But after 9/11, and especially after the war began in Iraq, Krugman judged that his comparative advantage had shifted from being an economist to being a political commentator. He was willing to see things differently because he was not an insider infected by groupthink or the “contagion of mutual imitation” (as the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore put it). The typical insider (“the commentariat”) needs “sources” to get information, becomes compromised, and hence is less prone to ruffling feathers. Krugman, by contrast, had the comparative advantage of distance from Washington, D.C., and a full-time job that gave him the independence to be “unrestrained by deference,” he explains. He could also do the “budget arithmetic” on his own. So, to him, the normal journalistic ethic of balance and moderation, which he disparagingly dubs “he-said-she-said journalism,” was less a virtue than an intellectual shortcoming—an unwillingness or inability to process information independently and come to considered conclusions.
Krugman is absolutely right, but I’m left wondering why his approach is confined to the op-ed pages. Opinion columns are intentionally partisan, which has a tendency to undermine their argumentative credibility to a neutral observer. If the New York Times jettisons “he-said-she-said journalism” in favor of rigorous news analysis, there’d be less reason to argue over Krugman’s intellectual bona fides every time he pens an attack on the Bush Administration. That, at least, would spare us the never-ending debate over the opinion pages’ left-wing sympathies and keep the discussion grounded in empirical fact.