Why I worry about Ezra Klein's Vox.com
We're beginning to see the first few pieces coming out of Ezra Klein's new news adventure, Vox.com, and what we're seeing so far exacerbates worries that I've had about it since it was first announced.
They're telling us that they're going to write "explainers", pieces that explain the complexities of the world to us rubes in terms that will mean we can finally understand what the hell's going on in the world around us. There's absolutely no problem with anyone doing that of course. People have been attempting to do this in a truly unbiased manner for several centuries now. It's just that we normally call the output of such endeavors "an encyclopedia" rather than a news site.
The bit that has been worrying me is that "unbiased" part. I have no problem at all with bias in and of itself: I hope there's no one out there sufficiently unperceptive to think that I am unbiased. I just don't think that Vox.com is going to be able to write explainers without incorporating a very strong bias towards the sort of technocratic wonkery that people like Klein and Yglesias are predisposed to.
As an example, take this interview about the need for a public option for high speed internet fiber. Susan Crawford, former administration assistant, is interviewed by Klein:
Ezra: Why do we need a public option for internet access?
Susan: We need a public option for internet access because internet access is just like electricity or a road grid. This is something that the private market doesn't provide left to its own devices. What they'll do is systematically provide extraordinarily expensive services for the richest people in America, leave out a huge percentage of the population and, in general, try to make their own profits at the expense of social good. Well, that's a view, although one that might be questioned. I've heard that Google Fiber is a private sector company wiring up cities to gigabit access for example. I'm also pretty certain that, barring some extreme amount of geographical separation, the majority of the US population is able to get Internet access, even if only over mobile. And I'm absolutely certain that electricity supply does not have to be done by the public sector. I'm aware of many countries, including my own native UK, that have entirely private sector provision of that lifeblood of modern civilisation. Sure, the natural monopoly parts of it, like the grid itself, are regulated, but there is no "public option" here.
Ezra: The core of this argument is the idea that internet is almost a right — and not just internet, but extremely high-speed internet. Why should we see that as a right and not as a luxury?
Susan: I wouldn't frame in terms of a right, I think it's just a utility. Other countries just take it for granted. I went to Stockholm in December. They pay about 30 bucks a month for gigabit access. That’s something we can't even imagine in the United States. Perhaps someone's Swedish is better than mine but looking at the price of Internet access in Stockholm it appears to be around $150 a month for 1 gigabit, half that for the introductory period. So Susan seems to being a little light on the actualite here.
And I was hugely amused by this:
Susan: We went through exactly the same story with electrification. Often state legislators don't quite understand what's going on or they think of this as a luxury that should only be provided by the private market.State politicians are too dumb to know what they're doing. Well, as an argument against federalism that's pretty hard to beat.
But my point here isn't to shout about one particular interview. Rather, about what I suspect is going to be happening to the site as a whole. I have a feeling (a premonition if you like) that the default answer to any of the things that Vox.com explains to us is going to be that this is a very difficult and complex subject which can only be solved by just the right amount of political wonkery. It would be possible to describe this as bag carrying for a certain section of the Democratic Party but that's absolutely not what I mean.
Rather, I'm convinced that where one lies on the "government should do something" to the "government should stay the hell out of the way" spectrum is something that starts with the innate prejudices of a particular personal character. I could say that experience of the world moves us along that spectrum (I being rather older than everyone else being discussed here) but that would be unkind. And it's also something that I don't believe myself.
I'm absolutely certain that my (at times admittedly extreme) free market views come from my own hatred of bureaucrats, bureaucracy and form filling: this is a prejudice I started with and it's coloured my political views. I'm equally certain that there are bright people who are convinced that bright people can, by manipulating the levers of government, solve difficult problems. I disagree: but that disagreement is, I think, at that level of extant prejudices first and we're all reaching for explanations later.
And that's where I think Vox.com's problems are going to come from. All of the people involved with it are bright and they've all climbed that greasy pole well, showing they have talent as well as smarts. But they all also seem to have a similar worldview: one where just the right pull on the right governmental lever is going to solve those complex problems. A belief in technocratic wonkery if you like. And a belief in technocratic wonkery is something that's going to map very closely over centre of the road Democratic Party positions: just as my own prejudices lead my views to map very closely over those of the Libertarian Party (although, fortunately for my sanity, without descending into Randian nonsense).
And that's what I think is going to end up being the problem with Vox.com. Not that things will be badly written, not that the basic subject matter will be uninteresting. But that the "explainers" will be of one particular worldview, will be telling us how the world looks and should be run by those with that innate belief in technocratic wonkery. I can well imagine any number of pieces talking about the implementation of Obamacare, as there were at Wonkblog. But I find it impossible to imagine something that really explained the options available to reform US healthcare (something that most definitely needs to be done) and also included the Singapore option, even if only to reject it.
Klein's interview there was an exposition of one of those technocratic positions: with very little comeback or challenge to various of the assertions. And that, sadly, is what I expect from the site into the future. The explainers are going to be biased toward a certain worldview. Which is fine, as long as we all know this. But if I'm right about what that bias is going to be then what Vox.com will really be is the propaganda arm of the technocrats. Rather than, you know, a news outlet?