Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Unthinking Tanks

The State of Texas is afflicted with a think-tank which calls itself the Texas Public Policy Foundation. The TPPF was initially founded and funded in 1989 by James R. Leininger, MD. Leininger, a physician in San Antonio, is an enemy of public (K-12) education in Texas and seeks to distribute private school vouchers via public funding. However, the TPPF moved from San Antonio to Austin and the main thrust of the TPPF is aimed at the two public top-tier research universities in the Lone Star State: UT-Austin and Texas A&M [sic]. Leininger's K-12 rationale holds that public education is both ineffective and inefficient and a waste of tax dollars. The TPPF, under the leadership oil fortune scion Jeff Sandefer, has trained its guns on the overpaid and underworked profs at the two major public universities in Texas. In today's Austin Fishwrap, a TPPF hired gun, Professor Richard Vedder, launched a salvo at UT-Austin's overpaid and underworked faculty. What a world. If this is (fair & balanced) right-wing lunacy, ao be it.

[x Academe]
The Professors, The Press, The Think Tanks—And Their Problems
By Eric Alterman

Tag Cloud of the following article

created at
Click on image to enlarge

Some personal history: I graduated from college in 1982 and began a series of internships at two think tanks in Washington, DC. Believing I might make my career in this realm, I returned to school two years later to get my master’s degree in international relations, whereupon I landed a summer internship at a liberal New York think tank. Upon finishing my master’s, and after a failed Hemingway imitation in Paris, I returned to Washington, where I had managed to convert that internship into a gig worth $1,000 a month—this was 1986—to fill opinion magazines and op-ed pages with hard-earned wisdom garnered as a newspaper stringer and an arts columnist for the local alternative paper.

My only tangible duty was to serve a bagel breakfast—we were a New York think tank, after all—to Capitol Hill staffers and the occasional member of Congress once a month, where I would introduce some left-wing luminary to give a seminar about why everything Ronald Reagan said and did was in error. I had some success as a freelance writer but found I could not handle the requisite rejection that appeared embedded in even the most celebrated careers. So I returned to school at thirty-one, earned a history PhD, and, somehow, fell into my current career, where I work in all three realms—academia, journalism, and think tanks—simultaneously.

During that period—and ever since—I’ve had plenty of time to give some thought to how these three realms differently understand one categorical imperative: to tell the truth. Ah, but there’s the rub. What is “truth”? Its meaning changes between locations.

Lippmann-Dewey Debate

Think back to the famous 1920s debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey. The argument—begun by Lippmann with a series of three brilliant books published between 1919 and 1925 and ended by Dewey in 1927 with his book-length response to Public Opinion, Lippmann’s masterpiece—turned on many issues simultaneously but rested foundationally on the two men’s differing conceptions of truth. Lippmann understood reality to be “picturable.” Truth can be discovered by matching an independent, objective reality against a language that corresponds to it. This is where, in Lippmann’s view, democratic theory breaks down.

Lippmann argued that the social and political events that determine our collective destiny are well beyond the public’s range of experience and expertise.Only through incomplete, poorly comprehended media reports are these events made accessible. Public opinion, therefore, is shaped in response to people’s “maps” or “images” of the world and not to the world itself. Mass political consciousness does not pertain to the factual “environment” but to an intermediary “pseudo-environment.”

To complicate matters, this pseudo-environment is corrupted by the manner in which it is received.Given both the economic and professional limitations of the practice of journalism, Lippmann argued, news “comes [to us] helter-skelter.” This is fine for a baseball box score, a transatlantic flight, or the death of a monarch. But where the picture is more complex, the result is largely “derangement, misunderstanding and . . . misinterpretation.” Lippmann compared the average citizen to a deaf spectator sitting in the back row of a sporting event: “He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen; he lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct.”

John Dewey did not attempt to defend the public’s sophistication with regard to public affairs but insisted instead that Lippmann misunderstood the meaning of truth in a democratic society. While Lippmann argued for what the late journalism scholar James W. Carey termed a “spectator theory of knowledge,” Dewey viewed knowledge as a function of “communication and association.” Systematic inquiry, reified by Lippmann, was to Dewey only the beginning of knowledge. “Vision is a spectator,” he wrote. “Hearing is a participator.” The basis of democracy is not information but conversation.

News and Misinformation

Whether in journalism, academia, or the policy world in between, most participants in public discussion pretend to a Lippmannlike devotion to facts but reach conclusions through Dewey’s culture of communication and conversation. Academics tend to be both more knowledgeable than journalists about the topics on which they comment or write and more circumspect about what they profess to know about a given topic and the conclusions they feel comfortable drawing as a result. They test their truths with relevant counterarguments and footnoted references that can be examined by those with opposing views.

Journalists, on the other hand, usually treat anything as true if someone in a position of ostensible authority is willing to say it, even anonymously (and if no one is going to sue over it). The accuracy of anyone’s statement, particularly if that person is a public official, is often deemed irrelevant. If no evidence is available for an argument a journalist wishes to include in a story, then up pop weasel words such as “it seems” or “some claim” to enable inclusion of the argument, no matter how shaky its foundation in reality. What’s more, too many journalists believe that their job description does not require them to adjudicate between competing claims of truth. Sure, there are “two sides”—and only two sides—to every story, according to the rules of objectivity. But if both sides wish to deploy lies and other forms of deliberate deception for their own purposes, well, that’s somebody else’s problem.

The “truth” produced by think-tank denizens lies somewhere between that of journalism and academia. The research these organizations produce tends to be footnoted, but the footnotes themselves are often questionable, and ideological counterarguments are rarely entertained except in mocking tones. Truth is considered to be self-evident if it matches the belief of the author, though footnotes are nice, too, if only for the patina of authority they tend to lend one’s arguments.

In each of these realms, the actor in question is responding to professional stimuli that are fairly well defined and result, at least originally, from sensible conclusions. The world of journalism, for example, moves far too fast to allow for academic scrupulousness. Accurate information about complex matters can take decades to acquire and examine, but politicians, corporations, and individuals need to act in the moment. Just as justice delayed is justice denied, so, too, “news” loses its value when no longer “new.” But the upshot is that a well-funded, self-disciplined, and multifaceted attempt to replace what Lippmann termed the “pictures” in a public’s “head” with new ones—ones that serve the ideological, political, financial, or personal interests of the author or the interests said author represents—are likely to succeed if practiced in a sustained, disciplined fashion in a variety of media simultaneously.

And this is exactly what has happened in recent decades, as right-wing billionaires like Richard Mellon Scaife, Rupert Murdoch, the Coors brothers, and, more recently, the Koch brothers have joined together with multinational corporations to shift the center of political gravity in our debate rightward on matters of economic, military, and social policy. They have been able to succeed, in part, because most academics who retain a commitment to intellectual scrupulousness have lost the ability to speak beyond their narrow disciplines to the larger public. At the same time, the growth of right-wing talk radio, cable news, and a bevy of well-funded think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University have overwhelmed what remains of their less ideologically committed counterparts, such as the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, to say nothing of the advantage they enjoy over genuinely liberal organizations such as the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute and the more recently created Center for American Progress.

The slow collapse of the newspaper industry and the growth of online, less professionalized news sources, while salutary from a Deweyan conversational perspective, has also opened up public discourse to additional infusions of ideologically motivated misinformation.

The results are all around us. Did Saddam Hussein attack the World Trade Center? Did the Obama health-care reform bill call for “death panels”? Is man-made global climate change a hoax or nothing more than a purposeful conspiracy of scientists seeking greater funding? Do tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires really pay for themselves? “The quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the terrorist, can flourish only where the audience is deprived of independent access to information,” wrote Lippmann. But as we see today, he was being overly generous. They can thrive just as easily when elites cannot be bothered to provide accurate information or refuse to do so in the service of their own political, ideological, or economic interests. That such questions even need to be addressed is, sadly, a significant victory for those against whose machinations and manipulations both Lippmann and Dewey sought to defend us. Ω

[Eric Alterman is a Distinguished Professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York, and Professor of Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Alterman received his B.A. in History and Government from Cornell, his M.A. in International Relations from Yale, and his Ph.D. in US History from Stanford. He is author of eight books, including, most recently, Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama (2011).]

Copyright © 2011 American Association of University Professors

Get the Google Reader at no cost from Google. Click on this link to go on a tour of the Google Reader. If you read a lot of blogs, load Reader with your regular sites, then check them all on one page. The Reader's share function lets you publicize your favorite posts.

Creative Commons License
Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2011 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves