Capturing The Know-It-All Demographic
December 9, 2016 11:01 AM   Subscribe

Writing at the lefty quarterly journal The Baffler, Stanford Social Innvoation Review editor (and former Boston Review editor) David V. Johnson offers a critical look at Ezra Klein's and Matt Yglesias's Vox.com. He labels it "explatainment" and considers its relative sucess at one of its intended central missions, to become an authoritative source of information (not merely journalism) in the style of Wikipedia. Vox's well-known penchant for liberal-educated-white-guy mansplaining is addressed, as well the biases (hidden and not-so-hidden) inherent in modern hybrid information-entertainment delivery.
posted by briank (48 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
 
See also: this recent article from Current Affairs.
posted by zeusianfog at 11:16 AM on December 9, 2016 [9 favorites]


Vox represents the ideological grandstanding of the technocrat and the professional-managerial class.

Huh. I thought that was what The Baffler represented...
posted by chavenet at 11:20 AM on December 9, 2016 [9 favorites]


Vox has figured out how to deliver complex information and crucially *context* about the news to a wide viewership. That it is a bit smug is really a minor point. Mainstream news suffers from a near complete failure to contextualize news and provide readers with relevant history. Books are long, slow, and while I enjoy them, I can't read a big fat book on everything.

I'll take Vox's approach any day over the articles like the one in this post that nitpick and cast doubt on any sort of viewpoint that isn't a grand unified theory of [TOPIC]. That's just not a reasonable standard to hold every piece of content up to.

It's much easier to complain and pick apart than it is to create. Kudos to the Vox team.
posted by sp160n at 11:27 AM on December 9, 2016 [41 favorites]


Different Publications Have Different Editorial Standards And That's OK
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:29 AM on December 9, 2016 [11 favorites]


From the CA article zeusianfog links, I think this really helps indicate how much of an overlap there is between the, ahem, posting philosophy of places like Vox and the current scourge of factlessness imperiling America:
But watching Ellickson flay Yglesias, I was most struck by the fact that Yglesias was completely unfazed. Far from being ashamed at his humiliating defeat, Yglesias did not even seem to acknowledge that he was even being defeated or humiliated. He didn’t attempt to defend himself. He just… kept talking, as if the numerous arguments that had been made proving him wrong simply didn’t exist.
posted by griphus at 11:30 AM on December 9, 2016 [13 favorites]


I will say that the editorial issues Vox has are concerning, but I don't see them as being any less significant than the ones that plague mainstream news.

Even well vetted news sources like the NY Times editorialize by omission. Their Syria reporting in particular has been atrocious.

Show me the publication where all legitimate viewpoints are comprehensively and concisely covered in an accurate manner and I'll read it every single day for the rest of my life.
posted by sp160n at 11:38 AM on December 9, 2016


The NYT's unstated mission at this point is to normalize the Trump administration to the extent that if they're not actually getting paid to do it, they're getting ripped off.
posted by griphus at 11:39 AM on December 9, 2016 [7 favorites]


I don't know the arguments that were presented by each side in that debate between Yglesias and Ellickson, but I will note that just because someone is a Yale Law professor and considered an expert in his field, that doesn't mean the guy doesn't have political leanings, or that you can't disagree with his ideas on policy. "Experts" are not politically neutral. That's why technocrat governments don't tend to work too well.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 11:58 AM on December 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


But watching Ellickson flay Yglesias, I was most struck by the fact that Yglesias was completely unfazed. Far from being ashamed at his humiliating defeat, Yglesias did not even seem to acknowledge that he was even being defeated or humiliated.

I'm far from an Yglesias fan, but I kind of think it's more of a problem for our overall discourse that we so frequently approach a conversation as something to be won or lost, rather than something in which we, y'know, engage.
posted by dersins at 11:59 AM on December 9, 2016 [21 favorites]


the article seems to be really over-estimating the importance of "card stacks". i've read a few vox articles and i had to go looking to see what they were talking about. i had never seen a card stack until now.
posted by andrewcooke at 12:05 PM on December 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


I'm far from an Yglesias fan, but I kind of think it's more of a problem for our overall discourse that we so frequently approach a conversation as something to be won or lost, rather than something in which we, y'know, engage.

I hear that, but Robinson faults Yglesias not only for not conceding defeat, but for having completely failed to engage with Ellickson. If he could have rebutted Ellickson's arguments, or modified his own arguments in response to them, then he should have done so. It reflects poorly on him that he didn't.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 12:14 PM on December 9, 2016 [11 favorites]


I'll take Vox's approach any day over the articles like the one in this post that nitpick and cast doubt on any sort of viewpoint that isn't a grand unified theory of [TOPIC]

I think this is almost exactly the opposite of the major line of criticism of Vox.
posted by atoxyl at 12:15 PM on December 9, 2016 [5 favorites]


Mostly I'm sad that Todd VanDerWerff has gotten caught up in all this because he used to write good reviews of Community episodes
posted by beerperson at 12:16 PM on December 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


See also: this recent article from Current Affairs.

Nathan J. Robinson has recently and swiftly become one of my favorite writers.
posted by atoxyl at 12:16 PM on December 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


explatainment

I feel like my life was just nailed to a backing board, like a preserved butterfly.
posted by Miko at 12:55 PM on December 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


That "definition of the internet" example is really strange. The Vox definition includes a tiny bit of history and context. The wiki version charges straight into technical details that are irrelevant from such a high level and which no one looking at an encyclopedia is going to care about. It gets some of them wrong. This is supposed to be dissing Vox?
posted by Western Infidels at 1:04 PM on December 9, 2016


“[Vox's cards are] inspired by the highlighters and index cards that some of us used in school to remember important information,” Klein explained on the site’s launch. “We’re incredibly excited about them.”

Anyone who’s spent sleepless teenage nights cramming for college entry tests with a battery of index cards and highlighters probably isn’t going to share this particular brand of excitement.


You know... there's a lot of angles you can take to Clinton's loss. Misogyny, James Fucking Comey, WWC, 30 years of character assassination, and I buy that all of these are real factors.

But one more? American culture has this way too pervasive disdain for people who do their damn homework, cram sessions or long-term learners, and this translates that way for me.

Sure, index cards and highlighters can go with frustration and difficulty. But you don't do the "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard" kind of stuff like JFK said (speaking of making america great) without doing your homework. And at this moment in history, it hardly seems histrionic to ask if we can even just keep a democratic Republic while being a nation that lulzes it up about a journalist with enthusiasm for doing homework.

If you want to argue there's weaknesses in somebody's perspective or approach to understanding the world and producing understanding and holding a conversation about it, fine, by all means. But if in the process you're making contributions like this to reinforcing this strain of culture that's suspicious of study itself... I don't know, I'm tempted to give my own study immediately to something else. Y'all can let me know if I'm missing something by stopping at that point.
posted by wildblueyonder at 1:20 PM on December 9, 2016 [25 favorites]


I hear that, but Robinson faults Yglesias not only for not conceding defeat, but for having completely failed to engage with Ellickson.

He calls out Yglesias' failure to engage explicitly--and solely--within the context of a failure to acknowledge defeat.

Conversation is not combat, and the fact that people--even those as unquestionably intelligent and sophisticated as Robinson--are unable or unwilling to view it otherwise, is perhaps the most significant problem in political discourse today. This is precisely how and why we ended up with the campaign cycle we just endured.
posted by dersins at 1:27 PM on December 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


"Explatainment" is the worst portmanteau I have ever laid eyes on. Plus, infotainment is already a word.
posted by Sys Rq at 1:27 PM on December 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


Conversation is not combat, and the fact that people--even those as unquestionably intelligent and sophisticated as Robinson--are unable or unwilling to view it otherwise, is perhaps the most significant problem in political discourse today.

Well, that and people who think that arguing is the same thing as "making an argument."

posted by dersins at 1:31 PM on December 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


Conversation is not combat, and the fact that people--even those as unquestionably intelligent and sophisticated as Robinson--are unable or unwilling to view it otherwise, is perhaps the most significant problem in political discourse today. This is precisely how and why we ended up with the campaign cycle we just endured.

I don't understand that last sentence. An election isn't a conversation, but a competition. Why should a more combative political discourse lead to a more combative campaign and not the other way around? Why should one lead to the other in the first place?
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:41 PM on December 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


I somehow missed that great Current Affairs piece, I usually keep on top of the noble pursuit of Vox-trashing
posted by edeezy at 1:42 PM on December 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


This piece has its flaws, but having grown up in the DC area, having grown up with people who became Ezra Klein types, having seen them crowded in coffee shops and brunch places on U Street telling me "policy is less important than getting my guy in place to implement it" (actual quote!). Yeah, it's great to put things in context, but the context ends up being primarily what well-off, well-educated young white guys want "the non-wonks" to think -- because they've read a lot about this, and what they're saying is true and it would really be obvious to you if you'd been willing to dive in and geek out like they did. Call it classism, or ageism, or anti-intellectualism if you want, but I'm frankly tired of having conversations with people like that. Maybe that's not Vox and I'm just projecting, but man, let me tell you, Vox sure does remind me of a whole bunch of people I know.
posted by teponaztli at 1:52 PM on December 9, 2016 [7 favorites]


If you want to argue there's weaknesses in somebody's perspective or approach to understanding the world and producing understanding and holding a conversation about it, fine, by all means. But if in the process you're making contributions like this to reinforcing this strain of culture that's suspicious of study itself... I don't know, I'm tempted to give my own study immediately to something else. Y'all can let me know if I'm missing something by stopping at that point.

If you think he's approaching this from an anti-intellectual standpoint you are definitely missing something. If you're stopping at that sentence you should probably read the next one

Yet in the efficiency-crazed, PowerPoint-oriented world of business achievers, this approach may feel more user-friendly than anything that requires sustained attention and critical thinking.
posted by atoxyl at 2:24 PM on December 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


For the past two years, Ezra Klein’s philosophy in running Vox.com has been precisely this: people do not need facts, they need explanations. The ordinary person is ill-equipped to interpret the facts, to figure out what they mean. Klein rejects what he calls the “More Information Hypothesis,” the idea that a better-informed citizenry could have more productive political debates.

I think Klein is actually completely right about the limitations of "more information." But the limitations of "here's your information and your analysis, pre-wrapped for your convenience" should be at least as obvious.
posted by atoxyl at 2:33 PM on December 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


Huh. I thought that was what The Baffler represented...

I thought The Baffler is basically Chapo Trap House before the alt-left/ctrl-left/Weird Twitter left a e s t h e t i c became a thing? Maybe not so much.
posted by Apocryphon at 2:40 PM on December 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


"Call it classism, or ageism, or anti-intellectualism if you want, but I'm frankly tired of having conversations with people like that."

It's none of those things. The problem with the Vox phenomenon is that you have (admittedly smart) young folks trying to assume too much expertise about all kinds of problems in which they have only superficial expertise. A little knowledge, and all that.

Some might call it ageism, but there's actual value in having decades of experience in a specific area of study or policy. Even the smartest 20-something kids aren't going to be able to tackle multiple areas of expertise just by reading a handful of books or articles on them. I'm reminded of this whenever I see some Vox/Slate/Whatever article dealing with an area of expertise I've spend many years in myself.

But the internet has given a platform for people to make themselves into "experts" on topics without having to go through the traditional process of becoming an expert--e.g., obtaining a graduate degree in a field, doing lots of research in that field, and publishing in peer-review related journals in that field. There are certainly faults in the traditional system, but it also produces genuine expertise, sometimes.
posted by mikeand1 at 2:45 PM on December 9, 2016 [15 favorites]


mikeand1: you bring up very very good points. Experience matters.

That said, if Vox could find a sagacious subject matter expert who could produce relatively balanced coverage AND can write engaging text / video that is well paced and packaged in a way that will garnish enough clicks and youtube views to pay for its existence I think they probably would. I think most people would agree that such criteria are unlikely to be satisfied.
posted by sp160n at 3:10 PM on December 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


I thought The Baffler is basically Chapo Trap House before the alt-left/ctrl-left/Weird Twitter left a e s t h e t i c became a thing? Maybe not so much.

the Rhizzone hates Chapo Trap House and all that for the same reasons, ya dork
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:11 PM on December 9, 2016 [2 favorites]


goons gonna goon, no matter what off-site they're on
posted by Apocryphon at 3:26 PM on December 9, 2016 [3 favorites]


From my bookmarks, I've read 1 Vox article this year that was useful/interesting in a significant way. So I mean, things aren't absolute. It's just that it's mostly bad. 99% rule, etc.
posted by polymodus at 3:55 PM on December 9, 2016


If you think he's approaching this from an anti-intellectual standpoint you are definitely missing something. If you're stopping at that sentence you should probably read the next one
Yet in the efficiency-crazed, PowerPoint-oriented world of business achievers, this approach may feel more user-friendly than anything that requires sustained attention and critical thinking.

So, it isn't just the one sentence I singled out. There was the earlier "eww, gross, vegetables" characterization of Vox's vision of "helping people by giving them content that sought to explain the world to them." OK, when I read that, maybe he's just needling a twee title like "head vegetable chef" (and I'll allow that if you pick a title like that, you can expect some needling). But recapitulating that with the dig about highlighters and cards, and it's not a coincidence. Whatever else the author thinks he's doing, he's undermining study and attention.

Before I noped out of the article, I did catch the reference to PPT business achievers and the subsequent characterization of Vox as out to influence "business decision makers" and thought leaders. I don't think that makes me feel any better, even though I share a lot of criticism of the TEDosphere of infotainment and Friedmanesque insight porn all highly incentivized to contribute as much to the personal brand of the speaker and listener as create actual insight. Particularly if his central point is, as it seems to be:
In labeling Vox and FiveThirtyEight entertainment companies, I don’t mean to deny that they’re capable of doing bona fide journalism. Vox does sometimes provide sound explanations of things, and FiveThirtyEight offers good data analysis, as its performance over the prior two presidential cycles has shown. Rather, I’m arguing that doing journalism tout court is not, strictly speaking, the business model; these are hybrid companies that combine information services with entertainment
O RLY.

Remind me of the golden age when doing journalism and being paid directly for the doing of journalism was, strictly speaking, the business model. Point me to the paragon of journalistic publications embodying pure entertainment-free information services.

Like this criticism, most of the rest the author touches on are essentially the same problems that every newspaper of record has run into... both sides differ, attention to surprising "it turns out" pieces, leaving some points of view unrepresented, not explaining some things. I wonder who is not making these mistakes. Wikipedia is the closest thing to an interesting counterpoint invoked, and it's both (a) clearly a different thing and (b) something anyone interested in the limits of various publication models better have elaborated their own set of concerns about how you manage the contributions of the crowd.

If there's one charge that I'd say almost holds up in a useful and distinctive manner, it's that Vox is neoliberal. Even this needs a mulligan to be called accurate; it's technocratic. Wonky. Which brings us back to what I started with: what the author really doesn't like is that damn homework doing. That's just so white (or, if you're already white, square), right?

If what he meant to say was that there's wisdom lost in knowledge and information and other dimensions to journalism than data or branding, then I might have poured one out for Eliot and spotted him that if he hadn't made the digs at the earnestly studious.

By all means, when Vox publishes incorrect things, they should be held accountable, when there's more to be said, hopefully there will be other journalists saying it. But that's not what's going on here; the author is on about the idea of Vox rather than the execution. And really. Of all the places in the journalism landscape to target criticism.
posted by wildblueyonder at 4:06 PM on December 9, 2016 [6 favorites]


I wrote a piece criticizing Vox about a month before these other pieces started coming out, but it strikes me that there's a deep kind of anti-intellectualism to some of the resentment. The argument is rarely that the Vox team is wrong in some fundamental way, but that they're trying too hard, they're too prone to doing lots of research and then trying to summarize it, that they lean too much on the network of real scholars who they often interview and cite.

If the criticism is that they have a politics but not your politics, that's fine. But they're pretty up front about that. Also Sarah Kliff'a coverage of health care policy is really great. I suspect she doesn't get mentioned as much because then you can't accuse her of mansplaining, even though she has basically the same editorial voice as her colleagues.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:56 PM on December 9, 2016 [11 favorites]


So, it isn't just the one sentence I singled out. There was the earlier "eww, gross, vegetables" characterization of Vox's vision of "helping people by giving them content that sought to explain the world to them."

This is Klein's own analogy.

Whatever else the author thinks he's doing, he's undermining study and attention.

I still think this is a strange reading of a piece that is mostly attacking Vox's premise that they will do the study and attention for you.
posted by atoxyl at 5:01 PM on December 9, 2016 [5 favorites]


Some of the complaints also seem to be that Vox has a liberal bias and assumes those fundamental axioms they hold are true.

In the age when they have to compete against Breitbart, I see no problem with this.
posted by qcubed at 5:35 PM on December 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


Yeah, the line about flash cards is bad, but there's a difference between doing homework and doing it for other people. Vox does the homework for you and acts like that's enough to be an authority on the subject whether or not you appreciate it. And they love to take the contrarian position and treat it like one of those "you've been eating ice cream the wrong way" clickbait articles. I don't think that's a great combo.
posted by teponaztli at 6:32 PM on December 9, 2016


From the current affairs link:
In fact, it is curious that Klein and Vox should have embraced the label of “explainers.” After all, the word has some interesting connotations. Explanations (rather than, say, “explorations”) are the provenance of the hyper-confident and the sometimes-criminal: one explains away one’s misdeeds; the villain caught red-handed shouts “I can explain!” as he is dragged away.
This is idiocy. Nathan J. Robinson should stick to parodies of children's books. (IIRC, he also wrote a really funny-seeming book reference to which I couldn't find in roughly thirty seconds of googling.)
posted by kenko at 8:35 PM on December 9, 2016 [1 favorite]


This doesn't seem to criticizing Vox's content so much as Vox's PR. Which is really easy for me to ignore already. I didn't actually think Vox was some Objective Arbiter of Truth.

This article was totally wrong.

This was how Vox phrased a correction. It's the good part of the "explainer" culture--say something clearly and plainly, even when it's about yourself. I can't believe this is a point Johnson holds against them. It smack of bad faith argument.

there's actual value in having decades of experience in a specific area of study or policy.

Sure, but standard newspaper types are not those people even if they are in their sixties. They have decades of experience at journalism, not on a specific policy matter.

Vox isn't a think tank doing white papers, it's a general consumption media site that gives short articles on current topics pitched at people starting with no background whatsoever.
posted by mark k at 9:50 PM on December 9, 2016 [4 favorites]


It's true that Vox is young white mostly men who think they know more than they do. They're smug and impressed with themselves. There is a ton of mansplaining, from MY in particular. They have clickbaity headlines.

But at least they're trying to do what journalism should do. Journalists are as a whole too stupid to try to cover policy. So they do gossip reporting. Obviously there are exceptions here. But prior to MY and EK et al., who was there? DeLong and Krugman, I suppose. But neither are journalists. At least Vox is trying to report on facts using data and not doing a priori sociology in the vein of Mara Liasson or David Brooks or David Broder.
posted by persona au gratin at 3:21 AM on December 10, 2016 [5 favorites]


EK and Sarah Kliff have done great stuff on health care. And MY has done some righteous writing since the election.
posted by persona au gratin at 3:23 AM on December 10, 2016


It's Time to Admit Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias are Extraordinarily Talented Writers
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 7:29 AM on December 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


I wrote a piece criticizing Vox about a month before these other pieces started coming out, but it strikes me that there's a deep kind of anti-intellectualism to some of the resentment.

It struck me less as really anti-intellectual and more as coming from somewhere similar to stereotypical area-studies scholars' you-don't-understaaaaaand criticisms of quantitative research or even just theoretically-driven qualitative research (ie Lin Ostrom). A demand not for anti-intellectualism but for intellectualism as erudite-conversation-over-coffee instead of, say, worrying about the operationalization of a specific concept.

Even the smartest 20-something kids aren't going to be able to tackle multiple areas of expertise just by reading a handful of books or articles on them. I'm reminded of this whenever I see some Vox/Slate/Whatever article dealing with an area of expertise I've spend many years in myself.

My own experience is more the reverse; they do a reasonably good job summarizing and applying more-or-less current research in political science. I mean, duh, it helps that they have a small crowd of Smart Young-ish Things from the discipline doing Mischiefs of Faction, but even the Klein/Yglesias stuff is pretty good. Certainly vastly better than what you get out of standard reporting or the op-ed page in the Times or Post.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:45 AM on December 10, 2016 [2 favorites]


Any website that does not exist to spread Comet Ping Pong rumors is ok by me
posted by benzenedream at 10:24 AM on December 10, 2016 [1 favorite]


It struck me less as really anti-intellectual and more as coming from somewhere similar to stereotypical area-studies scholars' you-don't-understaaaaaand criticisms of quantitative research or even just theoretically-driven qualitative research (ie Lin Ostrom). A demand not for anti-intellectualism but for intellectualism as erudite-conversation-over-coffee instead of, say, worrying about the operationalization of a specific concept.

You'll always win with me if you want to talk about the Ostroms. But I guess I wonder why it's not enough that there are regularly big think pieces about Juan Linz or Arlie Hochschild or Theda Skocpol. The New York Review of Books already exists, but Vox has about 50 times as many readers.
posted by anotherpanacea at 11:30 AM on December 10, 2016


Any website that does not exist to spread Comet Ping Pong rumors is ok by me

All websites exist to spread Comet Ping Pong rumors now. (Try the barbecue chicken, I hear it's pretty good.)
posted by atoxyl at 1:26 PM on December 10, 2016


Good article. I like Vox in general, but I think it highlights some problems, which are the usual problems of a technocratic attitude.

For example, let's say you live in a Marx-Leninist centrally planned economy. Someone might ask the question: "why don't most houses have washing machines?" A technocrat within this system would be very happy to answer. They would research the exact amount of steel in a washing machine, how much copper is needed for the electric motors; look at the alternative uses for steel and copper like tanks and tractors; then provide an Explainer on why the Central Planning Committee has decided not to build and distribute many washing machines. If they're radical they might disagree and say the Central Planning Committee should produce more washing machines. There can then follow a lively fact-based debate on the subject.

But the important question here is really: "Why should a Central Planning Committee decide how many washing machines there are?" It's the ideology that's important here, not the facts about promising new potential copper sources. The facts are largely a distraction from the ideology.

Technocrats generally live within an ideology, full of unquestioned but critical assumptions. As technocrats they're unwilling to start questioning those assumptions because that would be "straying into politics" or "getting ideological", when all they want to deal with are The Facts. But the selection of facts is always ideological.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 9:02 PM on December 10, 2016


This just sounds like nerds vs geeks all over again, in the sense that one side is accusing the other of being fanboys who just like to show off their collection.
posted by FJT at 8:27 AM on December 11, 2016


I know Ezra Klein. He is not smart. He is average.
posted by Ironmouth at 2:06 AM on December 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


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