Ezra Klein's explanatory journalism website Vox.com hasn't officially launched yet, but that hasn't prevented it from drawing the ire of conservative pundits, and the latest outrage – coming from right-wing bloggers Erik Erickson of RedState and Patterico – has Klein admitting the need for more explaining on his site. Which maybe isn't the best sign.
The "Vox Explains" video in question is barely over 90 seconds, but Erickson and Patterico (among others) have plenty of beef. Vox's executive editor Matt Yglesias narrates, and the point is essentially this: stop worrying about the U.S. public debt. He's made the argument before. The video posits three reasons to stop freaking out: U.S. national income remains higher than public debt, and interest rates remain low, as does inflation.
But Yglesias gets into trouble a mere 5 seconds in. The video's title card reads: "How scary is the US public debt?" but Yglesias says "national debt." Conservatives were quick to point out that these are two different things. U.S. public debt refers to only debt held by the public, while the national debt encompasses all debt, adding in intergovernmental holdings, which is basically money the government owes itself. The issue is that the two measurements give you two different totals: $12.5 trillion and $17.5 trillion, respectively. Even though Yglesias says national debt, the video uses the $12.5 trillion figure to make its point.
Right-wing blogger Patterico took both Yglesias and Klein to task over this discrepancy. He and Yglesias went back-and-forth on Twitter:
@Patterico You actually explain this perfectly well in your post. The reference, as noted in the video, is to the debt held by the public.— Matt Yglesias (@mattyglesias) March 26, 2014
@Patterico it’s an ambiguous phrase which is why we clarified with text and you were not confused about it.— Matt Yglesias (@mattyglesias) March 26, 2014
And Patterico and Klein went more in-depth over email, which Patterico published on his blog. Klein, like Yglesias, argue that it's "pretty clear that we’re dealing with public debt ... it’s there on large letters on the screen," and Patterico is nitpicking. It's not willfully misleading, Klein told Patterico, and any critiquing of the video on that basis is just a game of "gotcha."
Erickson was more blunt, eschewing "misleading" for flat-out "lying." He called Yglesias a "village idiot" and the "liar-in-chief" at Vox Media. "This isn’t education. It is not explaining. It is left-wing propaganda," Erickson wrote. (It's worth noting that Erickson himself has repeatedly struggled to interpret data. Pot, kettle.)
Patterico makes the point that the only people who'd recognize the difference between public and national debt are people already familiar with the subject, and thus wouldn't need the video's basic explanation. Anyone in need of the kind of explanatory journalism Vox is looking to provide would simply assume the two are the same, since the video seems to use them interchangeably.
Which brings up a good question: just how effective (and ideological) is Vox's explanatory journalism going to be? In an email to Patterico, Klein wrote, "If we did have an article we’d probably spend some time explaining the difference."
Whether or not you think the video was misleading, the fact that Klein admits an explanation deficiency on an explanatory video doesn't look great. Between this and the Nate Silver/Paul Krugman feud, the wunderkinds are finding the rollout is tougher than the startup.