The unbearable lightness of Ezra Klein!


What Professor Gardner said about ambitious youngsters: Howard Gardner is a Harvard professor of long tenure.

In Friday's Washington Post, Gardner wrote a fascinating profile of contemporary Harvard students. We strongly recommend it.

But first, consider this astonishing post by by the Washington Post's Ezra Klein.

Klein’s post appeared on August 30. It concerned Paul Ryan’s error-strewn convention address.

Showing the soul of a confused climber child, Ezra started his post with a string of incredible thoughts and admissions. (We have just read the post through a Digby link. We missed it in real time.)

In his opening sentence, Klein links to this WonkBlog fact-check of Ryan’s error-strewn address. Klein is highly self-referential; for that reason, his narrative is a bit unclear.

But we think you can get the point. In our view, this is a very strange set of confessions:
KLEIN (8/30/12): Honestly? I didn’t want us to write this piece.

The original pitch was for “the five biggest lies in Paul Ryan’s speech.” I said no. It’s not that the speech didn’t include some lies. It’s that I wanted us to bend over backward to be fair, to see it from Ryan’s perspective, to highlight its best arguments as well as its worst. So I suggested an alternative: The true, the false, and the misleading in Ryan’s speech. (Note here that we’re talking about political claims, not personal ones. Ryan’s biography isn’t what we’re examining here though, for the record, I found his story deeply moving.)

An hour later, the draft came in—Dylan Matthews is a very fast writer. There was one item in the “true” section.

So at about 1 a.m. Thursday, having read Ryan’s speech in an advance text and having watched it on television, I sat down to read it again, this time with the explicit purpose of finding claims we could add to the “true” category. And I did find one. He was right to say that the Obama administration has been unable to correct the housing crisis, though the force of that criticism is somewhat blunted by the fact that neither Ryan nor Mitt Romney have proposed an alternative housing policy. But I also came up with two more “false” claims. So I read the speech again. And I simply couldn’t find any other major claims or criticisms that were true.
As best we can tell, here's what this means: Matthews suggested a "Five biggest lies" piece for WonkBlog. Klein, who's in charge, said no.

He then began looking for ways "to bend over backwards to be fair" to Candidate Ryan.

Why is this person in journalism? Just consider the remarkable things he says, with no apparent sense of how odd his statements are:

Linking to the WonkBlog fact-check which found many errors in Ryan's address, Klein says, astoundingly, "I didn't want us to write this."

The child says he “wanted us to bend over backward to be fair” about Ryan’s speech. What kind of journalistic method is that? It’s astounding that Klein doesn’t see how odd that confession is.

Gratuitously, the child says, “for the record,” that he found “Ryan's story [his biography] incredibly moving.” We pray that Klein is just kissing ass here, gratuitously currying favor with his sources in the Ryan camp.

Good God! After Ryan delivered his error-strewn speech, Klein “sat down to read it again, this time with the explicit purpose of finding claims we could add to the ‘true’ category.”

That is astounding in two separate ways:

To state the obvious, “fact-checking” began as a way to correct misstatements by candidates. In earlier days, it was never considered “news” if a candidate managed to say something accurate in the course of a lengthy address.

It’s bad enough that we’ve reached the place where journalists add true statements to fact-check pieces to make the pieces seem more fair-and-balanced (absent some compelling reason, of course). But Child Klein says he sat down and reread Ryan’s address “with the explicit purpose of finding claims we could add to the ‘true’ category.”

We’re sorry, but that’s just astonishing. What’s most astounding is the fact that Klein doesn’t seem to know how odd his confession is.

Ezra Klein is (still) very young. He is very very ambitious. Gardner described his kind in Friday’s column.

In truth, it’s time for this overwrought climber to go. But ambitious people never go, and their ambitious friends all support them.

Note: We’ll have more on this general topic next week, after we have returned to our sprawling campus.


  1. Come on Bob, you know this is strategy, right? Ezra has found out from experience that the centrist-leaning elites he wants to persuade don't respond just to the facts. They respond based on tone too. Even if Krugman is 100% factually accurate, they just hate his tone and write him off as a liberal hack. Ezra includes this kind of stuff about Ryan because the elites who read him need this kind of sugar before taking their medicine.

    1. It's not Krugman's tone that's a problem -- not at all.

      It is his facts that aren't wanted.

      It is *because* the facts are unwanted that the tone is criticised.

      What Ezra Klein has found out from experience is that "centrists" like Ryan are what the elites want -- regardless of the facts.

      Therefore, Klein "bends over backwards" to make Ryan more palatable, more truthful, than he really is.

    2. But he didn't do that. Klein included the passage Bob so objects to so he could say to the centrist elites inclined to trust Ryan: "I am not a partisan, you can trust me, I tried so hard to give Ryan a chance... BUT HE'S FULL OF IT AND HERE'S WHY."

    3. Funny, I think it's far more likely that Ezra Klein spends most of his time bending forwards and gripping his ankles.

  2. Well, I generally agree with your point about the sorry state of modern journalism, but the fact that Ezra went through to find something accurate and found so little is a clever backhanded way of saying that the speech was really dishonest.

    1. Imagine the number of times people like Klein do this and don't talk about it. Imagine the number of times they do this, and present some bullshit "analysis" that includes ridiculous shit as "true", just to present a "balanced" picture. In fact, you don't need to imagine it, because it's been going on since there was "fact checking." The purpose of fact checking isn't to dispense with backhanded bits of cleverness, but to establish facts, to hold politicians accountable, to educate people. Klein's entire piece is an admission that the entire enterprise of fact checking is a charade. His goal is NOT to fact check, but to be "fair", or whatever insane definition of "fairness" populates Klein's sordid, greedy, grasping brain. I'm quite certain that to Klein, "fairness" is whatever will advance his career without doing TOO much damage to his conscience, or whatever conscience he has left, which at this point is pretty plainly not much.

    2. Don't forget Klein works for the Washington Post so I would bet he also did this to cover his butt with his faux balance obsessed bosses. As for Krugman, he often links to Klein's work as someone whose economic analysis is reality-based.

    3. Once again, the purpose of fact checking is NOT to cover one's butt, but to establish the truth or falsehood of what politicians say. As soon as you are more worried about "covering your butt" than you are about actual facts, you aren't fact checking any longer, but building your career. The whole thing is a farce, and always has been, another tool used by our postmodern press corps to shape the news according to their wishes. Klein just brought it out into the open; about the best that can be hoped is that he did so wittingly, rather than as a byproduct of his desire to tell his colleagues and superiors he is still on their team, first and foremost.

  3. So, students at Harvard cheated en masse in a course titled "Introduction to Congress".

    Sounds like they were preparing for the real world.

    Actually, they were doing better than our real Congress, they were working together towards a common goal.

  4. Seems to me that Klein gave it a lot of research and thought before he wrote anything, even to the point of triple-checking to be certain his initial impressions of the rampant deceptions (I know Bob hates the "L" word) in Ryan's speech were accurate.

    As for "Five Biggest Lies in Ryan's Speech" good grief, I'm kind of glad I didn't have to read another "analysis" based on that lazy construction. By noon the next day, there must have been at least 30 of them on the 'net.

  5. I stopped reading at his opening Jezebel-speak: "Honestly? [rest of thought]."

  6. Klein has been a terrific partisan. He organized the notorious JouroList, which allowed liberal pundits to secretly coordinate their spin.

    Given this background, non-liberals won't trust Klein. He can claim that he's bending over backwards, but non-liberals won't trust that claim.

    Consider the reverse situation. If Rush Limbaugh claimed he was bending over backwards in fact-checking Biden's speech, would liberals believe Rush's fact-check?

    1. No, because Rush only bends over forwards and grabs his ankles.

    2. So in DiCworld Ezra Klien is somehow a leftie equivalent to Rush Limbaugh? Bravo! An absurd, dishonest claim worthy of the esteemed Paul Ryan himself.

  7. Journalists pretend they're above how they've been "conditioned" and that's why the system works. What his little fairness game does allow him to do is to stand at the Right corner and give people marks on how well they're screwing everyone over. Journalists throw a fit when they have to improvise. This goes for both candidates -- see, they're fair! When Romney said Obama was corrupt in his stimulus grants, the Times was happy to be all fair and cordial and say, well sorry Romney, we know how you like principles, but 2.1 billion dollars just isn't a lot of money, it's a "narrow slice."

    What is "true enough" and what is "not very truthful"? He offers mostly vagaries unless it's something the two campaigns have put into his mouth already. In other words, his piece is not intended to inform you with facts, it's intended to inform your attitudes.

    This is a deep-seated bias in the elite mind. You see it in headlines about protests and unemployment. People have some emotion, usually anger. Then the priesthood/medicine men need to come together and diagnose it. People have been pointing out class bias for years but they just don't want to see it, they're making too much money. This is why they love the government, not because they're reasonable, but because they *feel* reasonable. I mean, in the interest of "bending over backward" why not mention the intentional starvation of Egypt up till and during Ramadan that the US government and others in the West have been taking part in? Attitudes are more important for control than facts.

  8. I'd like to add that Professor Gardner wasn't bemoaning the fact that Harvard students caught in the cheating scandal were "ambitious." There is nothing wrong with ambition, in fact it is a virtue.

    What he was decrying was that the singular focus on material success breeds an "anything goes" ethic in which cheating is not only excused, but it is practically required in order to keep the playing field level. After all, if "everybody" is cheating, you no longer gain an "edge" by cheating. This is how the steroids scandal spread in sports, particularly baseball.

    I don't know how this directly relates to Ezra Klein combing through Ryan's speech three times to find something he didn't lie about, if for no other reason than he didn't want to look like a partisan hack like Markos.

    But speaking in general about "fact-checking," if we can call it that, we are being led, as Professor Gardner laments, into an ethos in which unethical behavior and lying in service to winning an election is becoming a virtue.

    And since "all politicians lie", all politicians MUST lie in order to win.

  9. Was WW2 paid for by a "one-time expenditure"?

    By means of coordinated attacks on Ryan's speech, Democrats created the impression that it full of lies. Yet, when you look at the supposed lies one at a time, they're arguably not lies. E.g., that Wonkblog article said:

    The stimulus, Paul Ryan writes, “cost $831 billion – the largest one-time expenditure ever by our federal government.” This is false any way you cut it. By comparison, the Congressional Research Service estimates that World War II cost $4.1 trillion in 2011 dollars. That was the biggest one-time expenditure ever, not the stimulus.

    This "fact-check" assumes that the term "one-time expenditure" has a clear, agreed-upon meaning and that the entire cost of WW2 constitutes a "one-time expenditure".

    ISTM wonkblog re-defined the phrase "one-time" expenditure" to mean "one-event expenditure." Their interpretation isn't ridiculous. However, it's not lying to consider that all the years of WW2 didn't constitute a "one-time expenditure".

    I wonder if wonkblog would call the costs of the Hundred Years War a "one-time expenditure". :)

    1. The problem here, David in Cal, is that the phrase "one-time expenditure" is meaningless -- exactly as Ryan intended.

      The stimulus money, for example, was spent over several years. Some of it is still being spent, 3+ years later. So, obviously, it wasn't a "one-time expenditure", any more than spending during WWII was.

      Or is it simply the fact that the entire sum was appropriated at the same time that bothers Ryan so much? He'd rather stretch it out? Why, exactly? And why compare government spending allocated for 12 months, to government spending intended to cover 36 or more months? How many annually renewed spending items exceed the stimulus, if we count the amounts spend over the same time period?

      In a word, "one-time expenditure" is a meaningless phrase meant to deceive. Claiming that Ryan was truthful ignores the fact that the intentional ambiguity of the phrase makes the claim impossible to evaluate on a factual basis, which was it's purpose.

    2. Ryan's claim that stimulus spending was the largest "one-time expenditure" was meant to dramatically indicate that $831 billion is a very large amount of money. IMHO that was not deceptive, because $831 billion is a very large amount of money.

      BTW Ryan shouldn't be blamed for making a claim that cannot be evaluated on a factual basis. Most comments are not objective enough to evaluate on a factual basis. That's one reason why the entire fact-checking process doesn't work very well.

    3. Shorter David:

      Calling any BIG expense "the largest" is OK by me!

    4. It's responses like these, David in Cal, which reveal you to be a dishonest and unserious person -- if you are a person.

      Even on your own terms, you're full of it: note that about 1/3rd of the stimulus was tax cuts which, according to Republicans, isn't really spending anyway because, jeez, it's your money! So excluding this non-spending spending, we're down to a figure substantially less than the annual "defense" budget, but spread over several years, even forgetting the off-budget $3 trillion or so estimated to be the cost of Bush's military adventures.

      For that matter, the first round of Bush tax cuts came to about $1.3 trillion. Why wasn't this the largest expenditure ever? Oh, sorry I forgot: tax cuts aren't spending, even if you have to borrow to pay for them, except when Democrats propose them as stimulus Then they're spending!

      Do you really have no shame? Or are you paid to do this?

    5. wow. brilliant reply. david, care to retort?


  11. Thank you for the Gardner link (which I certainly would have missed, since I, too, have been otherwise engaged in life to the full recently -- weddings, not nursing homes, but the two are sort of bookends, after all). I found the (few) comments to his piece (unless in my fatigue I missed some "more" comments) interesting for their completely missing the huge ramifications of Gardner's piece. We teachers (and wedding-goers) are so supremely blessed: the openness, the generosity, the astounding eagerness of the young, whose energy is their gift to us! Gardner captures that supremely well (for those with eyes or ears to hear or see). (And in the nursing home, we hear the heartfelt reverberations of that same youth and hope and energy and longing.)
    We in the middle (while our standing as 'the middle' lasts) fail both ends that are propping us up if we do not stand high and tall and proud and demanding. That is Gardner's message for me. Not easy to translate into what I'll do tomorrow in class or in my office with another fresh-faced wonderful person (I love the way Gardner gives due credit to that genuine fresh-ness -- ah, I love the sound of the school buses starting up in September, or the appearance of that 18-year-old frame in my office door when I've trekked from home to campus). But the challenges facing that wonderful young person, five or twenty. Teaching ain't easy.
    Or as my husband wonderfully puts it, you're shot out of a canon in September and won't land till June.

  12. Labeling Klein's piece "astonishing"- your typical and completely unnecessary hyperbole.
    Calling him a child-priceless.
    Rather than flatly state that Ryan's speech was largely meritless from the standpoint of factual content, Klein embellishes by stating that some effort was made to parse out elements that were true.
    For this he gets Somerby's rather typical over the top grandiloquent condemnations with the usual name calling.