Friday, July 14, 2006

On Journalists

A journalist emails me to take umbrage at the last couple sentences of my previous post:

Dear Prof. Mankiw,

I happen to be a journalist, a regular reader of your blog and in my own addled way, a student of economics, though admittedly a largely, and thus I'm sure badly, self-taught one. So you probably won't be surprised when I object--gently, I hope--to the final sentence in your posting on breadth vs. depth. I'm confident it was meant as humor. Still, it felt a little gratuitous, even mean-spirited. And that surprised me because that's not the personality that the rest of your blog communicates. In fact, I've often marveled at what a decent sort you seem, given your many accomplishments.

For what it's worth, us journalists--at least many of us--aren't merely "failed" economists or folks consigned to our jobs by our short attention spans (though I happen to have one too). We chose it because it has satisfactions of its own and, every once in a while, lets us feel like we've done a little good, or at least provided a little joy, while plying our trade.

Keep those blog postings coming. You've taught me more than my college professors did.

Many thanks,
[name withheld]

The writer is correct that I meant those sentences as humor, not insult. But I believe they are factually correct. Compared to academics, journalists are broader and more shallow. Compared to journalists, academics are deeper but more narrow.

This is completely appropriate. Everyone has to pick a point on the breadth-depth tradeoff, and journalism typically rewards breadth over depth. If you take one of the best economics journalists (say, David Wessel), he will show astonishing breadth of knowledge: He can have an intelligent conversation about the trade deficit, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, inflation targeting, the Microsoft antitrust case, the accounting treatment of stock options, health savings accounts, antidumping laws, GSE regulation, the strategic petroleum reserve, fundamental tax reform, and so on. If you want an expert of any one of those topics, you will likely find him at a university, but he will typically know little or nothing about the rest of the topics on the list. (A corrollary: At a dinner party, it is more fun to be seated next to a journalist than a professor.)

Most journalists I know work hard and do the best they can, given the breadth of their assignments and the tight deadlines they have to meet. Of course, some journalists are better than others, and some are quite bad. But some economics professors are quite bad as well. I rue the day when some journalist starts attending economics lectures and writes a blog with titles like, "Why Oh Why Can't We Have a Better Professoriate?"