The Economist's tale: journalism at its best

March 12, 1995|By Edwin Diamond | Edwin Diamond,Special to The Sun

"The Pursuit of Reason: The Economist 1843-1993," by Ruth Dudley Edwards. 1,040 pages. Boston: Harvard Business School Press $49.50

Is the best political weekly in America an economic journal published in London?

A number of us Yanks who work in journalism have long admired the Economist. We've found its American Survey section to be hands-down superior to what we were reading - and producing - in our own stateside magazines.

Civilian readers apparently agree. The Economist is 151 years old . . . and counting; its circulation now approaches 600,000 weekly, almost 200,000 of that in the U.S. At a time when American publications are dumbing down in a (ultimately) doomed effort to entice the MTV generation, the Economist remains committed to intelligent journalism. It's serious without being pompous, knowledgeable without a too-hip attitude. Moreover, the entire output is anonymous - no bylines on the stories, no photo cuts of columnists. No Barbara Walters Special, no evening news with Dan or Connie.

Because the Economist has represented the best of group journalism for so long, the reader examines "The Pursuit of Reason" in hopes of finding the editorial secrets: Perhaps they are exportable. It's a tough search. "Pursuit" recounts the Economist narrative chronologically from the 1840s Corn Laws to the 1990s cybercommunications revolution (which enables the magazine to disperse printing globally and to edit sections by geographic regions).

This makes for a big, big book, at 948 pages of text plus 80-odd pages of notes and index, perhaps too big. Author Edwards, a British historian and biographer, developed repetitive stress syndrome writing this book. The publisher neglected to put the price on the book jacket - a kind of protectionism the Economist would never approve.

Indeed, if one thread winds through the Economist story, it is that of devotion to the marketplace. An illustration of Adam Smith faces the title page. Smith published "The Wealth of Nations" (1776) before the magazine was born; but his principles of free trade, individual responsibility and rational analysis animates the Economist. They are the keys to its solid journalism, even if one doesn't agree with the Smithian faith in laissez faire.

Six weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the Economist started its American Survey section: the editors instantly sensed that the U.S. would be the No. 1 power in the world economy. In the mid-1980s, Economist editors where divided about the Reaganizing of America: one faction regarded Ronald Reagan as an amiable con-man, another group thought he was just what America needed. A top editor tried to mediate. "We can explain things better by being detached from the American conventional wisdom," he observed. "We can cover the week's news better than the American press by being discriminating, short and to the point . . . and we can put events in context better by being free of American prejudices." Political power was ebbing from the East Coast, the editor concluded: We "foreigners" can best explain the new Republicanism.

A decade later, the Contract With America - the son of Reagan - appeared. Economist readers weren't surprised.

Edwin Diamond, who long has written for Newsweek, New York and many other journals, is author most recently of "Behind The Times: Inside The New York Times" (Villard Books).

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