Review: The Economist

A few months ago, I asked for suggestions for magazines to subscribe to. I got a lot of helpful suggestions, and subscribed to three: The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Economist.

Today, I’m reviewing the only one of the three that I’m disappointed in, and it’s The Economist. This comes as something of a surprise, because so many people (with the exception of Bryan O’Sullivan) recommended it.

Let’s start with a quote from the issue that found its way to my mailbox this week:

A crowd of 2m or more is making its way to Washington, DC, to witness the inauguration of Mr Obama. Billions more will watch it on television. [link]

Every issue, I see this sort of thing all over. An estimate, or an opinion, presented as unquestioned fact, sometimes pretty clearly wrong or misleading. For weeks before Jan. 20, and even the day before, the widely-reported word from officials was that they had no idea what to expect, but if they had to guess, they’d say that attendance would be between 1-2 million. In the end, the best estimates have placed attendance at 1.8 million.

Would it have killed them to state that most estimates were more conservative, and to cite the source of their particular estimate? That’s all I want, really, when they do things like this.

I knew going into it that the magazine (to American eyes) essentially editorializes throughout, and I don’t have a problem with that. But it engages in over-generalization far too often — and that’s just when I catch it. This was just a quick example from the first article I read in this issue; it’s more blatant other places, but quite honestly I’m too lazy to go look some more examples up at this hour. I do remember, though, them referring to members of Obama’s cabinet as if they were certain to be, back before Obama had even announced their pick, let alone their confirmation hearings happening.

One of my first issues of The Economist had a lengthy section on the global automobile market. I learned a lot about how western companies broke into markets in Asia and South America. Or at least I think I did. I don’t know enough about that subject to catch them if they are over-generalizing again.

The end result is that I read each issue with a mix of fascination and distrust; the topics are interesting, but I can never really tell if I’m being given an accurate story. It often feels like the inside scoop, but then when I have some bit of knowledge of what the scoop is, it’s often a much murkier shade of gray than The Economist’s ever-confident prose lets on.

Don’t get me wrong; there are things about the Economist I like. But not as much as with the New Yorker or the Atlantic, so I’ll let my subscription lapse after 6 months — but keep reading it until then.

10 thoughts on “Review: The Economist

  1. Some years ago I heard an identical comment from someone who was used only to the American approach to journalism. The WSJ is the best example: a highly objective approach to journalism except for the op-ed pages, which is “let it rip” time. I read the WSJ and NYTimes everyday. The British style is different. There is no wall between “journalism” and “op-ed”.
    The Economist approaches every article and every issue with a bias. They don’t pretend to be “objective”. When you read the Economist, you have to know that. Funnily enough, that’s what makes it so good.
    You get judgement and expert opinion much more often. The quality of the Economist’s writers makes this the outstanding part of the Economist. Give it a chance (six months). It takes a lot of getting used to. However, you will be surprised to see how much more interesting this can make the reading. The hints and suppositions are surprisingly accurate; it is more like reading briefing documents than newspaper articles.
    “objective” journalism is a bit of myth. You might get rigorously checked facts, but there are all sorts of other higher-level barriers between “objective, show both sides of the story” writing and the truth. What happens if there are more than two sides?

    1. I don’t think I disagree with you, Tim. I knew about the bias before I ever subscribed. There’s a difference between bias and sloppiness though, and what I have seen seems to be sloppy in the details, if not just flat-out inaccurate.

      I know they speak of “failed” policies, presidencies, or people without backing it up, and I understand that’s because of their editorial viewpoint. While I wish they would defend their positions more, I understand it and it’s not the thing that’s really bugging me here.

      1. I look forward to your update in six months.

        The crowd estimate is not very strong grounds for your argument.The Economist actually wrote “More people probably packed the Mall than at any previous event in Washington—nearly 2m, by one estimate.” It didn’t say “2m or more”.

        You say the “best estimates” was 1.8m (a Washington Post estimate). Which rounds to 2m. The Economist was not very interested in this minor point. The article was about the beginning phase of a very interesting and important presidency, not on crowd size. However, I am reassured that if they chose only one estimate, they chose what you say is the best one.

        So I think you’ve been unfair to the Economist, plus you are missing the wood for the trees.


        1. Oh, the “2m or more” was a quote from a Jan 15 article before the inauguration; it was a prediction. Factually and within the precision used it was 100% accurate, and if the article had written 2.0m the error would have been 10%. They could have said “the estimates range from x to y” but that’s simply aggregation, and we don’t pay the Economist to aggregate other people’s opinions. Wikipedia does that.

          And now I sound like a fanboy. But I still think you are being unfair.

          For sure, a balanced diet is essential for good health.

        2. You’re right that this isn’t the most egregious example. The ones that I noticed the most were when they were referring to Obama’s cabinet picks as if they had already happened, when they hadn’t even been announced officially. Unfortunately, I don’t have the inclination to go dig through a stack of magazines to find the quote, but I believe it was one of the issues in Nov 2008.

          Yes, I know that, on the one hand, it’s a nit. On the other hand, it’s a difference in meaning that can be important. They could have said “Rumored secretary-designate” or something, which would have been accurate and clear.

          If it just happened a few times, that’s one thing. But it happens in every issue.

  2. I can’t believe anyone would seriously recommend the Atlantic. It’s been unreadable since Michael Kelly left. If you think The Economist overgeneralizes, then what do you think of the Atlantic? At least with the Economist you have some assurance that the authors know what they’re talking about, the fools who write for the Atlantic have no real qualifications or expertise. Since they’ve pulled almost all fiction from the pages, there’s really no reason to subscribe.

    1. I’ve read only one issue so far, and it was a good read.

      The articles in the Economist are all unsigned, so I have no assurance at all about the authors, though I do know that they are prone to overgeneralization to the point of inaccuracy.

      I can’t really review the Atlantic yet because I haven’t read enough of it yet. I’m keeping an open mind with it, as I did with the New Yorker and Economist.

  3. I’m really late to this party, but I was suprised that no-one suggested that you try The Week ( Their approach is to gather interesting snippets from wide variety of newspapers and present it as an eclectic but effective mix. It’s the kind of thing you will either love or hate, but it’s worth checking out.

  4. If you want a holistic view while reading the Economist, you should also read the International Socialist Review. They balance each other quite nicely.

    Economist is certainly biased. Just look at all the advertising from BP liberally strewn across their pages.

    1. “Economist is certainly biased. Just look at all the advertising from BP liberally strewn across their pages.”

      What a stupid comment, the acceptance of paid advertisements has absolutely nothing to do with editorial bias. Especially in the current economy, ANY newspaper will accept ANY paid advertisement that is not flat-out illegal.

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