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Vox: Explained
Why the vanguard of explanatory journalism fails to live up to the hype.

Ezra Klein and one of Vox.com's "cards."

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Vox.com, the new journalism venture by liberal policy wunderkind Ezra Klein, is intended, we’re told, to “explain the news,” provide context for it. Unfortunately, explanations and context per se aren’t very interesting. A gray-and-yellow-themed version of Wikipedia, which seems to be what the site’s “cards” constitute, isn’t enough to win a seven-figure capital investment, as the site is rumored to have done.

No — “explaining the news” means taking a side on the news. This doesn’t mean the site is all bias or political cant, because there are some political arguments that really are terrible, and rest on such tendentious interpretations of the facts that they ought to be discarded. Similarly, some empirical or factual questions in our politics are deeply misunderstood, so it’d be nice to have someone set the record straight.

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Klein says that most Americans believe such misunderstandings lie behind our ideological differences, and that that assumption “courses through the Constitution.” I really don’t know what to make of that. But if Vox really is about fulfilling the constitutional mandate to resolve the thorniest empirical issues facing our politics in a fair-minded way, it’s failing badly.

The site’s “cards” aim to offer a comprehensive list of all the questions one might have on a particular topic and offer balanced takes about both sides of a debate — what happens if we raise the minimum wage, say — and some offer definitive answers.

Thursday night, if you checked out the Obamacare card and wanted to know “What does Kathleen Sebelius’s resignation mean for Obamacare?” here is your answer — the news, explained:

It largely means that Obamacare is on firm footing.

How we do we know this is true? Because the sentence links to Ezra Klein saying so. The author of the card, superb health-care reporter Sarah Kliff, doesn’t start by explaining to you whether the law is a policy success — she just lets you know that her boss thinks it’s a political success.

This would be the first law on firm footing in American history, I assume, that has an approval rating hovering around 40 percent. Klein is right that the law notched a couple of political victories recently, but Kliff’s explanation quickly veers off into trying to explain, a good deal less convincingly, why Sebelius gets to go golfing because the law is a success as a policy matter, too:

The evidence has piled up in recent weeks that the strategy [of not panicking and firing Sebelius] worked. Obamacare’s first year, despite a truly horrific start, was a success. More than 7 million people look to have signed up for health insurance through the exchanges. Millions more have signed up through Medicaid. And millions beyond that have signed up for insurance through their employers. 

The last sentence, you might realize, probably has little to do with the health-care law at all (and is based off one survey with a huge margin of error that Klein nonetheless called “the best evidence we have that Obamacare is working”). And millions sign up for the dubiously useful Medicaid every year — it’s really unclear how many the Affordable Care Act covered. So we’re left with 7 million exchange sign-ups, touted as significant by the same reporter who wrote (correctly) two months ago: “There’s nothing magical about getting 7 million people signed up for insurance — the more crucial task for the exchanges is luring healthy people into insurance coverage.”

Kliff continues: “We don’t yet know how many young people signed up in March, but it’s clear that there are enough of them to keep premiums stable in 2015.” Those would be the premiums that insurers are worried will rise 10 to 15 percent next year, even more in some markets. That doesn’t in fact have much to do with how many young people signed up for insurance through the exchanges, and Kliff knows this. It’s about uncertainty surrounding the law’s risk pools — where the worry is more about how sick people are than how old they are — and that uncertainty is huge. It’s not enough to doom the law, she’s right, but it’s enough to trouble it, and the problem has actually been exacerbated by . . . the White House’s panicking. She’s, again, right that “insurers are going to stick with the program in 2015,” but I have no idea where she gets the notion that next year will see a “wave of young, healthy applicants,” any more than this year did. (It didn’t.)

This isn’t explaining the news; it’s defending the news.


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