Monday, February 23, 2009

Business columnists

Two of my least favorite business/economics columnists are Daniel Gross and Steven Pearlstein, with Gross especially egregious of late in his silliness. To that list I can now add Michael Hiltzik, who pens a piece in today's Los Angeles Times that basically amounts to telling critics of President Obama's stimulus and housing plans to sit down and shut up. The column really is devoid of any insightful thinking, with Hiltzik instead simply calling Obama's critics a bunch of whiners and reverting to a few talking points.

The fact that these guys so often get it wrong made me start to wonder about their credentials to be writing such columns. Basically, do they even know what they are talking about? Well, here are their biographies:

Steven Pearlstein, Washington Post:
Pearlstein was raised in Brookline, Massachusetts, and graduated from Trinity College in 1973. He started out in journalism at the Concord Monitor and the Foster's Daily Democrat, in New Hampshire. He was the founding publisher and editor of The Boston Observer, a monthly journal of liberal opinion, and was a senior editor at Inc. magazine for two years. Pearlstein then joined The Washington Post, where he has served as deputy business editor. Pearlstein has also worked as a television news reporter at Boston’s public television station, WGBH-TV. During the late 1970s, he served as administrative assistant to U.S. Senator John A. Durkin and U.S. Representative Michael J. Harrington and was elected to the position of town moderator in West Newbury, Massachusetts. As of 2008 he lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Wendy Gray, and two children.
Daniel Gross, Newsweek/Slate:
Before joining Newsweek in the spring of 2007, Mr. Gross wrote the "Economic View" column in the New York Times, was a contributing writer to New York, and contributed regularly to magazines such as Fortune and Wired. From 1998-2007, Gross served as the editor of STERNBusiness, a semi-annual academic magazine on economics and management published by the New York University Stern School of Business.

A native of East Lansing, Michigan, Mr. Gross graduated from Cornell University in 1989, with degrees in government and history, and holds an A.M. in American history from Harvard University (1991). He worked as a reporter at The New Republic and Bloomberg News, and has contributed hundreds of features, news articles, book reviews and opinion pieces to over 60 magazines and newspapers. Areas of expertise include: economic and tax policy, the links between business and politics, the rise of the investor class, the culture of Wall Street, and business history.
Michael Hiltzik, LA Times:
Mr. Hiltzik joined The Times in 1981 after working at the Providence (R.I.) Journal-Bulletin and the Buffalo (N.Y.) Courier Express. He has won numerous awards for excellence in reporting, including a Silver Gavel from the American Bar Association and a citation from the Overseas Press Club for coverage of East Africa. In 1996 he was a finalist for two Pulitzer Prizes: in explanatory journalism for his coverage of the managed care revolution in California, and in deadline reporting for his coverage of the merger of ABC/Capital Cities and The Walt Disney Co.

The author also of the nonfiction book “A Death in Kenya,” published in 1991 by Delacorte Press, Mr. Hiltzik graduated from Colgate University in 1973 with a degree in English and received a master of science degree in journalism from the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University in 1974. He lives in Southern California with his wife and two children.
So between Hiltzik and Gross we have undergraduate degrees in English, history and government along with graduate degrees in American history and journalism. We don't know what Pearlstein studied but given his entire background in journalism I would be surprised if he was an economics major. Indeed, among the three of them the only experience outside of being a scribe is Pearlstein's stint working for two Democratic members of Congress. Not one has actually worked in business or has any formal education in economics.

It's all starting to make sense.

Update: One columnist I have a lot of respect for is Martin Wolf of the Financial Times. Indeed, he might be the most respected economics columnist in the world. Here is his background:
He left Nuffield College, Oxford University with a master of philosophy degree in economics in 1971 to join the World Bank's young professionals programme, becoming a senior economist in 1974. He left the World Bank in 1981, to become Director of Studies at the Trade Policy Research Centre, in London. He joined the Financial Times in 1987; he has been associate editor since 1990 and chief economics commentator since 1996.
Certainly a sharp contrast with those that I have mentioned above.

1 comment:

Josh said...

I think this is representative of a paradigm shift in the Newspaper industry (and media more broadly) which makes me question whether or not the public will notice if a major media outlet collapses (see NYT).

Journalists used to be great sources of information in areas beyond the scope of their experience. For starters, opinion and news were easily distinguishable. The "analysis pieces" of today didn't exist in the news section of the papers. Also, I feel like columnists weren't the lead on key topical areas as they seem to be today. In the Post, most articles on the economy are "me too" type stories without substantial differentiation in information from what can be found on the Cable news networks. As a result Pearlstein - an opinion columnist seems to be the lead attraction for economic discussions.

Next, sources for news stores, and columns alike, were beyond the scope of the average citizen. Today, things have changed. First, the web offers anyone with a computer and internet access the ability to read expert commentary on what's going on. Why read Pearlstein's opinion when I can read the opinion of Nobel winning economists, Harvard econ professors, or experts in Finance who are living the crisis, not writing about it.

Secondly, demands for quick turnaround times and laziness are limiting the quality of news sources. With the exception of some of the long investigative reports, most stories these days involve off the record sources or the same inside the beltway interest groups. Finding the right answer seems to be secondary these days to simply getting any answer and quote from either a DC think tank or an off the record source (who more times than not has an agenda of their own).