News Values

Because They Could, my account of the scandal that ended Harvard University’s mission to Moscow in 1997, is back in print, this time to stay. It carries forward the only other long-form journalistic account of the affair, David McClintick’s landmark article in Institutional Investor.  McClintick’s investigation helped force the resignation of Harvard president Lawrence Summers in 2006.

 EP readers will be familiar with much of the saga of how of Harvard’s mission to Moscow came to grief.  It turns out that there was more to the story – a second lawsuit that the university settled and sealed. That’s what the book is about — two-thirds of it, anyway, a revealing  vignette set in the larger story of NATO expansion.

I can’t resist one more observation on why the Harvard story has attracted so little attention otherwise over the years.

There’s been a tendency in recent years to rely more heavily than before on professional economists as journalists. Paul Krugman, of The New York Times, and Martin Wolf, of the Financial Times, are the most prominent examples. There are many others, tucked away in business pages, magazines, or on websites of their own.

This is a welcome development, for several reasons.  Economists are knowledgeable about the in and outs of policy ways that journalists can never hope to be. They are better sourced among their trusting colleagues.  And, thanks to the dislocations following the advent of search advertising, there are fewer of us journalists covering economics from the outside.

There’s a downside, though. Membership in the economics guild brings with it a natural reluctance to tangle with the leadership of the profession, on any other than strictly professional grounds. To put this slightly differently, economists who enter journalism remain economists; they are not there to police their peers.

As far as I know, neither Krugman nor Wolf has ever mentioned the Harvard-Russia story. Only The Wall Street Journal actually covered it. The affair and its aftermath didn’t come up in four otherwise excellent books about Russia during those years by journalists — David Hoffman, of The Washington Post; Chrystia Freeland, of the Financial Times; David Remnick, of The New Yorker; and John Lloyd, of the Financial Times.

As for the “Further Reading” section of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, not even McClitick’s 25,000-word article rated a mention there – perhaps because Harvard professor Andrei Shleifer was JEP‘s editor from 2003-2008.

That’s where economic journalists come in, making their way  in the news trade, ultimately independent of the economists and others whom they cover. Warm thanks to EP’s bulldog subscribers for keeping the story alive. Back to this column’s main business next week.

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