extent that I'm generally skeptical of tea-partiers, for example. I'm sure a handful of them are principled, but most of them just hate Democrats.

The point is, it's no longer assumed that one's own policy preferences dictate what team one chooses. It's assumed to be the other way around. If Alexander had bothered to look more deeply, he may have understood this. Instead, he just laments that no one disclosed what team you play for. Lazy readers would prefer that information up front so they don't have to bother with engaging actual contrary arguments.

Posted by: WHS26 | July 6, 2010 11:40 AM | Report abuse

I come across this type of thing in discussing judges as well. It's completely foolish to pretend that there are any humans our there without personal beliefs, preferences, or biases. With judges you shouldn't look for someone who has no opinion on legal or political issues but someone who is able to put those feelings aside when making a decision by applying the facts to the law. With reporting you want someone that fairly and accurately presents the facts and with analysis you want someone that fairly and rigorously works through the relavent arguments.

While I feel like previous generations revered reporters that were able to present themselves as a person without a position or belief regarding the subject they're covering, my take is usually that that person's trying to hide something.

Posted by: MosBen | July 6, 2010 11:42 AM | Report abuse

I have to say I find it at least somewhat troubling that people are always so much more concerned with the person behind the opinion or analysis than the actual presentation itself.

Your reputation can and should be taken separate from the opinion or analysis being presented. Finding it a well-formed and well-supported argument should be the first step in establishing your opinion of the opinion. Factor in the author later with discretion, just because someone is usually wrong doesn't mean that they are in this instance despite a well-thought out piece, and just because they're usually right doesn't mean they didn't miss something crucial.

Unfortunately, most people don't think this way and act like Sheeple, wanting to believe whatever is put in front of them.

I continue to read your work because of the well thought out and generally well articulated analysis, and have not been able to consume much else as your style seems rare and the subject matter is removed from my Canadian ways.

Posted by: akusu | July 6, 2010 12:08 PM | Report abuse

this blog does seem to marshall in more left leaning economic analysis/economic writing than centrist or right sources, and to promote such links generally without the same critical eye. (e.g. i anticipate seeing links to krugman or leonhardt here; i would be more suprised to see links to martin feldstein or even clive crook).

i guess it all depends on the audience you are trying to reach/convince.

Posted by: stantheman21 | July 6, 2010 12:30 PM | Report abuse

*marshal

Posted by: stantheman21 | July 6, 2010 12:32 PM | Report abuse

Ideological labels are usually a short-cut for the intellectually lazy.

If the pieces are more opinion pieces than reporting, slap a "commentary" label on the pieces and be done with it.

The most important priority should be vetting factual claims for accuracy.

Posted by: JPRS | July 6, 2010 12:48 PM | Report abuse

We need more analysis and less of the he-said-she-said timidity-for-the-purpose-of-business-strategy that gets framed as objectivity.

Posted by: bcbulger | July 6, 2010 12:59 PM | Report abuse

stantheman21, I think the phrase "critical eye" is somewhat tricky there. I think Ezra clearly tends to agree with liberal sources more often than conservative sources, but I think the point of the post was that it's not an allegience to sources on the left or right that leads him to agreement but an honest conclusion that those sources are more correct on the merits. Ezra's not trying to find some Platonic "Truth" in the issues, but presenting his analysis of them. As long as he's clear and honest about how he's parsing the sources and arguments, I don't think it's a problem that he posts more links to liberal sources than conservative sources.

It's one of the worst aspects of the mainstream media that there's this idea that "balance" or "being objective" means you have to post liberal and conservative sources, even if one of them is inaccurate.

Posted by: MosBen | July 6, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

"...that it considers the evidence fairly, and provides enough of it for people to see why and how the author is reaching her conclusions. [...] These are //my// conclusions, and my job is to explain how, and why, I've reached them."

I think those statements hit the right notes, perhaps the most important being personal responsibility both for a given conclusion and for investigation, documentation, and fair presentation of the bases on which it rests. All too often the bias perceived in conclusions results either from repetition of another party's conclusion or from reliance on data sources which have actual bias: for example, a conclusion drawn from a press release is merely an echo and a conclusion based solely on information from a lobby corporation will obviously be biased in favor of the positions advocated by the corporation. Even unbiased data can be presented in a manner which unfairly skews perception: would someone viewing stacked bars from the infamous "bikini graph," for example, have a more or less accurate picture of the relative job gains and losses during the two most recent presidencies?

But good analysis seems to involve more than this simple responsibility, just as news-media success involve more than instant popularity. As a parallel, consider a university that advertises a guaranteed degree after three years of easy classes in a relaxed environment complete with free beer and prostitutes. It's true that such a university might, at first, easily succeed against a peer advertising rigorous coursework in a competitive environment with an ever-present potential for failure. The success of the rigorous university comes only after graduates from the party school are unable to perform in the workplace. The same is true for news-media, in that success of rigorous analysis comes only after its consumers succeed in the world at large AND perceive their success to be due (at least in part) to the analysis consumed.

Posted by: rmgregory | July 6, 2010 1:32 PM | Report abuse

MosBen: i largely agree...being "objective" doesn't mean affirmative action for unfounded viewpoints

i just think that it is easy to see someone like klein, whose voice outreaches his substantive background*, as both providing substantive analysis AND at the same time having a tendency to parrot points that jive with his ideology to the exclusion of other relevant evidence/theories etc.

now that's fine, it's his blog, but it's not likely to convince (but will still entertain) readers who have a wider scope of certain issues (or more cynically have their own ideological predispositions). i think the blog could be a bit better, and indeed could probably serve its natural audience better, by ushering in more disparate voices.

the source disparity is a superfacial marker that leads to the type of criticism/issues addressed in the post. it just takes some getting used to balancing policy roles/reporting/and ideological advocacy. that's all i was trying to say

(i mean, i don't expect him to run monte carlo simulations to dynamically score impacts of things like transactions tax etc, and to a large extent all writers suffer from this problem, but it is amplified by klein and others holding him(self) out as a policy expert, a "wonk" or whatever...)

Posted by: stantheman21 | July 6, 2010 1:40 PM | Report abuse

Analysis isn't about liberals and conservatives...

...and policy shouldn't be, either.

Posted by: punkiedrewster | July 6, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse

"WARNING: This column may contain liberal thinking, which has been shown to lead to universal health-care coverage in most industrialized countries."


Yeah, how's that working out?

Posted by: groovercg | July 6, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

stantheman21, that brings up an interesting question, I think: what is the definition of a wonk? I don't think of wonks as experts in the way that a medical researcher or something might be, nor do I think of them as laymen. I honestly don't know the answer as to how we should define "wonk", but Ezra has clearly demonstrated that he is well-informed on a variety of issues and in areas where he is not himself an expert he knows where to go and who to talk to to get answers.

And most importantly, in all the time I've read Ezra's stuff (Waaay back in the Pandagon days), he's always demonstrated a willingness to admit when he's been wrong or modify his positions when new evidence comes out. That, more than anything else, is why I trust what he writes.

Posted by: MosBen | July 6, 2010 3:46 PM | Report abuse

Ezra,

The reason that I find most of your blog posts so humorous is because you think that you are adequately masking your liberal propaganda as well reasoned analysis. However, you are not quite clever enough to pull it off and your attempts always give me my laugh of the day. Like when you said that you were not paying attention to the senatorial election campaign to replace Ted Kennedy because “It was not important”? That was a good one. Or when you regurgitated the white house talking point that if the Democrats would just muscle the Obama Care legislation through congress, then everyone would grow to love it? That was a howler.

I think that you should wave your liberal banner high, accept who you are, and begin every column that you write with something like this: “I love all things progressive and hate all things and people that are conservative in nature. Today I want to try and convince you to see things my way on ….”

Posted by: cummije5 | July 6, 2010 4:12 PM | Report abuse

@groovercg:
"WARNING: This column may contain liberal thinking, which has been shown to lead to universal health-care coverage in most industrialized countries."


Yeah, how's that working out?

===

It's working out great. If you read Ezra's blog you'd know that. And not because he asserts it, but because he provides the evidence and argument supporting that point.

Posted by: dfhoughton | July 6, 2010 4:55 PM | Report abuse

---I supported health-care reform, which was the "liberal" thing to do. But I didn't support it because I was a liberal. I supported it because I thought it was good policy, and I argued that proposition extensively.---

Klein, modern "liberals" always think the government "policy" is the "good policy". You wallowed in health care "reform" through several iterations of "policy" and were for almost all of them (knowing you could be "for" the next policy version allowed you to disfavor others.) You ignored all substantive arguments (it's un-Constitutional, maybe? It's anti-freedom, surely?) as you bobbed your head for your preferred, biased outcome. No amount of equivocating can change the facts of your entrenched bias, nor erase the propaganda you choose to emit in service to the state.

Posted by: msoja | July 6, 2010 6:11 PM | Report abuse

---During financial regulation, I preferred the Zingales/Hart plan of using a market-based trigger to the Dodd/Frank plan of relying on regulatory discretion. Paul Ryan, the ranking Republican on the House Budget Committee, agreed. It wasn't a liberal position, or a conservative one.---

No, Klein, it is a *government* position that you always support that is your bias, that underwrites the propaganda that is your livelihood. You always promote the *government* solution. Dressing up your idiocy with Democrat vs. Republican is but one of your usual tricks meant to evoke two sides to an issue, when the sides are not Democrat vs Republican, but government vs the people. You consistently side with the government. You consistently write propaganda against the people whose interests you pretend to hold dear as you bring the incompetent bureacrats and police down upon them.

Posted by: msoja | July 6, 2010 6:17 PM | Report abuse

All I can say is that if the Ombudsman's article on you is the first step in canning you -- similar to the previous Ombudsman's anti-Froomkin article -- then I will be canceling my hard-copy subscription so fast he'll turn into an Ombudswoman...no offense to the estrogen set.

Keep up the great work, Ezra.

Posted by: YesHeCan | July 6, 2010 6:46 PM | Report abuse

Agree with msoja.

Mr. Klein's policy solutions invariably involve spending a 9-10 digit sum of federal money and writing a 4 digit number of pages of new laws and regulations.

Posted by: ElmerStoup | July 7, 2010 5:02 PM | Report abuse

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