The trade-off of having insider access vs. passing along bad information

Several journalists are fighting over what boils down to this: can you have access to political insiders and still pass along correct information and/or critical analysis?

Is political science a rigorous field that journalists ought to tap when trying to understand and explain what’s happening in American politics? Will doing so imbue them with a structural understanding of events that’s superior to the armchair analysis provided by journalists and sources who overestimate their own expertise? Or are Washington, D.C., political journalists excessively beholden to so-called experts and their impenetrable jargon, people with no understanding of America beyond an insular bubble, whose track record of awful recommendations includes the Vietnam War, a conflict run by “the best and the brightest”?

Those are rough outlines of the positions taken by two high-profile journalists, Ezra Klein and Thomas Frank, during a much-discussed exchange on American political journalism. They’re actually arguing over a subset of the field that focuses on describing politics as it currently is. My typical focus has been on how Americans ought to govern themselves, rather than the depressing business of how they actually do govern themselves, so I’m commenting here as something of an outsider. In time, we “oughts” hope to persuade Americans to give Klein and Frank a less depressing status-quo to fight over. But there are so many people thwarting us.

Drawing on nine years in the nation’s capitol, Klein acknowledges one class of obstacles. “Washington is a cesspool of faux-experts who do bad research (or no research),” he explained, “but retain their standing by dint of affiliations, connections, or charisma.” Sweet validation! I’ve often suspected that official Washington is populated by enough disingenuous, misinformation-spreading hucksters to fill an underground container of organic waste. No one has better standing to render this judgment than Klein, whose earnest, tireless embrace of deep-in-the-weeds wonkery is unsurpassed in his generation. He wouldn’t assert a whole cesspool of intellectual waste product without having seen plenty of specific examples…

It’s such a wonderful quote: “Washington is a cesspool of faux-experts who do bad research (or no research), but retain their standing by dint of affiliations, connections, or charisma.” Kudos to Klein for saying what many insiders would never acknowledge. But if even powerful insiders who know that solidly enough to confidently declare it for publication won’t name names, the cesspool will never be drained.

A tough problem to overcome: insider access leads to scoops on information and comfy relationships. At the same time, the public might be better served by outsiders who aren’t so beholden to particular political figures or camps.

One solution could avoid having to drain the swamp of insiders by balancing insider and outsider perspectives. This is where the power of a news organization could come in. Let’s say the New York Times has reporters both with insider connections as well as people who can take the broad view. The newspaper could work to balance these accounts, not presenting one or the other as better as each other but combining them to give a more complete picture. This reminds me of the job of an ethnographer who seeks to balance the insider perspective (participating in the group/culture under study) but maintaining an outsider perspective (avoiding “going native” and retaining the ability to critically analyze the situation). It might be too much to ask this of any one journalist who has to find some way to get information but a media organization could help pull the pieces together.

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