Monday, December 24, 2007

Fifth Estate Anyone?

Tibor R. Machan

It used to be thought that the press is the fourth estate, meaning a kind of shadow branch of government that keeps an eye on Washington and other centers of power to make sure politicians and bureaucrats are being watched. After all, government officials have a special advantage in gaining the ear of reporters with their news releases, declarations, and other proclamations of good will! So it is a helpful thing, one would hope, that an entire industry is devoted to challenging what they tell us.

Alas, now we seem to need a fifth estate, what with the press having become a sort of independent force that has its own agenda which tends to distort what is reported by it. This fifth estate is what the on line encyclopedia, Wikipedia describes, as the “media that sees itself in opposition to mainstream (Fourth Estate) media.” We might call it the meta-media!

One sign of how bad things have become in the fourth estate is to see all the journalists who are interviewing other journalists, not the actual players, when some vital or interesting event is “in the news.” Television news reports are especially notorious for this. Often instead of finding someone in the middle of a news story who should be interviewed, scrutinized, challenged or the like, what we are given is another reporter from the same or some other friendly “news” organization who becomes the subject of an interview. This kind of celebrity journalism seems to need some oversight.

One individual who seems to have taken an oath to do just this is the Chair of the Department of Economics at George Mason University, near Washington DC, Professor Donald J. Boudreaux. For quite some time now he has been reading a great many of the country’s prominent newspapers each morning (I assume) and sending off letters to the editor whenever he finds that the papers contains errors of fact or some other infelicities which need to be corrected so readers get the real scoop instead of some kind of spin the papers would like to be promulgating. He sends these not only to the papers but to a fairly long list of his friends and acquaintances who then can take whatever action they might deem warranted.

A good example of Professor Boudreaux’s tireless efforts is his frequent criticism of the New York Times columnist, fellow economist Professor Paul Krugman of Princeton University. With the kind of prestige Princeton enjoys, Krugman’s columns carry extra impact and if they contain errors, it is especially helpful to have these pointed out.

Not that Professor Boudreaux’s every letter gets published, far from it, Only a small percentage makes it into the letters sections of the various papers he keeps on eye on. But by sending them around to colleagues and friends, others can also chime in about the matter after they have been alerted to the problem and done some of their own research to verify Professor Boudreaux’s claims.

One of the letters came to me via email the other morning and it is an especially poignant instance of how important Professor Boudreaux’s pro bono work turns out to be. Here is the entire text of the letter he sent to The New York Times:

"Paul Krugman asserts that the steady decline in labor-union membership happened because "beginning in the 1970s, corporate America, which had previously had a largely cooperative relationship with unions, in effect declared war on organized labor" ("State of the Unions," December 24). Two facts cast doubt on this assertion.

"First, the decline in union membership began in the mid-1950s, not in the 1970s. Second, union membership in almost all of Europe and the rest of the industrialized world followed a similar trajectory to that in America."

When I received the letter and briefly checked the substance of the criticism, I decided this one needs to get the attention of the New York Times public editor, the person at The Times who is supposed to keep looking over the shoulders of reporters and editors so they don’t misbehave. So I sent a copy to this individual.

It will be interesting to see if Professor Boudreaux’s correction of Professor Krugman makes it into The Times. Do you want to bet whether it will?

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