Russ Roberts

David Leonhardt on the Media

EconTalk Episode with David Leonhardt
Hosted by Russ Roberts
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David Leonhardt of the New York Times talks with Russ Roberts about media bias, competition between old and new media, global warming, and the role of information as an incentive to provide better health care.

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Readings and Links related to this podcast

Podcast Readings
HIDE READINGS
  • David Leonhardt's Home Page
  • Some related columns by David Leonhardt, some from his series subtitled ECONOMIX (free NYTimes online registration may be required):
  • The Smith-Hayek Economist: From Character to Identity, by Daniel Klein. Econlib, March 5, 2007.
  • Highlights

    Time
    Podcast Highlights
    HIDE HIGHLIGHTS
    0:38Intro: 1-year anniversary for EconTalk.
    1:26What's it really like to work as a reporter? Cubicles, just like the image. Leonhardt started at the Washington Post. New stadiums: is it all new economic activity? Business Week, then NYTimes. Newspaper journalism. Lots of time on phone, meeting people face-to-face.
    5:34How is material for the front page decided on? Competitive process. Two team meetings a day--around noon and around 4:30-5:00. Articles are offered for front page display, and pitched: Here's why this is a front page story. After second meeting top editors sit down and decide. Occasionally Features are held for next day to get them onto the front page.
    9:35What happened yesterday now takes up less space in newspapers, in part because of the Internet. Historically, radio and TV may have had more impact, though Internet is now the main medium for immediate information in society. What about the future? Right now, the timing of new material at the NYTimes online is tied to the print version, but perhaps baby steps away from that might be taken in the future. International clientele.
    12:50Ideology, political partisanship vs. objectivity in the press. Are the media specializing more and more in particular biases? "We still have the ability to be something--not entirely, but something--of an exception to that." Because of the NYC location of the NYTimes, its readers "skew more liberal than the country as a whole". Caused by or effect of the Op Ed page? Simultaneity problem. Wall Street Journal analagously skews more conservative. Some part of the skewing is reined in by reporting to multiple editors. Also, "the news section of the WSJ and the NYTimes, in terms of what you might describe as their outlook, are actually really quite similar. They are far, far more similar than either of them is to their respective editorial pages." The media want to be an exception to the narrowing. Joint product: sources of news that make an attempt to put aside their biases, combined with partisan opinion. The news sources are the "oxygen that the political debates live on". Blogosphere only offers the opinion aspect. Wire-tapping story example.
    20:31Deeper, subtler issue: Choice of subjects is still affected by incentives, more subjective than objective. Partisan vs. ideological--first is a dirty word, second is not. Rooting for sports teams, rooting for political parties, tribes. Newspaper clientele today demands more analysis than dry reporting of the news, which naturally leads to a closer approach to bias. Climate-change, global warming example. Should a newspaper continue to give equal time to both sides if there is a scientific concensus? David Ignatius, Ellen Goodman. But truth about what has happened differs from trying to state truths about what will happen. Skeptics (excluding cranks) may not deserve half the coverage but surely should be mentioned from time to time? Holocaust vs. earth is flat analogies. Economic question is: What should we do about it? Yale conference, British economist Nicholas Stern report.
    29:56What's your impression of economists generally? How did you get interested in economics? Economists' approach to problems is intriguing, rigorous, "the way to think about things". Loved numbers, starting with Boston Globe sports section as a youth. Cost-benefit analysis. Does something work, what are the alternatives? Incentives, opportunity costs, efficiency. "I hate being in the longest toll line!" Wonderful decade for economics, lots of interesting papers. Economists also have ideologies and biases. Klein article on Econlib. European model: European papers are much more ideological and acknowledge it. Some economists actively blend both science and ideology, to differing degrees: Milton Friedman; also Ben Bernanke, Jonathan Gruber. Downside is that you come to be seen as having an agenda. Upside is that you can make the world a better place. Use research to make better policy decisions. David Colander: "Sometimes economists are too clever for their own sake." Interdisciplinary work; more case studies and talking to non-academics. Rigor has to be balanced with artful use of stories.
    50:05Heart attacks, American hospitals. Door-to-balloon time--time you walk in the door till your arteries are expanded by balloon. Standards: 90-min. or 2 hours. National average is that 67% of patients get treated within 2 hrs., but some hospitals do much better or worse. UCSF Hospital example--great hospital but five years ago their average was closer to 3 hrs. They only got better when they actually looked at the data and discovered they weren't doing the best job. They were pushed to study their performance by the threat of public exposure, public release of the data. Published rankings and data, for all their bluntness and failings, create incentives. "This is really hard" is often an excuse for avoiding accountability. Rankings of MBA programs, colleges, graduate programs by Business Week, U.S. News, etc. flawed but create transparency. Sorting out customer satisfaction with education from other issues. Does care in U.S. vary as much by hospital today as in the past? Eisenhower's 1955 heart attack, improved care today. But still enormous variation in care, can do better. Outcomes vs. processes.

    Comments and Sharing



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    COMMENTS (3 to date)
    Richard Knee writes:

    This guy sounds reasonable until you got to climate change. His beliefs reveal the typical leftish (NYT) dismissal of the serious people who disagree that the science around human activity and climate change is settled. Even the BBC has produced a piece that i would love to see debated by those that have this guys' attitude. This is why a lot of us don't trust the NYT as far as we can throw it (on a windy day).

    robert writes:

    Hi Russ

    In response to your query at the start of the podcast, some of the interviews I have particularly enjoyed are:
    Bueno de Mesquita on polities - a mind-expanding idea I had never thought of
    Boudreaux on Hayek and natural law
    Engerman on slavery

    Of particular interest for the future would be interviews with:
    someone with a deep understanding of the effects and current trends in FDI flows
    someone who can place the growth of hedge funds in a broader context

    Thanks for the shows to date. This non-economist listens to them on his daily walks around Stockholm.

    NR writes:

    Congratulations on your anniversary. I don't know if I've heard every single interview, but I know I don't miss any now.

    First a quick comment on your talk with Leonhardt. I think it's ironic that a reporter with business savvy thinks the NYT is an exception to the partisanship. If there's a story, for example, about energy prices, does the NYT write enlightening stories about the economics of energy? The dynamics of shortages? The lead-times in building refineries and their costs? No, like every other liberal media organization the front-page story, top of the fold is profits (obscene, of course). Does it happen to say anything about average long-term profits of the energy industry, or its cyclical nature? Hah. And he says it's not that the NYT is liberal, it's that it's in tune with the city of New York? I'm in Chicago and you can spot the lawyers because they're the ones on the train reading the NYT. (LIke the NYT, most lawyers are at best pretty fuzzy on business and economics, and more typically, sing from the same hostile hymnbook. Sue the bastards.)

    Regarding your podcasts, many have been outstanding, and one of their unique features is that you can have conversations with other economists on a sophisticated level that only an economist, and a good one, could pull off. (I was an English major , BTW.) Obviously a regular journalist couldn't do that. My only criticism is that very occasionally, when your interviewees are among the exceptional (e.g., Milton Friedman--his last interview??, Gary Becker, Robert Lucas, and a few others), you sometimes don't let them talk enough. Your comments are usually spot on, but in your MF interview, for example, there were a few times I wished you hadn't interrupted.

    The best interviews are the ones when you and your subject have fun. There were so many fascinating ones it's hard to pick favorites--Don Cox on the family, Peltzman on regulation, Hanushek on education, Boettke, and many others. Not a one drags. The ones I find most interesting are those that bring into relief the "economic way of reasoning" that shows how economic reasoning leads to counterintuitive yet compelling insights. I found interesting the comment in one of your recent interviews that in his class on Price Theory, his students would ask Milton Friedman questions from past comprehensive exams (the one you have to pass to go on for a Ph.D.) and wasn't always right (was that the Lucas interview?). An interview on just that exam might be a lot of fun. Some of your interviews with non-economists, such as the one mentioned above with Bueno de Mesquita, can also be fascinating.

    In short, the best ones are those where you discuss an issue we think we know about, but we get fresh and unexpected insights from it.

    Thanks and keep going!

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