Paul Peterson

For the News you Need to know, Read the Wall Street Journal, not that other paper

When reading about events in Libya today (March 7), I suddenly realized why I typically prefer Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reporting to that of the New York Times (NYT). Most days I am disturbed by the NYT’s handling of its education beat, but perhaps (I sometimes worry) that is simply because I know the topic well. Today, for example, a veteran NYT reporter wrote a story on what is alleged to be a rise in the pupil-teacher ratio without ever citing a single one of the excellent studies (by Caroline Hoxby, Matthew Chingos, Ludger Woessmann and Martin West, for example) that indicate students learn little if anything more in smaller classes than in larger ones. The only study Dillon found worth mentioning was one in Tennessee that purports to show benefits from class size reduction in kindergarten and first grade. But perhaps I, an education wonk, am not giving enough lee way to a national newspaper that must serve a general–and generally liberal New York–audience.

But as for Libya, there is none of that. I am as much a poorly informed member of the general audience as any one. Tripoli I have not seen, its history I know only barely, and its politics I note only fleetingly. I have no way of second-guessing the reports I read.

Further, the subject had been for days a compelling, front page news story. Any differences between media outlets are not likely to be a question of editorial oversight or the skill and experience of the specific reporter on assignment.

Nor is it a matter of political spin. When it comes to events on the ground in Libya, it cannot be that the front page of the WSJ takes a more moderate, less liberal perspective than does the NYT. It is true that Republicans are becoming increasingly critical of the hesitancy of the Obama Administration to openly intervene. But there is little disagreement either among elites or within the public at large as to the authoritarian, repressive and villainous nature of Libya’s government. Except for one of my Harvard colleagues and a few others who apparently have been earning extra dollars by helping the Gadhafi family polish its image, hardly any one would argue that the family and its entourage should remain in power.

Given these realities I expected the lead stories in the two papers to be carbon copies of one another. But, no, WSJ opens with the information that “Forces loyal to Col. Moammar Gadhafi struck back at rebel-held cities across Libya,” and then elaborates in great detail on the apparently even balance of military power currently observed, leaving the end result very much in doubt. That is the core story that a member of the general audience is interested in knowing about.

For the NYT, however, the headline is: “A Libyan Leader at War With Rebels, and Reality: Recent Victory Claims, However Off Base, Provide Grist for Cult of Personality, ” a headline that accurately captures the central theme of the story to follow. Much of the account is devoted to substantiating the claim that “accuracy and logic have never been the tenets of Colonel Quaddafi’s governing philosophy.” Apparently, the rebels would have seized power were it not for the Colonel’s paranoia.

The WSJ also told us about John McCain’s criticisms of the Obama Administration’s response to the crisis, so it also gave adequate coverage of the story’s domestic dimension. That topic was missing from the NYT story, however, and, indeed, it was not to be found on the NYT front page at all. So political spin—or, in this case, nonspin–was not missing altogether.

But NYT spin is less disturbing than its propensity to pretend it’s a sister journal of Entertainment magazine, whose job it is to cover personalities, peculiarities, inside gossip and broad generalities about the nature of the issue. Television can probably do no better than that, but we expect more from an elite newspaper.

So, for example, when we read about the recent conflicts in Wisconsin and Indiana, we found out a lot about the numbers of demonstrators, the complaints of unionists and the Republican insistence that it is all about balancing a budget, and other matters the popular media also covers. But we learn little or nothing about what is to be actually found in the proposals under consideration. To get the facts on the ground, the actual state of the conflict in Libya or the actual size of the benefit cuts to be made in Wisconsin, one needs to turn to the WSJ.

Still I wish the WSJ would assign additional reporters to its education beat. Now that it is so successfully spreading its wings beyond the financial community, it needs to pay more attention to those institutions most responsible for the development of the most critical of all forms of capital—human capital.

(photo credit: ogilvyprworldwide)

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