MSNBC host Joe Scarborough very, very much dislikes New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. Historian huckster Niall Ferguson also very, very much dislikes Paul Krugman. So today Scarborough invited Ferguson to appear on his show, "The Morning Joe Show," to talk about how mean and the worst Paul Krugman is. It was ... well, it was pretty predictable.
These two very serious and important public thinkers agreed: Paul Krugman is a mean, bad liar.
NIALL FERGUSON, HISTORIAN: Nobody seems to edit that blog in the New York Times and it’s high time that somebody call him out. People are afraid of him. I’m not.
JOE SCARBOROUGH, CO-HOST: I actually won’t tell you which public editor it was, but one of the public editors of the New York Times told me off the record after my debate that their biggest nightmare was his column every week.
There are a couple of really funny things about this little exchange. The first is Niall Ferguson throwing around "unedited" like an insult, when he's on "Morning Joe" to discuss a series of blog posts he's published at the Huffington Post. Ferguson is, for real, just blogging every day about how much he hates Paul Krugman, at HuffPo. The author of "Krugtron the Invincible, Part 3" is on TV saying he is not sure whether Paul Krugman's New York Times blog is edited.
Everything you need to know about Ferguson you can learn in this classic London Review of Books piece but it should be noted that one reason Ferguson hates Krugman is because Ferguson, not long ago, wrote a Newsweek story that was full of untrue statements, and pretty much everyone called him out on this but Krugman did so particularly impolitely, and that is always everyone's beef with Krugman: He is so rude, when he is talking about people he considers liars and charlatans.
Scarborough has had it in for Krugman since forever. The crux of his complaint, for a while, was that Krugman is too partisan and too hysterical in his condemnation of Republicans and conservatives. But Joe Scarborough has always been an unlikely advocate for civility. His on-air persona is that of a self-righteous chauvinist -- though don't call him a chauvinist, or he'll yell at you until you apologize -- not a polite Charlie Rose type. Scarborough does not sound particularly civil when denouncing his own opponents, even when those opponents are exactly the people he denounced Krugman for denouncing.
More recently, Scarborough has attempted to finesse his anti-Krugman stance, by attacking the columnist on actual policy matters, especially related to the economy and government debt. Unfortunately, Krugman usually has a better grasp of those issues than Scarborough, but Scarborough has a handy rejoinder to any Krugman argument: My friends agree with me.
That's what makes Ferguson's claim that "people" are "afraid" to criticize Krugman so silly. No one in the elite center is ever afraid to take on Krugman. That's why Ferguson was asked to do so on "Morning Joe." People who agree with Krugman on every important substantive point make a big show of saying that they think he's too shrill and contemptuous of his opponents. Indeed, Scarborough's usual method of supporting his Krugman attacks is to invoke the authority of his serious and important friends. Here, for example, Scarborough cites the unnamed "public editor." In the past, Scarborough has painted Krugman as a crazy voice from the fringe of American politics, pitting him against respected establishment figures like Richard Haas and Michael Mullen and Erskine Bowles.
Now, about this conversation with the mysterious public editor. It is not Margaret Sullivan, the current New York Times public editor. (Indeed, she has raised a proverbial eyebrow at Scarborough's interpretation of "off the record.") For those of us curious about the conversation, Scarborough helpfully emailed a statement to Newsbusters, in which he elaborated on this "off-the-record" conversation:
"During a conversation with one of the New York Times public editors, it was volunteered that the majority of their workload revolved around inaccuracies and misstatements attached to Paul Krugman's column and blog. What made that conversation with the former public editor all the more compelling is that it occurred several years ago before Mr. Krugman and my public battles. The public editor at the time rolled his eyes and said of overseeing Krugman's work 'It's a nightmare.'"
(Scarborough confirmed that the conversation happened "years ago," as he writes here, and not "after my debate," which he mistakenly said on-air.)
It should be noted that the public editor isn't in charge of "overseeing Krugman's work," in the usual sense of overseeing. The public editor doesn't issue corrections or edit columns. The public editor is an ombudsman, not really an editor. The public editor's sole job is to respond to reader complaints and issue independent criticisms of Times coverage. Which means that this unnamed public editor (it's probably Daniel Okrent, by the way, based on the time frame and Okrent's on-the-record distaste for Krugman's work) was saying (off the record!) that Krguman's columns generated the most complaints. The workload involved readers alleging "inaccuracies and misstatements" in Krugman columns, not actual substantiated mistakes. What might account for that? If the editor in question was Okrent, whose tenure was 2003 to 2005, these columns ran during one of the most contentious periods of the first Bush term, and his reelection campaign, when Krugman was writing one of the most high-profile anti-Bush columns in the country, in a newspaper where even most of the other "liberals" were on board with the invasion of Iraq. (Which, again, Krugman was right about, and Joe Scarborough was wrong about.)
But let's accept that Krguman's work generates a lot of work for the public editor. He writes about hotly debated issues, and he does so unsparingly and often impolitely. That could definitely be a headache for a major newspaper. (Not enough of a headache to fire him or anything, but still.) Speaking of headaches, let's consider the case of MSNBC's star morning show host.
There was the time Scarborough was suspended from MSNBC for his campaign donations, which were in violation of an NBC ban. He has accidentally said "fuck" on-air. He mocked a fellow MSNBC host on-air for an incident that became embarrassing gossip page fodder. He once "jokingly" asked whether Fred Thompson's wife "works the pole." He once couldn't stop giggling during a news report on an alleged sexual assault. In March, he was forced to issue an on-air apology to Nancy Pelosi for airing a misleadingly edited clip insinuating that she was for the Iraq War.
The point of highlighting these lowlights, besides the fact that they're funny, is to point out that if MSNBC had an ombudsman or public editor -- it does not -- that person would probably have dealt with a large number of complaints over the years. And these are the situations that would've led to complaints with some merit. There have been a thousand other statements and incidents that would've enraged partisans on one or the other side, further increasing this hypothetical public editor's workload, perhaps even giving him or her a headache. Amount of reader complaints generated is not a great measure of quality of work. (In either direction!)
This imaginary public editor might also note that it's a bit iffy, ethically speaking, to use an off-the-record conversation with an unnamed person to publicly accuse a rival commentator of chronic inaccuracy, without pointing to a single documented instance.