What’s interesting is that, in retrospect, we weren’t skeptical enough. We went a lot further than a lot of other people did, but anyone who reads our coverage now, or reads my own coverage now, would conclude that we didn’t go far enough. We were still too affected by the conventional wisdom that even if housing prices fall they probably won’t fall by much, and they probably won’t cause a recession.
The personal lesson I take from that is we can’t just go forth bullheaded, say “We’re on a good story and we’re going to pursue it no matter what.” But we also need to ask ourselves whether we are being overly affected by the conventional wisdom. I do think there are times when that happens, when it seems like everyone smart or everyone in power thinks one thing, and we need to say to ourselves, is there a chance that it’s wrong? When I look back on my 11 years as an economics reporter, I have this weird mix of feelings about my coverage of the housing bubble as one of the things I’m proudest of and also the source of one of my biggest regrets.
Most of that coverage would have been prior to 2008. What’s your assessment of the coverage of the budget fights we’ve seen since then—going back to the stimulus, and certainly since the 2010 election?
This is so general as to probably qualify as ducking, but I think on the whole our coverage has been quite good, yet I have no doubt there are ways we could do it better. I realize that’s unsatisfying, because it’s too general, but I feel like I’m not at the point of being able to get into specifics and being confident that two weeks from now I’ll still agree with the specifics that I said today.
That’s fair enough. I have one more question in that vein, and it’s specifically about the debt ceiling debate, not the broader budget fights. One of my colleagues, Ryan Chittum, recently got some attention for a post in which he wrote, “if you’re not reporting that the Republicans are ultimately to blame for the crisis here, then you’re not reporting the truth.” Would you agree?
I wouldn’t agree, because, in part, I don’t think assigning blame is what our job is. But if what he’s saying is that the two parties here played different roles, and that one party played a larger role in actually getting us to the last three days, in which there was a question about whether the debt ceiling would actually be raised, I think that’s true, and both parties would agree with that as well. Republicans would happily agree that they were the ones who were opposed to what has been the standard operating procedure on this question, which is simply raising the debt ceiling. They’re the ones who said we’re going treat this situation differently and we may not raise the debt ceiling, even though it’s always been what happened in the past.
And it is the press’s job to report that, and not to say on every single question there’s 50% of responsibility with this party and 50% of responsibility with that party. Readers can decide whether in fact it is a good thing to not go about business as usual. I don’t think it’s our job to do what Ryan said, but I also think that phrasing every outcome in Washington as either giving equal credit to both parties or equal responsibility to both parties is not particularly good journalism either.
So when you said it’s not our job to do what Ryan said, you’re referring in particular to the word “blame”?
Yes, the word “blame.”
To again quote your farewell column, you were very careful in saying that we know something about our problems, but not about the best way to solve them. At the same time, you’ve had a platform to outline solutions for some time, and I think your perspective would generally be described as center-left, at least as it maps onto the current political debate in the U.S. Do you worry that might cause problems—either for the reporters who you’re now editing, who might have an incentive to orient stories so that they’re in keeping with perspectives that you’ve outlined? Or for politicians who might now have, even more than they already do, ideas about the editorial line that the Times D.C. staff will be pushing?