Friday, September 30, 2011

The media and the "go-to" guys

Andrew Ferguson, as usual, is both perceptive and funny in analyzing how the media deceive viewers by choosing someone they can pretend is unbiased to be their "go-to" guys when they need an expert. As Ferguson points out, when reporters want someone to give political perspective, they go to Norm Ornstein. And for historical analysis, they go to David Brinkley. Both are liberals, but the media can pretend that that both are actually neutral because Ornstein works for AEI, a conservative think tank and Brinkley edited the Reagan diaries. So they both have the patina of neutrality, or as Ferguson puts it,
All go-to guys are liberals. They can’t be identified as such, lest their authority as disinterested observers be undermined and the reader or viewer begin to get ideas. Ideological fuzziness is good; ideological hermaphroditism is better.

Ornstein, for example, is a moderate liberal, but the think tank that employs him is conservative: the politics of the one combines with the politics of the other to make a purely objective go-to guy who can offer liberal opinions without the label. Douglas Brinkley’s liberalism is deep and abiding, made explicit, to cite one instance, when he published a panting campaign biography of John Kerry in 2003. Yet he has also been chosen, inexplicably, to edit various editions of the papers of Ronald Reagan by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation. Reagan breeds with Kerry and Go-To Brinkley is born, a scholar who plays it straight down the middle, listing leftward.
On economics, Ferguson notes that the media's favorite go-to guy is Mark Zandi. Since Zandi once did some data analysis briefly for John McCain, they can pretend that he is actually neutral. I hadn't realized how minimal Zandi's work for McCain actually was.
In economics, Zandi is capable of meeting all of a reporter’s go-to-guy needs, so the trade has been careful in obscuring his liberalism. He is a registered Democrat, as he freely admits when asked. But he’s seldom asked. The key to his indispensability is that he once—once—did some work for a Republican. Early in the 2008 presidential campaign, one of John McCain’s economics advisors enlisted Zandi to file a weekly analysis of current economic data for the campaign’s use. He never advised McCain on matters of policy, he never met McCain, and he was never paid for his labor. The real payout, in fame and influence, came after the election.
The media have now decided that they can use that brief fling of work for McCain makes Zandi into Republican and that is how he is portrayed in media reports. He's often identified as a "Republican economist" or as a former McCain adviser. Then Zandi is free to advocate for what he really believes - going big on stimulus. He has advocated for a big stimulus for both Bush and then when Obama came in. He made lots of predictions on how such stimuli would lead to greater economic growth.
Over time, Zandi’s predictions are tested by reality. In August 2006, he told Newsweek that housing prices would bottom out in August 2007. In October 2007, he told the National Association of Home Builders that the bottom would come in late 2008. In April 2009, he told Time magazine that housing prices would bottom out by the end of the year. (“I feel very confident about this,” he said.) Three months later, he told NPR that “by this time next year, the market will have hit bottom.” The market is still looking for its bottom, and so is Zandi, with both hands.

Zandi’s blown predictions are easily retrievable from the Web, especially now that bloggers like the economist Veronique de Rugy and the money manager Barry Ritholz (to both of whom I’m indebted) have made a sport of Zandi-watching. He’s been overtaken by events so often it’s a wonder he doesn’t have tire tracks on the back of his suit coat. The stimulus that he helped design has been, by any layman’s assessment, a spectacular failure, if only because the predictions he made for it—a housing market on the upswing, revived job creation—have failed to come true. Zandi famously defends the stimulus by asserting that it created or saved several million jobs, a claim that is impossible to falsify. But as the conservative economists John Taylor and John Cogan pointed out in these pages, Keynesian calculations like these are nearly tautological. The model used now to identify how many jobs the stimulus created is the same model used back then to predict how many jobs the stimulus would create.

All of which is boring and complicated and none of which makes it into the stories of reporters who rely on go-to guys. The job of the go-to guy transcends accuracy. It is instead to confirm the circular reasoning that underlies so much of modern liberalism. A stimulus will create jobs because that’s what a stimulus does. In a budget standoff, Republicans and not Democrats are stubborn and unyielding, because stubborn and unyielding is how Republicans are. Ask Norman Ornstein, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Ask Mark Zandi, a Republican economist. The go-to guys are here to help. Always.
Now that Ferguson has lifted back the curtain on how this works, beware of media reports that go to Ornstein, Brinkley, or Zandi.