When journalists go native on the Net

Civil discourse, this is not: Former Times reporter Edmund Andrews goes on a rampage in his new medium

Published January 12, 2010 6:03PM (EST)

It certainly didn't take long for former New York Times economics Edmund Andrews to let his hair down and get comfortable in the blogosphere. In response to what he calls a "howling rant" by uber-econoblogger Brad DeLong, Andrews proves himself just as capable of ad hominem Internet mud-wrestling as any flame-war scarred veteran.

Andrews tells DeLong to "get a life," accuses him of "smirking in condescension" and, at one point, summarizes his argument as "on and on he pontificates, blah blah blah." But the nut graph, to borrow a term from the old world of newspaper journalism, lays it all out:

But for what it's worth, DeLong's screed is so pedantic, sophomoric and mean-spirited that it makes my blood boil. He sounds like an insecure 10-year-old who's desperate to show that he's smarter than everyone else by heaping scorn on other kids in the room. But the criticisms are more supercilious than smart.

So what's the issue here? Brad DeLong and others are upset that the Washington Post is now syndicating stories produced by a new journalism outfit called the Fiscal Times. The Fiscal Times is financed by Pete Peterson, a Republican billionaire and deficit hawk who has been on the warpath against "entitlement" spending for decades. Peterson has an agenda, and DeLong is convinced that the Fiscal Times was created to serve that agenda. The Post's decision to run Fiscal Times articles as "news" rather than "opinion," then, in DeLong's opinion, is yet another marker of the decline of a once great paper. To document his disdain, DeLong attacked the first Fiscal Times story to appear in the Post, "Support Grows For Tackling Nation's Debt," in classic DeLong style, familair to anyone who has followed his long-running series "Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?"

Edmund Andrews has signed up to write for the Fiscal Times as a paid contributor, which he acknowledges as a "vested interest." I'll give him this much: DeLong's attempted disembowelment of the Fiscal Times is not one of his most convincing attacks on what passes for economics reporting in the mainstream press. Andrews is right: DeLong makes a big deal of little things and technicalities that are not likely to be of much interest to the general reader.

However, neither is DeLong's post a "howling rant," by either the Internet or DeLong's own standards. If anyone is howling, it is Andrews, who doesn't do his credibility any favors by defending his new employer in a style that is more akin to the bluster and schoolyard taunts than one finds in unmoderated reader comment forums than in the give-and-take of econoblogosphere. By so cavalierly broadcasting his anger at the man Brad DeLong, Andrews weakens his attack on the argument.

Maybe there's some bad blood between Andrews and DeLong that I'm unaware of -- DeLong's penchant for mocking mainstream economics reporting has made him  more than a few enemies among reporters. Back in the spring of 2009 DeLong also posted extensively on the whole saga of whether Andrews had disclosed enough information about the bankruptcy history of his wife in his  tale of  subprime misadventures, "Busted." And who am I to criticize someone for telling readers how he really feels?

But the most frustrating aspect to Andrews' assault on DeLong is that it rather obviously misses the crucial underlying point: The Washington Post has no business labeling as "news" stories about the national debt that come from an outfit with ties to Pete Peterson. That fact was made pretty clear by a correction the Post was forced to append to the "Support Grows For Tackling Nation's Debt."

The article by the Fiscal Times, about growing congressional support for a bipartisan commission to address the nation's debt, contained a statement supporting the concept by Robert L. Bixby, the executive director of the Concord Coalition. The article should have noted that the Concord Coalition receives funding from the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. Peterson, but not his foundation, also funds the Fiscal Times, the independent news service that prepared the article.

Come on! Pete Peterson wants to pressure politicians into cutting government spending. A publishing outfit that he funds produces an article that ends up with the headline  "Support Grows For Tackling Nation's Debt." The Washington Post runs it as a straight news story. Ombudsman declarations of innocence notwithstanding, everybody associated with the Post ought to be embarrassed.

Brad DeLong has a right to be angry. Edmund Andrews, less so.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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