The Press: Three Stars for This Guide
Press bashing is a favorite—perhaps the favorite—conservative pastime.
"Can anything—should anything—be done" about the press's liberal bias, asks retiring National Review publisher William A. Rusher in a recent issue. His answer: Yes and yes. What we need is more government, specifically a rigorously enforced Fairness Doctrine for print and electronic media alike. Rusher may hate liberal journalists, but he shares their government-is-the-cure bias.
There has to be a better way. And Jude Wanniski may have found it.
For the third year, the irrepressible publicist for supply-side economics and his own consulting business has come out with a Michelin Guide to the print media—complete with stars for reporters and commentators. To evaluate journalists, The 1988 Media Guide applies generally accepted accounting standards, not ideological ax-grinding. If the press does a good job by its own lights, Wanniski implies, conservatives (not to mention Truth) will be well served.
"Reed Irvine [of Accuracy in Media] is only searching for sin and error," he says, putting on a hellfire-and-damnation voice. "I decided to go the other way. I look for excellence."
To that end, the book awards four stars to reporters who are "loftily objective, pacesetters for the profession in reporting and writing, [with] penetrating analytical skills, always worth reading." Four-star commentators set the pace "in journalistic integrity and independence" and provide "must reading for insights and information, a consistently well-shaped point of view."
In addition to rating individuals, Wanniski and his team of editors and anonymous "news gourmets" bluntly assess 38 publications, ranging from the Wall Street Journal and New York Times to National Journal and Mother Jones. (REASON is not covered.)
The voice of the reviews—let's call it "Wanniski," for simplicity—is that of an old-time newsman, a crusty but benign judge who likes scoops and hard-hitting, fact-filled pieces. He expects reporters, especially if they cover science or business, to understand what they're looking at. Wanniski is impatient with "fluff," broadly defined. He likes journalists who convey "the most amount of information for the least amount of time spent."
As a result, he downgrades some fine reporting. James Fallows of The Atlantic, one of the most consistently interesting and informative reporters (and best writers) around, rates a mere one-and-a-half stars: Too much cultural anthropology. Not enough economics. And the book completely omits The Atlantic's best writer, David Owen, a man who can make sheetrock sing and explains the controversies over kids' toys better than anyone.
(In fact, the Guide seems to have The Atlantic confused with National Journal as a source of Beltway political chatter rather than a general-interest magazine. The only exception is a nod to Nicholas Lemann's piece on African masks.)
Similarly, Wanniski's justifiable devotion to nuts-and-bolts business stories blinds him to one of the press tragedies of our times—the transformation of the Wall Street Journal's lively and quirky A-hed (better known as "that funny middle column about all the weird stuff') into warmed-over Newsweek.
On a more positive note, Wanniski likes the Los Angeles Times for all the right reasons—its superb foreign reporting, its valiant attempts to be objective, and its frequent combination of the two, as in its Central America coverage. He skewers its predictable editorial page and gives its so-so business pages a so-so mark, not recognizing that half the business stories are in the "Calendar" section. (There's no business like show business).
Despite taking criticism from a sarcastic American Spectator article for including this "regional" paper in last year's Guide, Wanniski has wisely increased coverage of the Times. It is a regional paper—but the region includes all of the Pacific Rim and Latin America, as well as the nation's largest state. (And, after all, the Guide includes other regional publications—the Washington Post, the Washington Times, The Washington Monthly, The Washingtonian…you get the drift.)
Wanniski knows a good story when he sees one. The Guide rightly honors James Gleick of the New York Times for his exceptional coverage of breakthroughs in superconductors and for being the first to recognize the significance of what was happening. And the book gives high marks to Alex Kotlowitz's riveting Wall Street Journal article on the day-to-day violence of a 12-year-old's life in a Chicago public-housing project. The piece deserved a Pulitzer.
In fact, Wanniski is generally on target. The American Spectator is indeed excellent about every third issue. The "Harper's Index" is cutesy and the most notable part of the magazine. National Journal is "without a doubt the nation's most influential publication relative to its subscription base, a mere 5,600." Charlotte Low does do a superb job covering legal issues for Insight. Gregory Fossedal does suffer from "trying to cover the world from Palo Alto whilst writing books." Malcolm S. Forbes Sr.'s column does read "as if he composed it while motorcycling from his hot-air balloon to his yacht."
Wanniski's worst pick: Insight's puff profile of George Bush as a combination of Ozzie Nelson, Douglas MacArthur, Winston Churchill, and Mother Teresa. The Guide ranks the piece the sixth-best of the year in political reporting, mainly for realizing that Bush may be the next president. If so, I hope George doesn't believe everything he reads.
Similarly, the Guide is unduly generous to Policy Review, the Heritage Foundation's quarterly. PR, says Wanniski, "alters the terms of the debate," presumably filling for conservatives the role The New Republic plays for liberals.
Actually, PR generally takes the debate as given and preaches the Heritage gospel. It's journalistic and competently written (or edited) but rarely path breaking. The magazine peaked in 1983, with Tom Bethell's "The Lost Civilization of UNESCO"—a vivid, detailed, and analytic portrait of good intentions gone evil and incompetent. After Bethell, the United States just couldn't stay in UNESCO; it would be too embarrassing. Now that altered the terms of the debate.
Wanniski extols PR's foreign policy coverage, undoubtedly its strong suit. But he misses what's missing, namely, conflict. For that, you have to turn to another quarterly—one that Wanniski gives unduly faint praise. The National Interest, a three-year-old product of Irving Kristol's "got a problem, start a magazine" philosophy, has shoved Commentary aside as the leading place to publish conservative writing on foreign policy. (TNI's rise may explain Commentary's slump and its increased reliance on lifestyle bashing to fill its pages.) In addition to hosting the definitive NATO debate, TNI has run excellent articles on arms control, U.S. global strategy, specific countries, and (its best) nuclear winter.
Wanniski's Guide is a bit too entrepreneurial and crass for some tastes—which is why The American Spectator, a frequent practitioner of the bitch-and-moan approach to media criticism, panned it last year. Wanniski fairly begs for mocking reviews, however, by weirdly recounting in the introduction exactly how much attention the Guide got last year. Take my advice, Jude, keep your press clippings to yourself and let the book do the talking. Or, as they say in the journalism business, show, don't tell.
And, so far, the Guide hasn't quite found its market. Wanniski sold around 5,000 copies last year, and he says he is losing about $150,000 a year on the venture. In my informal survey of two not-so-randomly-selected business journalists—one of them rated in the book—neither respondent had ever heard of the Guide. The one not rated had, however, heard of Jude Wanniski.
Supply-sider that he is, Wanniski is trusting Say's Law—supply creates its own demand. And if my own experience is any indication, the Guide will be devoured by business reporters turned think-magazine editors. In other words, I loved it.
Assistant Editor Virginia I. Postrel is a former Wall Street Journal and Inc. reporter.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Press: Three Stars for This Guide".