Presswatch

All You Need to Know

…is that Ezra Klein’s Vox is nothing special.

By From the June 2014 issue

Ezra Klein in the launch video for Vox, which cannot afford furniture.
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All you need to know” was for years the slogan of KNX 1070, a CBS-owned and -operated news radio station in Los Angeles. I was there, as a college intern, when management introduced the catchphrase in 1987. It met with wide derision from the newsroom staff, who were embarrassed by its condescending, if not vaguely totalitarian, overtone.

KNX abandoned both the slogan and the all-news format in 2003 and restored both in 2007, but the station seems to have dropped the slogan again since then. Which is just as well, for this year a new website debuted that uses a nearly identical tagline to promote what its founders tout as a new kind of journalism.

Vox—that’s with a V, not an F—is the brainchild of Ezra Klein, familiar to readers of this column as the founder of the left-liberal email club Journolist (see Presswatch, TAS, October 2010). In January, Klein announced he was leaving the Washington Post for the new venture, and in March, Vox.com introduced itself in an online video. Klein presented the new site as a cure for a peculiar neurosis from which he once suffered: “I remember, beginning to follow the news, I remember the feeling of anxiety around opening a new article and knowing I was about to feel stupid, I was about to feel like I was outside the club,” he asserted in the video. “This is a real problem!”

An even realer problem is the fashion sense of Matt Yglesias, another former Journolist member, whom Klein recruited from Slate. Yglesias was widely mocked for appearing in the video wearing a plaid sport jacket with a necktie in a different, clashing plaid pattern. “It’s good to see Herb Tarlek working again,” tweeted marketing consultant Jon Gabriel, referring to the bombastic sales manager from the 1970s sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati.

In the video, Yglesias explained: “Success, in somewhat grandiose terms, is that we want to create the single greatest resource available for people to understand the issues that are in the news.” The site’s main device for doing so is the “card stack,” a primer on a given topic in FAQ (frequently asked questions) form. “We wanted to give this idea of a digestible portion of the context of a story in each card, so it is not intimidating,” Vox co-founder Melissa Bell told London’s Guardian in April. “You don’t have to read all 25 cards in the deck, you can read just one.”

Each virtual card presents a question and answer; if you play with a full deck, the site promises to teach you “Everything You Need to Know About” the given topic. Subjects include both the timely (Obamacare, Benghazi, the Heartbleed Bug) and the evergreen and offbeat (gerrymandering, the Internet, marijuana, librarians).

But it turns out Vox dramatically overpromises when it says it’ll tell you “Everything You Need to Know About” a subject. Near the bottom of each stack you’ll find a card bearing a frustrated exclamation: “You didn’t answer my question!” The boilerplate answer: “This is very much a work in progress. It will continue to be updated as events unfold, new research gets published, and fresh questions emerge. So if you have additional questions or comments or quibbles or complaints, send a note to…” followed by the name and email address of the author. The “card stack” turns out to be a Wikipedia entry with a byline.

The next card in each stack poses the question: “What else should I read about [the topic]?” The answer is a linked list of references, like Wikipedia endnotes. The effect can be comical. The Benghazi card advises readers: “If you really want to understand the issue, read the whole Senate Select Committee on Intelligence ‘Review of the Terrorist Attacks on US Facilities.’” Even the Senate report—which runs eighty-five single-spaced pages, considerably lengthier than Vox’s twenty cards—withholds some information. Example: “On September 7, 2012, DIA [the Defense Intelligence Agency] produced a report entitled, ‘[redacted]’ that stated: ‘[redacted].…’”

All you need to know!

The hazard of appealing to readers who feel stupid is that intelligent readers will get the feeling that you think they are stupid. Consider this gem, from Sarah Kliff’s Obamacare card stack:

Will Obamacare cover all of the uninsured?

No. Despite what you may have heard, it’s a bit of a misnomer to call Obamacare universal coverage. At the end of the day and when the law is fully implemented, budget forecasters expect that 31 million people will lack insurance coverage.

Thirty-one million is a lot smaller than the 48.6 million Americans who currently lack insurance coverage, but it’s also not nobody.

Vox touts this sort of “explanatory journalism” as if it’s something new. In reality, it’s a dumbed-down version of a long-extant mode of reporting. Explanatory journalism has been a Pulitzer Prize category since 1985, awarded for work “that illuminates a significant and complex subject, demonstrating mastery of the subject, lucid writing and clear presentation, using any available journalistic tool.” Traditional explanatory journalism means deep original reporting, not the kind of simplistic synthesis that characterizes a Vox card stack.

But Vox isn’t all cards, all the time. The site also publishes opinion articles, and one of them quickly became the most talked-about piece in the site’s brief history. On April 10 Klein wrote a 467-word item titled “Kathleen Sebelius Is Resigning Because Obamacare Has Won.”

That seemed counterintuitive: “This guy is not joking!” tweeted Fox News’s Brit Hume. And at the end of the post, Klein revealed that his standard of victory was a low one: “The law has won its survival.”

Along the way he touted the White House’s enrollment claims, which he couldn’t quite bring himself to endorse: “The evidence has piled up in recent weeks that the strategy worked. Obamacare’s first year, despite a truly horrific start, was a success. More than seven million people look to have signed up for health insurance through the exchanges” (emphasis mine).

A week later, the White House raised its claim to eight million. An army of liberal journalists and commentators continued to hail Obamacare’s success, taking the administration’s self-serving numbers at face value. In fact, Klein was right to distance himself, if subtly, from the claim. To “sign up” for an Obamacare policy is not to acquire one; that requires paying a premium. The administration had no figures, or at least none that would release publicly, on how many had done that.

In the end, apart from the provocative headline, there was little to distinguish Klein’s Obamacare cheerleading from that of legions of other liberal writers. Many of them work for more conventional outlets, including Klein’s former employer, the Washington Post.

A few years ago the Associated Press introduced “accountability journalism,” which turned out to be a fancy term for opinion masquerading as straight news (see Presswatch, TAS, September 2007). “Fact checking” used to mean reportorial due diligence, but now refers to opinion pieces with a pretense of objective authority (see Presswatch, TAS, December 2008/January 2009). “Explanatory journalism” looks to be more of the same—a new package containing the same old liberal product. 

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About the Author

James Taranto, a member of the Wall Street Journal's editorial board, writes the Best of the Web Today column for OpinionJournal.com.