The Niall Ferguson Newsweek saga has moved swiftly from tragedy to farce. After getting called out for numerous factual errors in his cover story on his opposition to Barack Obama’s re-election, Ferguson has now struck back with a broadside against the messenger, specifically “liberal bloggers,” who had the temerity to point out his mistakes.
My critics have three things in common. First, they wholly fail to respond to the central arguments of the piece. Second, they claim to be engaged in “fact checking,” whereas in nearly all cases they are merely offering alternative (often silly or skewed) interpretations of the facts. Third, they adopt a tone of outrage that would be appropriate only if I had argued that, say, women’s bodies can somehow prevent pregnancies in case of “legitimate rape.”
Their approach is highly effective, and I must remember it if I ever decide to organize an intellectual witch hunt. What makes it so irksome is that it simultaneously dodges the central thesis of my piece and at the same time seeks to brand me as a liar. The icing on the cake has been the attempt by some bloggers to demand that I be sacked not just by Newsweek but also by Harvard University, where I am a tenured professor. It is especially piquant to read these demands from people who would presumably defend academic freedom in the last ditch—provided it is the freedom to publish opinions in line with their own ideology.
It’s a bit tiresome to get into the specifics of this debate, as they swerve far too quickly into opinion rather than fact. Ferguson has his, and it’s not irrelevant to the debate that his opinions have been proven wrong, over and over and over again, especially as it relates to the imminent return of hyperinflation and the burning need to cut the deficit. You’ll note that Ferguson doesn’t bother to mention Joe Weisenthal’s stunning critique of his economic acumen. So let that go.
What Ferguson does next is to employ exactly the tactics of vilification that he decries, suggesting that Brad DeLong should be investigated for “spending too much of his time blogging when he really should be conducting serious research or teaching his students.” This comes from someone who just dashed off a couple thousand words defending his couple-thousand word Newsweek essay over the past 48 hours.
This is my favorite part:
The idea of getting a lesson from Paul Krugman about the ethics of commentary is almost as funny as Fallows’s apologizing on behalf of Harvard. Both these paragons of the commentariat, by the way, shamelessly accused me of racism three years ago when I drew an innocent parallel between President Obama and “Felix the Cat.” I don’t know of many more unethical tricks than to brand someone who criticizes the president a racist.
Here’s what Ferguson actually said, which he elides here: “Barack Obama reminds me of Felix the Cat…. Felix was not only black. He was also very, very lucky.”
Now, Ferguson went to Henry Louis Gates and got absolution for the remark; James Fallows recounts the whole thing here. You’ll see that Fallows never called Ferguson racist for the remark, just incredibly clumsy and stupid.
Newsweek has now pulled completely back, arguing that the Ferguson piece was merely opinion and not fact. It’s certainly novel for a news magazine to put an opinion piece on their cover, but that’s their prerogative, I suppose.
This whole thing argues for the concept of actual fact-checkers in the media before anything goes to publication.