Two Illustrations of Good, Clear-Minded Journalism

David Leonhardt, in an "Economic Scene" analysis piece in the NYT today, talking about fears that the U.S. unemployment situation might be about to get even worse. One problem is the continued weakness of consumer spending. And then:

The second problem is that the stimulus program and the Fed's emergency programs are in the early stages of slowing down.

These programs have done tremendous good, as I've written before. The bubbles in housing and stocks over the last decade were far larger than an average bubble, and yet the resulting bust is on pace to be shorter and less severe than the typical one in the wake of a financial crisis. That's not an accident. It's a result of an incredibly aggressive response by the Fed, Congress, the Bush administration and the Obama administration.

Why do I mention this at all? Because he didn't let the current landscape of partisan argument scare him into a "sources say" approach. The most ill-informed part of the GOP/Fox criticism of stimulus spending is that unemployment is still bad, so the programs must not have done any good. It's almost embarrassing to have to point out the reply, which is: unemployment would be even worse without the intervention. (So the stronger argument would be: the stimulus should have been larger all along.) The real point is, Leonhardt wasn't cowed into saying, "sources say the programs have done tremendous good." He could just say what the facts were. Plus, he gracefully points out that both the Bush and Obama administrations were pulling the plow.

Also, just now on NPR's All Things Considered, Michele Norris's interview with Sen. Lamar Alexander about what happens next with the health-care reform bill. (Link here; audio will be there later this evening.) Alexander was manfully making the same points he did at last week's Health Summit -- the Republican "ideas" that had been added to the plan were "rear view mirrors on a car going the wrong way," passing the bill on a majority-vote reconciliation would be a historic offense against Constitutional balance etc. In each case, Norris in a polite but no-nonsense way asked him the "Yes, but what about???" questions. Didn't GW Bush get his big measures through by reconciliation? Why was it good then and bad now?

The impressive aspect, which should be standard in big-time interviews but obviously isn't, was the refusal to take a first-level talking point as the end of a discussion, and instead raising the counter-evidence. Significantly, this was not just "gotcha" counter-evidence familiar from many talk shows, the effort to smoke out some minor changes of position over time, but rather the probing of deeper holes in an argument. And, before you ask, of course politicians from every part of the spectrum should be subjected to such "Yes, but what about?" questions. This just happens to be what I heard today.