New York Times economics correspondent Nelson D. Schwartz deserves much credit for engaging me extensively on Twitter last week over his recent article on manufacturing’s potential as an anti-poverty weapon in the United States. It’s just too bad that, in the process, he reinforced the Mainstream Media’s budding reputation as a national institution that’s unusually stubborn about admitting substantive or methodological mistakes.
Schwartz’s October 28 article couldn’t have looked more encouraging. “Small Factories Emerge as a Weapon in the Fight Against Poverty,” declared the headline. And once one read a few paragraphs into the text, the implication was clear: A significant and growing body of evidence is showing that small manufacturing establishments are offering good jobs and the hope of middle class lives to inner city residents desperately needing such opportunities.
But no such evidence was presented. Instead, Schwartz provided a single example of a domestic manufacturer creating such employment and hope – a steel products company in Baltimore.
Schwartz contended that such operations “are vital if the United States is to narrow the nation’s class divide and build a society that offers greater opportunities for everyone — rich and poor, black and white, high school graduates and Ph.D.s.” And I fully agree with the proposition. But the article gave readers no reason to believe that the experience of Marlin Steel and its workers was being replicated anywhere else.
I was pleased to see Schwartz take the criticism seriously enough to respond. But the response itself was sorely lacking: “I guess you wanted more statistics and fewer people?”
After thanking him for the return tweet, I replied with the crucial question, “Data are always more important than anecdotes. How representative is Marlin’s experience?”
Schwartz insisted “There’s plenty of data in the story. The key is that manufacturing pays much more than service jobs available to the same folks.” But of course, that wasn’t my point. I was asking him for more examples of small factories alleviating urban poverty. And Schwartz never provided any.
I reminded him twice that my expressed concern was that his article never demonstrated that “Marlin’s experience was representative of anything” and that, if that is indeed the case, “then there’s no significant evidence for the claim made in the headline – and for the theme of the story.”
But Schwartz kept his focus on the superior qualities of manufacturing jobs on average versus service sector jobs, and their unique capability to “lead to the middle class” for “most non-college educated workers.”
As I noted to Schwartz, “[N]o one would be more pleased than I by significant evidence that [manufacturing jobs are] coming back to inner cities, or could realistically return.” And there’s unmistakable value in observing that factory work can turn around bleak lives and neighborhoods, and in explaining in detail why – two of the article’s especially strong suits.
But portraying an isolated event as a trend violates a fundamental rule of journalism. Schwartz’s failure after repeated prodding to identify other Marlin-type successes, along with his unwillingness to acknowledge faulty judgment, can only further set back the news business’ ever tougher struggle to maintain its credibility.