Man Without Qualities

Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Okrent Does Herr Doktorprofessor ...

... but it's Luskin (here and here and here and just keep scrolling!) and Maguire who make the case. YOUCH!

Yes, Paul Krugman is truly America's most dangerous liberal pundit. But the danger he poses is mostly to the credibility of the New York Times!

POSTSCRIPT: Daniel Okrent's frustration with Herr Doktorprofessor's repeated acts of intellectual dishonesty should be read in detail.

Those expressions of frustration, together with Mr. Okrent's original parting shot, raise the interesting question: Why is the New York Times allowing this exchange of accusations between its own operatives to appear on its pages? I cannot recall anything like it in any major media outlet, ever. And, perhaps more interestingly still, can it be the case that the views here of either Herr Doktorprofessor or Mr. Okrent are those of Pinch Sulzberger? - and, if so, what would that mean? Here's one take from "Z Magazine," a source with which I have no particular sympathy, but which has the virtue of being blunt about the issue:

Okrent simply doesn't like Krugman's views. And I suspect that Okrent is expressing the views of his bosses here. When they brought Krugman on as a columnist Times officials thought they were getting a free-trade-friendly economist who would stick to his free trade guns and possibly offer some modest criticisms of rightwing economics. But Krugman blossomed, and became a liberal-left critic of broad scope and exceptional intellectual force. It would have been hard to fire him, so one compromise solution was to add the rightwing David Brooks as an offsetting regular and perhaps hope that Krugman would some day make an error that might justify termination. He hasn't done that yet, but Okrent's smear may be an early step in a termination process.
Could Z Mag be right? Could the Krugman/Okrent exchange indicate that Herr Doktorprofessor is being positioned by the Times for ejection from its pages? As a general matter, I would say it is risky to assign the sympathy of an employer to the expressions of a departing employee (Mr. Okrent) and against those of the retained employee (Herr Doktorprofessor, at least for the moment). But the Z Magazine argument has in its favor the fact that it explains a few curious recent developments at the Times. First, as noted above, there is the fact that the Times not only let Mr. Okrent take his parting shot, but is allowing him to trade barbs with Herr Doktorprofessor. In the process Herr Doktorprofessor is coming out as more than a bit of a crank - perhaps even as a kind of obsessive stalker (that is, a metaphorical stalker; one must be so careful in dealing with Herr Doktorprofessor!) of poor Mr. Okrent, as in this passage:
I was at home when he began bombarding me with outraged demands for retraction and apology; I'd completed my tenure as public editor the preceding week, and did not have any files with me. .... If he replies to this statement, as I imagine he will, I'll let him have what he always insists on keeping for himself: the last word. I hate to do this to a decent man like my successor, Barney Calame, but I'm hereby turning the Krugman beat over to him.
Dear me, would any Upper East Side coop board in New York let Herr Doktorprofessor buy into the building after reading that? I don't think so. Why did the Times run it? And doesn't it dawn on Herr Doktorprofessor that Mr. Okrent is gone - so their exchange of barbs asymmetrically meaningfully savages Herr Doktorprofessor alone?

Z Magazine says that it would be difficult for the Times to fire Herr Doktorprofessor. That is likely true - at least from a public relations standpoint. The same is probably true of Big Mo, the only other Times columnist criticized by Mr. Okrent who is still at the Times - Bill Safire now having retired. For the fact is that these two columnists, for all their faults, have high profiles and produce widely e-mailed columns. Those are both obvious measures of columnist recognition - as, for example, Greg Mankiw recently observed when recently asked why Herr Doktorprofessor's output had deteriorated so much after joining the Times:
It's strange what's happened ... When he became a New York Times columnist, he decided to abandon writing about economics as an economist does. .... I guess if you're a columnist, you want to be widely talked about and be the most e-mailed.

But those high profiles and widely e-mailed columns are unlikely to survive the pending ghettoization of the Times columnists in the TimesSelect service Venn diagram, as Mickey Kaus points out:
If you drew a Venn diagram of the market niche targeted by the NYT's new TimeSelect service, it would require three circles.
1) Dems Desperately Seeking Cocooning Content
2) So rich they can pay $49.95 a year for it.
3) So poor they can't afford to subscribe to the NYT's paper edition (which includes TimeSelect).
I suggest that the area of overlap between these three circles is not huge. ... [You've said this before--ed This is clearer.

The area of overlap is going to be small. And one thing that will certainly affect is how many people read and, especially, e-mail the columns interred by this move. Won't this removal of the most visible indicia of ongoing recognition give the Times a lot more latitude as to which columnists it retains. It's curious that Maureen Dowd and Herr Doktorprofessor so often find themselves grouped together as particular embarrassments to the Times by its critics. Of course, Big Mo ("MoDo" to some) will always have her aging Clinton-era Pulitzer, which presumably gives her some extra measure of job security. But Herr Doktorprofessor doesn't have one of those. In any event, where is Big Mo? - why hasn't she responded to Mr. Okrent? The Times helpfully explains:
Maureen Dowd is on book leave. Matt Miller, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the author of "The 2 Percent Solution," will be a guest columnist for the next four weeks.

So it looks like Ms. Dowd really can't easily respond at the moment. If Z Mag is right, is that a bad sign for her?

One thing the coming ghettoization of the Times columnists will do is bring considerations of business and finance and market-appeal closer to those people and their writings. It is said that the Wall Street Journal opinion pages are profitable - but those pages have quite a different tone than the loopy and leftist Times version. And putting opinion behind a paid wall may or may not reduce the influence of the walled columnists. The Wall Street Journal, for example, puts its reporting behind a paid wall, but it has left some (but not all) of its editorial pages (OpinionJournal) freely available. That suggests that the influence-and-demographic calculation for walling off a columnist is pretty complex. And then there is the interesting, quiet purge of many Wall Street Journal columnists who were not solidly under the editorial pages - and who sometimes had a more liberal slant than the Journal's opinion pages columnists. Remember Al Hunt? He's around elsewhere. There were others - and they were mostly behind that paid wall. But their disappearance or reduction suggests that their economic contribution (as distinguished from their profile and e-mail recognition) was not enough.

Will the economic contributions of Herr Doktorprofessor and Big Mo to the Times' bottom line be enough once they disappear behind that wall? These two columnists have a particular ability to annoy and outrage influential and savvy readers in exchange for not very good analysis popular mostly in the further reaches of the Democratic Party and beyond. Is that a good thing for the Times bottom line?

Will Herr Doktorprofessor and Big Mo flourish in their little Venn ghetto, or will they soon be sharing office space with Al Hunt?

Comments: Post a Comment