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Friday, 11/21/03

For the backstory, read Nick Confessore's Washington Monthly expose of Tech Central Station, an online journal of opinion and a quasi-thinktank. TCS turns out to be a subsidiary of the DCI Group, a Washington lobbying firm with a history of inventing fake grassroots support for various embattled clients.

Arnold Kling is a conservative economist I read pretty regularly. I think his opinions are generally wrong, but he writes well and his economic credentials are solid, so I like to triangulate his pronouncements with the likes of Krugman and DeLong. Kling is a TCS contributor, and he reacted angrily to the implication that his writing should be suspect just because TCS is run by a K Street firm -- he, after all, didn't know the biases of his editors and TCS' ownership.

I think this is a neat journalistic paradox. Confessore makes an excellent case that TCS is selling opinion to the highest bidder, while the TCS opinion-generator with whom I'm most familiar has excellent grounds to defend his own reputation.

Now that we know TCS is aligning its editorial content with DCI's clients, TCS's institutional credibility disappears. But because the contributors were in the dark, their individual credibility remains unaffected. At worst, the contributors only require more careful evaluation, because they come with no cover.

I think this story is so cool because obviously, the same argument can be made about writers at any publication. Skepticism is always a virtue, but it's hard to maintain, so humans cheat, and people who regularly read specific publications tend to build a syllogistic web of trust. It's not perfect -- just because I adore Dahlia Lithwick in Slate, and thereby discovered James Surowiecki, Virginia Heffernan, and Steven Landsburg, doesn't mean I trust Edward Jay Epstein, but I gave Epstein the benefit of the doubt longer than I would have in a more neutral context.

TCS is an elegant hack of the way people extend trust to journalistic institutions. I think it's unethical, but it's hardly illegal, and it's probably not even uncommon. I'm glad to know it exists. 12:13PM «


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