The Economist is an intentionally fusty British news-aggregation magazine for people who pretend their Economy Plus airline seat is a wing chair by the roaring fire in a manor house. Editors of other magazines are required to discuss how much they admire it, but the contents are so boring no one ever talks about them—until yesterday, when one of its book reviews basically endorsed slavery as an economic practice.
The review, which complained that Edward Baptist's "The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism" was unfair to slaveholders, was revoked and the magazine's editors apologized. But who thought it was a good idea in the first place?
Among the Economist's affectations is the fact that most of its articles, including the review, appear without bylines. Until eight years ago, the masthead wasn't printed in its pages.
Today, some blog posts on its websites take the initials of their authors, and outside contributors, if notable, may get bylines. Still, the publication holds anonymity of its staff authors in high regard, and writes in editorial unison for many of its pieces. As the magazine's former editor, Bill Emmott, explained:
Journalists are egomaniacs and protective about their own territory and their own work, and not having bylines mitigates against that somewhat. With bylines, you worry more about your own story. With no bylines, you worry more about the whole paper because your reputation depends on the reputation of the whole paper.
Sure. But that also means, when the magazine's staff publishes a gross misreading of slavery, it does so as a group, together. Accountability falls to the magazine as a whole. So at one point, the entire staff of the Economist stood behind these sentences: "Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy."
So who wrote the review? Here is the Economist's masthead. Was it the books and arts editor, Fiammetta Rocco, who last tweeted about a "beautiful, thoughtful piece about slavery" by Akhil Sharma? Her assistant editor, Lucy Farmer, who has been listening to Beyonce? Or the deputy editor, Adam Barnes, who specializes in travel and transport?
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[Image of historical marker in Montgomery, Ala. via AP]