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Inner Workings at the NewsHour, or The Tale of a Keynes Rap Video

Skidelsky and Roberts; file photo

Paul Solman: Caveat lector: What follows may be more than you want to know. That said, a blog post about us and TV talk show booking practices, The Perils of a Talking Head, appeared yesterday. I thought it might benefit from some response and elaboration.

The poster boy was Reagan and Bush I advisor Bruce Bartlett, self-described “frequent guest on The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer.” Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein then posted part of Bartlett’s account. He too is a sometime NewsHour guest.

The back story to all is meant to provide a window into how both we and the blogosphere operate.

Once upon a time (a few months ago?), I received an intriguing book with an even more intriguing title: Where Keynes Went Wrong. Intriguing enough, I thought, to consider an interview with the author, Hunter Lewis. But given how politically charged the prescriptions of Keynes are at the moment — to stimulate or not to stimulate seems to have become a matter of life and death — I thought to pair Lewis with a Keynesian.

It then turned out that the famed biographer of Keynes, British economist (and honorary Lord) Robert Skidelsky, had written a new book on his old subject: Keynes: The Return of the Master. Moreover, Skidelsky was headed to the States for a press tour. So we booked a debate, to be recorded at the IMF, an institution Keynes helped found and whose capacious conference room features his bust. The debate was shot there, with Keynes in attendance, this past Tuesday (Oct. 13) That’s Skidelsky above on the left.

Unfortunately, Lewis’ mother had in the meantime taken gravely ill and he had to cancel at the end of last week. Pressed to find a replacement, one member of our team pre-interviewed three candidates, among whom were Richard Rahn, a senior fellow of the Cato Institute whom I’ve interviewed before and quite liked and Russ Roberts of George Mason University, an economist of some standing who co-writes the blog Cafe Hayek and who has also appeared on the NewsHour.

In the end, the pre-interviewer ever so slightly preferred Rahn, wholly because he was a bit more pointed in his disagreement with Skidelsky. He and Roberts were deemed equally good “talkers.” (The third candidate seemed more intent on knocking the current stimulus program than discussing Keynes in detail. But he too was good and had he been our only option, would have more than sufficed. The most accurate thing to say: an embarrassment of riches.)

When we informed Roberts, he told us he had just written, and was soon recording, a Keynes rap video. I was forwarded the lyrics and found them remarkably clever and clear. The rap’s inclusion promised to make the debate, I thought, both lively and amusing. But to introduce a second anti-Keynesian would make it lopsided.

The producer, associate producer, and I discussed the matter at length, not wanting to cancel Rahn at the proverbial last minute (though some 20 hours before the actual shoot). In the end, we decided to switch to Roberts (who is pictured above right) and apologize to Rahn. I suggested an email honestly explaining our decision. And thus did the producer write the following to Richard Rahn:

Dear Mr. Rahn,

I am Paul Solman’s producer for the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer. Diane Lincoln was assisting me in casting tomorrow’s Keynes debate. While I agree with Diane that — of the several people she contacted — you make THE strongest case against Keynesian economics, Paul and I have decided to go with someone else instead.

The reason is almost absurd, but at this late hour I feel I owe you a full explanation:

We just learned that Russ Roberts, a professor of economics at George Mason University, who was our second choice for the anti-Keynes position, is shooting a rap video about Keynes and Hayek next week in New York. He has written the lyrics (they are quite good), hired rappers and musicians, and tapped professional music video producers — there will be bling, babes, limos, the works.

Paul and I agonized over this; we felt terribly about canceling on you. (Diane felt even worse!)

But our stories are used in high school and college classrooms throughout the United States, and we are always striving to come up with some angle to capture and hold kids’ attention. That’s why we feel we simply cannot let the opportunity to feature this video pass us by, and the Keynes debate is our one and only shot. (And if we use the video we feel we have to use Russ Roberts for the debate.)

I am so very sorry about this. Please accept my apologies. If there is any way I can make this up to you I will try to do so…

Best,

Lee

To which Richard Rahn graciously replied as follows:

Dear Lee:

This is without a doubt the best rejection letter I have ever had.

I know Russ Roberts – and thus I know why he needs rappers, “bling, babes and limo’s” to compete with me.

We have been trying to do video’s to make our economic points and thus I am looking forward to see what Russ has done.

As far as “making it up to me” – you have already given me a good laugh – but I would welcome the chance to have lunch with you and Diane. I can easily meet up with you two in VA or DC. Let me know when you might have a few open days.

Best regards,

Richard

Imagine our surprise, then, at seeing our email reproduced in part on Bruce Bartlett’s blog under the “Perils of a Talking Head” heading and the use he made of it, of which herewith an excerpt (since the link is above).

“[A] friend of mine, economist Richard Rahn, recently had a segment on the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer canceled….[I]t wasn’t because he had the wrong point of view, but because the show found a better guest to say the same thing…

What is funny about Richard’s experience is that he wasn’t bumped for a bigger name, but for another economist prepared to make his points in the form of rap. I’m not making this up. For a segment on the economics of John Maynard Keynes, this news program found someone who apparently has produced a rap video on the subject. Here is the relevant portion of the e-mail Richard got canceling his appearance:

“We just learned that Russ Roberts, a professor of economics at George Mason University, who was our second choice for the anti-Keynes position, is shooting a rap video about Keynes and Hayek next week in New York. He has written the lyrics (they are quite good), hired rappers and musicians, and tapped professional music video producers — there will be BLING, babes, limos, the works.” (My emphasis)

Richard received this e-mail as he and I were having dinner and I almost fell on the floor laughing. The absurdity of being rejected for an economist who brings bling, babes and limos to the table was bad enough. The idea of making a rap video about Keynesian economics made it even more absurd. But what really cracked me up was the idea of Russ Roberts doing this. Even by the standards of economics professors he’s pretty nerdy. I can’t even begin to imagine how he could do a rap video of anything, let alone Keynesian economics.

I don’t know when or if Roberts’ video will make it on to the NewsHour, but I hope it does, if only to see how he explains liquidity preference.”

And so ends the post, after which comes a comment from a reader:

Who knew Newshour cared about entertainment value! It’s always been the best news program on TV, but if that’s the kind of call they are making now, well, to paraphrase LBJ about Cronkite, if we’ve lost Newshour, we’ve lost the entire news media.

Maybe next they’ll have Kudlow on. Ya’ know, just to keep clowning things up to hold the attention of the masses of A.D.D. “news” viewers.

And then came Mr. Klein of the Washington Post, who uncritically reprinted only part of Mr. Bartlett’s post without inquiring further.

Somewhat offended, I wrote to all parties (Bartlett, Rahn, Roberts and Klein) and heard from the first two. Both assured me Mr. Bartlett’s post was in jest and he offered to take it down if I wished.

**

The lesson I draw from all this, besides the rather obvious one that any email may excerpted out of context, is that it’s hard to get a handle on “voice” in the blogosphere, cyberspace, Digitalistan — call it what you will.

Is the blogger kidding? In high dudgeon? Clearly, the commenter on Mr. Bartlett’s blog misread his intent. As did I.

And then, when a blog post is itself excerpted, as on Mr. Klein’s page, do we know how HE read it, intends US to read his excerpt?

To the extent I took umbrage, perhaps I was doing what I feel some viewers, listeners, and readers have done over the years with my own work: misunderstood and overreacted.

Blogging can be a lot of work. I know. I answer questions on this page and on occasion it takes a very long time to do so. I will sometimes ask people who know more than I do for help and have to wait for their responses. Sometimes the response doesn’t come.

Moreover, I realize that fact-checking is an age-old problem in journalism; it’s expensive (Ben Franklin was right: time IS money) and it so very often gets in the way of a good story by complicating or even refuting it. Since Mr. Bartlett was just kidding, he must have seen no reason to report further. Mr. Klein was just excerpting something he found interesting, I guess. Maybe even amusing.

But from my point of view, trying hard to be even-handed, judicious, mindful of our multiple audiences, sufficiently engaging to be watchable and yet careful enough to capture a thinker like Keynes — and all the while being civil to those who try to help us at the task — it’s a reminder: Be skeptical of what you read, especially in the blogosphere, even when it’s a blog you admire, as I do Mr. Klein’s.

And the rap itself, you might ask? Well, Russ Roberts will let us post it after the final lyrics have been locked in. That could be as much a month from now. You can then judge its cleverness and clarity for yourself. Here, however, as a tease, is my exchange on the matter with perhaps the world’s greatest Keynes expert, Professor Skidelsky.

Paul Solman: So you read the rap, is that a fair account of Keynes?

Robert Skidelsky: Absolutely fair and brilliantly rhymed. It’s not a complete account of Keynes but it seems to be completely right.

At debate’s end, Lord Skidelsky made Prof. Roberts promise to send him the finished lyrics, as well as the rap’s other half, a counter-rap in the voice of Keynes’ friend and intellectual rival, Friedrich Hayek. We’ll be sure to post it as well. Then perhaps Mssrs. Rahn and Bartlett will have to recant. To Mr. Roberts.

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