Hard to Say I’m Sorry

Columnists write bad columns apologizing for bad columns.

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In yesterday’s post, “Why is Inflation So High?” I lauded NYT columnist Paul Krugman for a thoughtful mea culpa seeking to examine why he got it wrong on inflation. His essay was an exemplar of scholarly inquiry and humility from a world-leading expert.

Alas, it was part of a series seeking to illicit this on a wider scale.

Eight Times Opinion columnists revisit their incorrect predictions and bad advice — and reflect on why they changed their minds.

In our age of hyperpartisanship and polarization, when social media echo chambers incentivize digging in and doubling down, it’s not easy to admit you got something wrong. But here at Times Opinion, we still hold on to the idea that good-faith intellectual debate is possible, that we should all be able to rethink our positions on issues, from the most serious to the most trivial. It’s not necessarily easy for Times Opinion columnists to engage in public self-reproach, but we hope that in doing so, they can be models of how valuable it can be to admit when you get things wrong.

The others:

The Goldberg and Collins pieces are simply awful. They’re rambling messes that not only make poor columns they fail to admit they were actually wrong. Indeed, Collins ironically apologies for dredging up the Romney “dog on a car roof” story eighty times by dredging it up an 81st. And uses it to justify her being a bad columnist because, after all, Romney was really boring so what else was she going to write about?

Tufekci’s piece is fine but doesn’t actually fit the ostensible purpose of the series. Basically, what she thought about protesting in 2001 turns out to have been overtaken by events. But she wasn’t wrong publicly, since she didn’t have a column then, so this is just an essay about what she’s learned rather than an apology for a bad take.

Manjoo’s essay is an apology for having encouraged people to join Facebook in 2009, castigating himself for not seeing the now-obvious downsides. Kudos, I guess, for the confession but it’s a column that’s been written hundreds of times by this point, so sheds no useful insights.

Friedman has made a great deal of money selling books and giving speeches about a world that is flattening and inevitably becoming more free and open. He sort of admits that his analysis has been spectacularly wrong vis-a-vis China but leaves himself the out that he might just have been premature because, after all, his analysis was surely right.

Brooks, surprisingly, actually surpasses Krugman on the mea culpa front. He essentially confesses that he’s a shitty columnist.

I have a specific way I tend to be wrong. I fall behind. Every day the world turns and every day I try to adjust my belief system to the realities of the moment. You would think I’d be able to recognize the emerging challenges and shifting tectonics fairly quickly. As a newspaper columnist, I’m paid for one skill above others: careful observation. But sometimes I’m just slow. I suffer an intellectual lag.

Reality has changed, but my mental frameworks just sit there. Worse, they prevent me from even seeing the change that is already underway — what the experts call “conceptual blindness.” I’m trying to address one period’s problems through the last period’s frameworks.

On the one hand, I’m sure most people have this tendency. Certainly, I’ve been guilty of it. But I don’t have a column on the most prestigious editorial page in the most powerful country on the planet.

Far and away the worst of the columns, to perhaps no one’s surprise, is Stephens’. In the midst of the January 6 Committee’s hearings, he has decided that he was wrong to be so disdainful of Trump voters!

What were they seeing that I wasn’t?

That ought to have been the first question to ask myself. When I looked at Trump, I saw a bigoted blowhard making one ignorant argument after another. What Trump’s supporters saw was a candidate whose entire being was a proudly raised middle finger at a self-satisfied elite that had produced a failing status quo.

I was blind to this. Though I had spent the years of Barack Obama’s presidency denouncing his policies, my objections were more abstract than personal. I belonged to a social class that my friend Peggy Noonan called “the protected.” My family lived in a safe and pleasant neighborhood. Our kids went to an excellent public school. I was well paid, fully insured, insulated against life’s harsh edges.

Trump’s appeal, according to Noonan, was largely to people she called “the unprotected.” Their neighborhoods weren’t so safe and pleasant. Their schools weren’t so excellent. Their livelihoods weren’t so secure. Their experience of America was often one of cultural and economic decline, sometimes felt in the most personal of ways.

It was an experience compounded by the insult of being treated as losers and racists —clinging, in Obama’s notorious 2008 phrase, to “guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them.”

No wonder they were angry.

For fuck’s sake.

First off, Stephens is coming to this conclusion about six years too late. He’s been an editorial writer for more than a quarter-century, including in the pages of prestige outlets the WSJ and NYT since 2004, and he’s somehow managed to miss the thumb-suckers about Trump voters that have been making these observations since the ignoramus started winning primaries in early 2016?

Second, while there were doubtless some number of white, working-class Obama voters who pulled the lever for Trump in 2016 and 2020, the overwhelming number of Trump voters were people who voted for Romney, McCain, Bush Jr, Dole, Bush Sr, and Reagan.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. MarkedMan says:

    Once I saw your headline I was curious to see where you would come out on these. It turns out we are in 100% agreement.

    3
  2. MarkedMan says:

    I should have added that I thought Krugman’s was even more interesting because at the end he basically said, ‘given how I was wrong, this was my readjusted analysis. You should stay tuned to see if I am wrong again.’ Refreshing.

    5
  3. CSK says:

    Stephens’s mea culpa isn’t getting any huzzahs from the Trumpkins.

  4. Kurtz says:

    Brooks, surprisingly, actually surpasses Krugman on the mea culpa front. He essentially confesses that he’s a shitty columnist.

    This made me laugh.

    Then I scrolled up to copy it, and it made me laugh again.

    James, you have been on fire lately. Thank you.

    9
  5. Mimai says:

    Disclosure: I didn’t read the columns.

    I’m conflicted about these types of pieces. On the one hand, I champion post mortem critical analysis and self accountability. That’s one reason why I also champion calling one’s shots, setting clear benchmarks, etc. Alas, this is too rare.

    So in this sense, I should be pleased to see these NYT columns and eager to read them. Why am I not?

    With occasional exceptions, I don’t find NYT columns especially enlightening or sufficiently thorough. This is due to some combination of medium and writer. As such, I have low expectations for “I got it wrong” columns. They often resemble answers to the question: “What is your greatest weakness?”

    He who humbles himself wishes to be exalted. I’m probably being too uncharitable.

    ps, James has lots of fucks to give recently. Not a criticism, merely an observation.

    1
  6. Mister Bluster says:

    I sure am glad that anytime I punch down a link to the most prestigious editorial page in the most powerful country on the planet. I always see a message that “You’ve reached your limit of free articles”*.
    This relieves me of suffering through the claptrap.

    For fuck’s sake.

    Indeed.

    *That number appears to be Zero.

  7. Argon says:

    Next series: NYT management & editors that went for big names rather than good analysts…

  8. I started, against my better judgement having seen the byline, to read the Stephens column the other day.

    I didn’t get far.

    3
  9. Jay L Gischer says:

    May I recommend Mistakes Were Made (but Not By Me)

    It observes how difficult it is for someone to admit a mistake, and also how powerful and valuable it is. Also a fairly fun read, if I recall correctly.

  10. gVOR08 says:

    A few years ago somebody asked Krugman why he seemed to be more accurate than other columnists. Was it the Econ expertise, a sharper intellect, what? Krugman replied that it was because his subject matter focus was a little different and he could work from published information, not insider contacts and cocktail party gossip. Besides not needing to do beat sweeteners, I suspect he’s also less concerned with building a brand and cultivating an audience.

    1
  11. Steve says:

    Can you imagine anyone on the right writing anything similar? It would be limited to “I was worried about Trump but I was wrong and he was awesome!”

    Steve

  12. Argon says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    I started, against my better judgement having seen the byline, to read the Stephens column the other day.

    I didn’t get far.

    It’s hard to blame Stephens for being Stephens. After all, he managed to skip over one area of his past writings where he was descisively and objectively wrong about global warming and its impact. So self awareness (or honest reassessment) is never a strong suit. He was hired to write opinion columns. Basically, dinner part gossip. He wasn’t hired because he was good at the synthesis of new ideas from careful analysis and a breadth of expertise. That’s work you can’t crank out weekly or monthly.

    However it is reasonable to blame those that hired him.

    1
  13. MarkedMan says:

    @Mister Bluster: For what it’s worth, I believe you can get around this by opening the page in a private browsing window. Every time you close everything and reopen again in private you get a reset counter. This works for a lot of sites, although some detect the private browser and refuse to open

  14. Kurtz says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    Archive dot org

    Archive dot ph

  15. MarkedMan says:

    I find few columnists worth reading regularly, but I do understand why they are the way they are. First, depending on their venue and contract, they have to come up with somewhere between 50 and 250 pieces per year. Even fifty is a lot, and 250 is overwhelming.

    And then there is the editorial side. An opinion page strives to have a diversity of opinion. How does an editor achieve that in practice? Well, they try to discern large blocks of public opinion and then hire writers that represent those opinions. They are expressly NOT trying to find people who are “correct” on the most issues. We shouldn’t be busting on the Times because Stephens is a smug prick with disingenuous pseudo-logic. We should be remarking to ourselves that the very best mind the Times could find in his block (Never-Democrat Republicans Who Wish Trump Would Just Go Away) is this bad. It really says something about that block that this is their guy. Now, I’m not really interested enough in that block to stomach the atrocious pulp the guy puts out, just to find out what they are thinking, but I bet many are. So I’m glad he’s there.

    David Brooks on the other hand, is a much much more interesting case. Normally, columnists who dramatically change their opinions lose their spot, and that’s fair, because that spot is meant to go to a person with certain opinions. Brooks came on board as essentially “Reagan Republican Who Is Really Just Not Going to Dwell on All That Racist and Classist Shit”. His slot was the Northern Mainstream Republican. But he is not a Republican anymore, yet still has his column. He has created a slot for himself that is something like “Conservative But Fair-minded Guy Who Is Interested In Ethics and Morality, and Also About How The Mind Works.” I find his columns only slightly interesting but would be fascinated to talk to people who DO find him a must read. They are not going to be like me, so who are they?

    Stephens and Douthat took his old spot together, and while Douthat (in the Mainline Christian Conservative spot) is a marginally better thinker than Stephens, he’s no Krugman or Robert Reich.

    It’s interesting to remember that Krugman occupies the economics slot, and started out completely apolitical until he became incensed that one party, the Republicans, constantly spouted economic nonsense and we’re completely immune to any lessons from reality. You essentially can’t have a neutral or modern Republican person in there because economics is not just opinion.

    3
  16. Mister Bluster says:

    @MarkedMan:..
    @Kurtz:..

    Does any of this constitute theft?

  17. MarkedMan says:

    @MarkedMan: And can I just state for the record that I don’t habitually confuse we’re and were, or their and there, but auto correct does. In fact just now I had to go back and take an extraneous apostrophe out of “were”. (Hmm, when I wrote it in quotes it left it alone.)

  18. MarkedMan says:

    @Mister Bluster: It’s a good question. In my opinion, no. They could do what some sources do and not allow private browsers to access. Instead they are simply making it slightly more inconvenient to not be a subscriber. I subscribe to the NYT, the WaPo, The Atlantic, The Baltimore Sun, The Baltimore Banner and Talking Points Memo because I go there often enough that it’s not worth the inconvenience. But if I was stretched for cash I would definitely use the workaround.

    Just to give you a frame of reference, I have never (I think) illegally downloaded a song or a movie, because I think it’s wrong as well as illegal, but I don’t have a cow when my kids show me something they have taken off a site. I do occasionally lecture them on malware, but not ethics (they are adults).

  19. Mimai says:

    Perhaps this will take us astray, so please disregard as you wish…

    I’m curious about the “apology” framing of this. Did the columnists actually apologize for being wrong? Should they?

    I don’t expect apologies for an incorrect take. I do expect apologies for an unprincipled and/or dishonest take.

    Relatedly, I’m always struck by the use of words like “admits” and “confesses” and “guilty.” Sometimes they’re (h/t MarkedMan) unintentional and offer glimpses into the writer’s biases. Other times (most of the time?) they’re intentional and meant to manipulate the reader.

    1
  20. Mimai says:

    @Mimai:
    (no edit button)

    Meant to add… I grew up listening to Chicago. It was the second concert my pops took me to. The first was BB King. Thanks dad!

  21. Mister Bluster says:

    @MarkedMan:..In my opinion, no.

    So, is your legal advice worth more than what I’m paying for it?

  22. Ben says:

    *elicit

  23. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @MarkedMan:

    For what it’s worth, I believe you can get around this by opening the page in a private browsing window.

    If you had said that in Chinese, I would have understood it exactly as well as I did in English. Overall, I’m in the same boat as Bluster in that I have no interest in reading any of these columns. Nonetheless, I opened the Bret Stephens’ column of record by searching “Bret Stephens columns” on my browser–as usually works (and as I have commented here before). And I didn’t even have to learn any computer syntax or do anything that attempts to fool the computer/information source or illegitimately breach someone’s firewall.

  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    Now that I’ve gotten my rant out of the way, I will note that the fact that many of the series were either self-serving twaddle or not really what they were advertised as didn’t surprise me any. Even Krugman’s column from yesterday’s post was surplus honor to my way of thinking. It turns out he was wrong–because of the unforeseen consequences of a once in a millennium (well maybe only a century but certainly lifetime) catastrophic event. For my money, it’s pretty thin gruel for an “I got it wrong” apology. Still, it builds Krugman’s reputation as a conscientious reporter/analyst.

  25. Gustopher says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    Does any of this constitute theft?

    I believe theft would require taking something, so the original holder no longer has possession of it.

    Copyright infringement, perhaps, but not theft.

    If you could steal all of the columns by these people, so they could not be distributed anymore, you might be doing the world a favor though.

    1
  26. Gustopher says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: I don’t think Krugman was even trying to apologize. It was “I got this wrong, here are things that if I knew at the time would have made that less likely.”

    No apology given or needed.

    1
  27. Mister Bluster says:

    @Gustopher:..I believe theft would require taking something, so the original holder no longer has possession of it.

    I guess I was thinking of something similar to theft of service. When people illegally connect electrical or cable TV service. The power companies and the CATV companies still have the service to sell to other customers.

    As for “If you could steal all of the columns by these people, so they could not be distributed anymore, you might be doing the world a favor though.”
    I’ll leave that to the august Senators of the upper chamber of the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina.

  28. Mister Bluster says:

    Take me back to 1978.
    When I worked for the Water and Sewer Department for the City of Murphysboro, Illinois one of my jobs was to read the water meters. Now and then I would have to cut off the water service for unpaid bills. The next time I would check those addresses sometimes the water service had been turned back on even though the bill had not been paid. Imagine that!
    The Water Department still had water to sell to paying customers even though some water was being stolen.

  29. Raoul says:

    The days of Wicker, Lewis, Reston and Safire were the days when there was a target rich environment and each produced a must read column week after week. The present time we have, wait, … we still have a target rich environment, so why, with the sole exception of Krugman, do the columnists of the NYT suck? I don’t have an answer but I think it is the mindset of the current writers. Whereas the old columnists were first reporters who worked the grind, the current set are all pampered self-centered jerks who never worked a day in their lives. There are simply incapable of relating to hardworking Americans. That’s one reason you see those embarrassing NYT reports that appear every week about Trump voters in an Iowa cafe. Interestingly you never see similar stories from black folks in a Baltimore beauty. The point is that the NYT is so far removed from modern American life that they might as well call themselves the London Times.

    2
  30. MarkedMan says:

    @Mister Bluster: Well, at least it’s worth every cent.

    1
  31. Kurtz says:

    @Mister Bluster:

    Archive dot org has been around for a long time, and can provide some interesting information that wouldn’t otherwise be available. If an outlet edits a piece after posting, but does not reveal that it was edited, it can be helpful.

    I would also note that it does not necessarily work for all paywalls. For some pages, it only archives what would otherwise be publically available.

    If I read NYT or WaPo daily, I would most definitely pay for a subscription. I have multiple times in the past.

    OTOH, WaPo irritated me with the “Democracy Dies in Darkness” slogan. They took some flak for it. My particular frustration came from the implication–pay us so we can protect democracy. That slogan would apply better to NPR or ProPublica rather than a for-profit newspaper.