Entries in "Propaganda machine"

April 11, 2008

The propaganda machine-12: Thinks tanks and the media

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The main goal of the think tanks and the third tier pundits has always been to control the public discussion on major issues to make sure that the pro-war/pro-business view dominates to the virtual exclusion of other views, while at the same time hiding its ideological basis. As Robert McChesney writes in The Problem of the Media (2003):

The campaign to alter the media has entailed funding the training of conservative and business journalists at universities and bankrolling right-wing student newspapers to breed a generation of pro-business Republican journalists. It has meant starting right-wing print media such as the Washington Times and the Weekly Standard and supporting existing right-wing publications such as the National Review, not only to promote conservative politics but also so that young journalists have a farm system to develop their clips. It also includes conservative think tanks flooding journalism with pro-business official sources and incessantly jawboning coverage critical of conservative interests as reflective of "liberal" bias. A comprehensive Nexis search for the twenty-five largest think tanks in the U.S. news media in 2002 showed that explicitly conservative think tanks accounted for nearly half of the 25,000 think-tank citations in the news, whereas progressive think-tanks accounted for only 12 percent. Centrist groups such as the Council on Foreign Relations and the Brookings Institution accounted for the rest. (p. 111)

The most recent rankings of think tank citations by the media shows that, to a considerable extent, this strategy is still succeeding, although overall citations to think tanks as a whole is declining, perhaps due to the rise of alternative sources of information on the internet. Thanks to blogs, it is now possible for people with specialized information to get their message out quickly without having to depend on the support of think tanks.

Another function of the propaganda machine is to hide the class nature of American society and its power structure by assuming pseudo-populist language and airs.

To the general public the conservative critique is not packaged as an effort by the wealthiest and most powerful elements of our society to extend their power, weaken labor and government regulation in the public interest, and dramatically lower their taxes while gutting the public sector, aside from the military. To the contrary, this conservative critique, much like the broader conservative political movement, is marketed as a populist movement. It is the heroic story of the conservative masses (Pat Buchanan's "peasants with pitchforks") battling the establishment liberal media elite. In this righteous war, as spun by right-wing pundits such as Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Newt Gingrich, Bill Bennett, and Sean Hannity, conservatives are the blue-collar workers (white, of course, though that is only implied) and self-made business leaders while the liberals are Ivy League snobs, intellectuals, hoity-toity limousine riders, and journalists who hold power. (McChesney, p 113)

A good example of the propaganda role of think tanks in influencing public perceptions on an issue was provided by Ken Silverstein in a July 2007 article in Harper's Magazine (subscription required) which revealed how Washington lobbyists work. Silverstein went undercover and pretended to be someone hired by the leader of Turkmenistan to improve the awful reputation of himself and his country. Silverstein approached various lobbying firms and they all enthusiastically promised to do this, saying that they had access to the leaders of both parties and thus could arrange suitable meetings and photo-ops between those figures and leaders of Turkmenistan. And the lobbyists said they would use think tanks as a means of laundering public relations material favorable to Turkmenistan.

Silverstein writes of his meeting with the lobbying firm APCO Associates whose senior vice president Barry Schumacher had invited Robert Downen, a 'fellow' (note the academic sounding title) at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (a conservative think tank) that shows how the propaganda machine operates:

In addition to influencing news reports, Downen added, the firm could drum up positive op-eds in newspapers. "We can utilize some of the think-tank experts who would say, 'On the one hand this and the other hand that,' and we place it as a guest editorial." Indeed, Schumacher said, APCO had someone on staff who "does nothing but that" and had succeeded in placing thousands of opinion pieces.
. . .
One possibility, Downen said, would be to hold a forum on U.S.-Turkmen relations, preferably built around a visit to the United States by a Turkmen official. Possible hosts would include The Heritage Foundation, the Center for Strategic & International Studies, and the Council on Foreign Relations. "Last week I contacted a number of colleagues at think tanks," Downen went on. "Some real experts could easily be engaged to sponsor or host a public forum or panel that would bring in congressional staff and journalists." The only cost would be refreshments and room rental . . .and could yield a tremendous payoff. "If we can get a paper published or a speech at a conference, we can get a friendly member of Congress to insert that in the Congressional Record and get that printed and send it out," Schumacher said. "So you take one event and get it multiplied."

So there you have it: A clear and revealing exposition of how think tanks function in the propaganda machine from someone who works in that world.

Next: Why journalists themselves perpetuate the myth of a liberal media.

POST SCRIPT: Cuba after Castro

US policy towards Cuba has been horrendous, held hostage by cold war paranoia and the Miami-based exile community, and fed by a mean-spirited retaliation towards a country that had the temerity to not grovel before its superpower neighbor. The trade embargo and other economic measures taken against Cuba have caused immense hardship to the people of that country and yet it has not capitulated.

Tony Karon has a nice article on the complex nature of Cuban politics and society and what might happen now that Fidel Castro has stepped down from the presidency there.

April 09, 2008

The propaganda machine-11: Becoming a think tank 'expert'

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Part of the role of think tanks is to take people with a specific ideological viewpoint and transform them into 'experts' (at least in the eyes of the media and the public) on the cheap, without having them go through the hard work of studying a subject for a long time, doing original research, and publishing in peer-reviewed academic research journals. For example, who were the architects of the 'surge' plan in Iraq? It was a small coterie of war-hungry neoconservatives led by someone called Frederick Kagan at the American Enterprise Institute and backed by William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard. Kagan is the person credited with coming up with this plan that conveniently coincided with what the Bush administration had wanted to do all along. Glenn Greenwald documents how these two people relentlessly led the public relations effort to escalate the war in Iraq.

Kagan is often introduced in the media as a 'military historian' suggesting that he has considerable expertise with the kind of challenges currently faced by the US in Iraq. But what exactly is Kagan's expertise? Is he a scholar of the Middle East? Of counter-insurgency? Of civil wars? A reader at Talking Points Memo looked into Kagan's background:

Just a note on Fred Kagan – the guy is not an expert on insurgency, civil war, or stability ops. He has a Ph.D in history, with a focus on the 19th century Russian military. His major scholarly book is on Napoleon from 1801-5. From what I can tell, he has no serious background studying the issues that are at the core of his "surge" plan (his AEI bio page is below). So I am completely baffled by the extent to which the media has given him credibility as a "military expert"; one imagines how the surge would have been received if Kagan was accurately identified as "an expert on Napoleon and the early 19th century Russian army." His CV reveals no publications in refereed history or political science journals in the last decade. Basically the intellectual architect of the surge is an oped/Weekly Standard writer whose only substantive expertise is on Napoleon.

A diarist at DailyKos did look closely at Kagan's CV and concluded that the above critique had a couple of errors but that the main point was correct. Kagan definitely had not provided any evidence that he had the expertise necessary to take seriously his advice on the most serious military and political challenge facing the US today:

What makes Kagan's different, is that virtually all of his work is not peer-reviewed (or, refereed). For those who haven't suffered through graduate school, this means that his work has little to no academic merit.
. . .
First, Kagan has actually authored four peer-reviewed journal articles since earning his Ph.D. [in 1995], though this is a paltry number for any respectable academic. Three have been published in the last decade, but none have been published in the last nine years.

Of course, people can and do become very knowledgeable about areas outside their formal academic training. It is not at all rare in universities to find academics that have become specialists is areas far removed from their doctoral work. In fact physics Nobel prize winner S. Chandrasekhar used to change research fields every ten years or so in order to create new challenges for himself and to recharge his intellectual batteries. But again, they have to earn their credibility afresh in the new area by doing research and publishing in peer-reviewed journals.

While people can become knowledgeable in new fields even if they choose not to publish in peer-reviewed journals, they still have to struggle to earn their credibility somehow or other. The ideologically-driven think tanks, however, by virtue of their contacts in the political and media alone, can give the people who work there an easy route to credibility in the minds of the public, which is all that they care about. None of Kagan's published works dealt with insurgencies or the Middle East. But because he was affiliated with the AEI, that provided the veneer of scholarly support for him to say what the Bush administration had wanted to do anyway, so his credentials as an 'expert' or 'military analyst' went unquestioned and no searching questions were posed by the major media as to why we should take his words with any degree of seriousness. No one seemed to ask what his track record was. In fact, he, his brother Robert Kagan, and William Kristol have a stunning record of being wrong on practically everything concerning the war in Iraq.

For example, on Monday, March 24, 2008 at an event hosted by AEI that also featured fellow war boosters Michael O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack of the Brookings Institution (another think tank), Fred Kagan began his speech by saying, "The first thing I want to say is that: The Civil War in Iraq is over. And until the American domestic political debate catches up with that fact, we are going to have a very hard time discussing Iraq on the basis of reality." This was less than 24 hours before Iraq exploded in a renewed upsurge of sectarian violence.

But Kagan and other warmongers' record of failed predictions is irrelevant to the administration, which can use him and the AEI 'studies' to suggest that what they are doing has been supported by serious people who have examined the issue in some depth. And the media, by giving uncritical credence to these people, are effectively accomplices.

Next: How think tanks influence the media

POST SCRIPT: The role of US military bases abroad

The US military empire continues to grow with new bases being created around the world and old ones expanded. Some time ago, I wrote about the protests over the US base in Vincenza, Italy that had been written about by Paul Iversen, a professor of classics at Case, who visits that town regularly.

In relation to that, Andrea Licata, President of the Center For The Research and Study of Peace at the University of Trieste, Italy will be giving a talk on War Without Limits: The Global and Local Impact of NATO and US Military Bases.

The talk is on Thursday, April 10, 2008, 4:30-6:00 PM in Rockefeller 309 at CWRU and is free and open to the public. The abstract of the talk is given below.

Andrea will speak about NATO's new policies to wage what he calls "war without limits." He will note the ways in which existing and planned US and NATO military bases in Italy are aimed at current and future conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. He will also talk about the local political, economic and environmental impact of foreign military bases, particularly the impact of a new controversial air base being planned to host the US Army's 173rd Airborne in the northern Italian town of Vicenza, which is home to many of the masterpieces of the great neo-classical architect Palladio. He will also share with us the ways in which many diverse groups in Italy, Europe and the world are fighting the construction of new military bases and how they are proposing peaceful alternative projects and economic opportunities for existing ones. There will time for questions and discussion afterwards.

For more information about the speaker, see here.

April 07, 2008

The propaganda machine-10: How some think tanks operate

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

While some of the people at some of the think tanks do actual research following the same protocols used in academia, many others are simply hired guns, pursuing an ideological agenda under the guise of scholarship.

The latter kind of people do things like arrange for books and policy articles and op-eds to be published under the names of political and other public figures, so that those people do not have the chores of actually doing any writing. If you ever wondered how politicians and other public figures manage to write so many books given the other demands on their time, there is your answer. Many of them are ghostwritten, like those of sports figures and other celebrities. All the nominal author has to do is to provide some information and interviews and generally agree with the premise of the material in the books and articles.

Such think tanks also organize 'conferences' and 'workshops' that are meant not to actually study an issue but to get the message they want out. In that capacity, they publish propaganda materials written by others, giving those materials a veneer of respectability they would not otherwise have. The best way to think of such think tanks is as an arm of the public relations industry. The audience for their work is not fellow researchers, as is the case with academics, but politicians and business leaders.

Of course, not all think tanks are just shills for this or that ideological point of view. Some do research in a serious way and may even publish studies that are genuinely useful. But it is important to realize that there is nothing built into the structure of think tanks that requires them to conform to the canons of good research practice, the way that peer review does for academia. The reward structure of think tanks tend to favor ideological hacks rather that true scholars. Any good research that comes out of them is purely due to the integrity and conscientiousness of the individual researcher, not to any institutional safeguards.

Some right wing think tanks, like the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institute, have been around for a long time and are large operations with many people working on a wide range of subjects. Thus by virtue of age and size, they have acquired a respectability that they might not have if measured by the quality of their scholarship alone. Some align themselves with universities to add credibility. For example, the Hoover Institute has an affiliation with Stanford and is housed on their campus. But some other think tanks are little more than one-person operations, consisting of just one high profile individual who is the public face of some specific agenda, an office, a few office staffers, a letterhead listing its Board comprising some well-known names, and maybe a couple of researchers.

For example, David Horowitz's Center for the Study of Popular Culture is one such outfit. His mission is to rant against universities and academics, alleging liberal and left-wing bias in every classroom. For these services, he receives millions of dollars from various right wing foundations such as the Bradley, Olin, Sarah Scaife and Smith Richardson (now called Randolph) Foundations (all of whom also fund Hoover).

Frank Gaffney's Center for Security Policy, which advocates strongly for neoconservative warmongering policies, is another largely one-person operation that is similarly funded by right-wingers to push the neoconservative agenda.

Jonathan Schwarz investigates to see who is underwriting Gaffney, and reports on this general phenomenon of spurious experts.

This brings us to Frank Gaffney, third-string neocon and founder of the Center for Security Policy. In a healthy country, Gaffney would spend his days arguing with his enormous collection of Star Wars action figures. Here in America, we constantly put him on TV as an "expert" on foreign policy and give him an organization with a $2 million budget.

I emphasize once more that it's a mistake to focus on Gaffney and all the people like him. They don't matter, just as the crazy individuals at the Tehran Holocaust denial conference don't matter.

What matters is that Iran has nutty, powerful rich people willing to fund that kind of garbage, and a society that acts like it's part of legitimate debate. And what matters is that we have nutty, powerful rich people willing to fund this kind of garbage, and a society that acts like it's legitimate.

And who exactly are the nutty rich people behind Frank Gaffney? According to tax documents, his organization received $2.2 million in tax-deductible donations in 2004. About $600,000 appears to have come from various right-wing foundations.

I don't think it's possible to find out for sure who provided the rest of the donations; while organizations like Gaffney's have to file this information with the IRS, it's blacked out when the documents are made public. (One thing we can learn from the forms is that CSP is basically Gaffney alone. His 2004 salary was $272,850. The rest of the expenses were for rent, events, a few consultants, etc.)

But we can make some educated guesses. According to Jim Lobe of Inter Press Service, CSP is funded by "defense contractors and far-right Zionists associated with Israel's Likud Party." One person on the CSP board of directors is Charles Kupperman, Vice President of Space and Strategic Missiles Sector at Boeing. Another is an investment banker named David P. Steinmann, who's also on the board of JINSA. And the Chairman is Terry Elkes, who used to be CEO and president of Viacom, and now runs an equity firm "deeply engaged in the media industry." (I assume Elkes is in charge of keeping the media so liberal.)

It's these people—along with billionaires like Rupert Murdoch and Sun Myung Moon, who give Gaffney his prominent platforms—who are the source of the craziness. Gaffney himself is essentially irrelevant."

Other think tanks are bigger and employ more people but the basic mission is the same – to propagate some particular point of view. For example, the battle against evolution is fought by people at the Center for Science and Culture in the Seattle-based Discovery Institute. The Institute is funded by "millions of dollars from foundations run by prominent conservatives like Howard and Roberta Ahmanson, Philip F. Anschutz and Richard Mellon Scaife" and other right wing foundations and industrialists who seek to advance Christianity and discredit evolution.

Incidentally the argument by the so-called intelligent design creationism (IDC) advocates that scientists are victimizing IDC advocates and secretly conspiring to suppress their revolutionary theory because it goes counter to the dominant theory of evolution provides a revealing window into the mindset of the people in think tanks. In their world, it makes perfect sense that someone who goes against the ideology of the institution they work for would be silenced or fired.

But in academia, any scientist who thought he or she had good evidence to overthrow a dominant theory (like the theory of evolution) would jump at the chance to do so. As biologist Richard Lewontin says, "[S]cientists are always looking to find some theory or idea that they can push as something that nobody else ever thought of because that's the way they get their prestige. . . . they have an idea which will overturn our whole view of evolution because otherwise they're just workers in the factory, so to speak. And the factory was designed by Charles Darwin."

Right now, there are scientists who are challenging the idea that natural selection is a sufficient mechanism to explain the full complexity and diversity of life and they are by no means losing their jobs or suffering all kinds of persecutions. The problem with intelligent design creationism is not that it challenges the dominant theory of evolution. It is that it does not come even close to meeting the threshold to be considered science.

But such questions are irrelevant for such think tanks. They have a goal and will do whatever necessary to achieve it.

POST SCRIPT: They are just job applicants

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow reminds us of what elections are really about.

April 04, 2008

The propaganda machine-9: How think tanks advance ideological agendas

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

One of the oldest right-wing think tanks is the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), started in 1943. It started out promoting more mainstream conservative views but in recent years it has become effectively the headquarters of the neoconservative movement, relentlessly pushing that particular agenda. If you look at the list of 'Scholars and Fellows' of the AEI, you will find a who's who of neoconservative thought. It also acts as a kind of way station between government jobs for people like Paul Wolfowitz, John Bolton, and David Frum, who are now there after they left, or were forced to leave, the Bush administration. Other leading neoconservative warmongers like Richard Perle, Michael Ledeen, Irving Kristol, and Fred Kagan have been long-time residents there.

One of the main agendas of the AEI and its financial backers seems to be to promote US attacks on Iraq, Iran, Syria, and any other country they dislike, especially in the Middle East, and in pursuing that agenda almost anything goes. This is why you can have bizarre 'arguments' (I use the word loosely) put forward by people like Ledeen, who says that launching a military strike at Iran is justified as an act of self-defense because Iran has been at war with the US since 1979! I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to figure out how he arrives at this weird conclusion.

The pro-business/pro-war foundations and financial interests backing these kinds of views will provide their in-house think tank 'scholars' with friendly subsidized publishers for their books that do not go through the peer review that academic presses require, they provide them media exposure for their books (since they own the media), get them reviewed in friendly publications (since they own the publications) provide them with generous travel budgets so that they can go everywhere and give talks to publicize their books and ideas at little or no cost to the hosts, and will often sell their books at deep discounts or give away large numbers of them to book clubs, political organizations, and the like so that these books get on 'best-seller' lists, thus generating buzz. The actual quality or scholarship of the books is largely irrelevant. What is important is to get a specific message out that looks like it is a thoughtful scholarly work.

While most magazines lose money and need to be subsidized to some extent, the extent of the subsidies for these propaganda outlets can be seen by the fact that the new neoconservative mouthpiece the Weekly Standard, edited by William Kristol was subsided by $3 million annually by Rupert Murdoch (owner of Fox News). This was a huge amount for such a small niche magazine, but it enabled it to make its presence felt quickly. As Scott McConnell writes in The American Conservative magazine:

The subsidy Murdoch accorded the Standard assured the new venture would be highly visible by the standards of start-up political magazines. It could afford a wide newsstand presence: it is costly for any new magazine to print issues that will in most cases not be sold. The Standard not only passed out thousands of complimentary issues around Washington, it had them personally delivered to Beltway influentials as soon as they were printed. Above all, the new journal provided employment for a small coterie of neoconservative essayists and a ready place to publish for dozens of apparatchiks who held posts at the American Enterprise Institute and other neocon-friendly think tanks.

With the fledgling Fox News network, the Standard soon emerged as the key leg in a synergistic triangle of neoconservative argumentation: you could write a piece for the magazine, talk about your ideas on Fox, pick up a paycheck from Kristol or from AEI. It was not a way to get rich, but it sustained a network of careers that might otherwise have shriveled or been diverted elsewhere. Indeed, it did more than sustain them, it gave neocons an aura of being "happening" inside the Beltway that no other conservative (or liberal) faction could match.

Similarly, the Unification Church of Reverend Sun Myung Moon has subsidized the Washington Times to the tune of nearly $3 billion since its inception in 1982.

(In an ironical turn of events, some of the authors at Regnery, one of these ideological presses that publish the output of these people, sued the press for doing just these kinds of things, saying that because the press was practically giving these books away, they were getting royalties of only ten cents a book, instead of the $4.25 or so based on the list price of the book. This fact alone gives you a good sense of how deeply the books were discounted, by as much as 97%! Of course, since few people would pay list prices for these books, the press was actually doing the authors a favor by practically giving them away, since that boosted their 'sales' numbers and made them into 'best sellers'. A judge dismissed the suit.)

These expensive policies are made possible because wealthy right wing interests are willing to pour money into this kind of venture, through the intermediaries of foundations and think tanks. George Lakoff says that the conservative funding strategy works well at creating a propaganda machine but requires a lot of money to implement. The liberal end of the political spectrum cannot match it because it does not have either the deep pockets or the necessary attitude.

As Lakoff says:

They have a huge, very good operation, and they understand their own moral system. They understand what unites conservatives, and they understand how to talk about it, and they are constantly updating their research on how best to express their ideas.
. . .
Conservative foundations give large block grants year after year to their think tanks. They say, 'Here's several million dollars, do what you need to do.' And basically, they build infrastructure, they build TV studios, hire intellectuals, set aside money to buy a lot of books to get them on the best-seller lists, hire research assistants for their intellectuals so they do well on TV, and hire agents to put them on TV. They do all of that.
. . .
Meanwhile, liberals' conceptual system of the "nurturant parent" has as its highest value helping individuals who need help. The progressive foundations and donors give their money to a variety of grassroots organizations. They say, 'We're giving you $25,000, but don't waste a penny of it. Make sure it all goes to the cause, don't use it for administration, communication, infrastructure, or career development.' So there's actually a structural reason built into the worldviews that explains why conservatives have done better."

Robert McChesney adds in his book The Problem of the Media (2003):

Around half of all the expenditures of the twelve largest conservative foundations have been devoted to moving the news rightward. During the 1990s, right-wing think tanks, almost all of which were not established until the 1970s, were funded to the tune of $1 billion. By 2003, the Heritage Foundation had an annual budget of $30 million, 180 employees, and its own television studios in its eight-story Washington, D.C. headquarters. Brent Bozell's Media Research Center has an annual budget in the 15 million range and some 60 employees. These conservative groups tend to coordinate their propaganda with that of the Republican Party. (p. 111)

This is how the people who work at think tanks and the third tier pundits get promoted in the public eye. They are groomed and subsidized. After these people have published a few books and articles, they appear on the more rabidly partisan media outlets like Fox News or the Washington Times or the Weekly Standard and start identifying themselves as 'experts' on some topic. They then get to work on the most important job of all, the really big prize: getting their names into the Rolodexes of the people who book guests for talk shows on the more mainstream media.

And thus is born a pundit.

Next: How think tanks operate

POST SCRIPT: April Fool's day hoaxes

In general I am not a fan of the entire idea of playing hoaxes on ordinary people. Sometimes they can be mean or cruel, but most often they are unimaginative and merely annoying.

But once in a while you get one that is elegantly executed that one can enjoy even after realizing that one was duped. Such was the case with the beautiful video about flying penguins that I linked to that was produced by the BBC.

You can read more about this and other April Fool's day hoaxes here.

April 02, 2008

The propaganda machine-8: The difference between academia and think tanks

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The right-wing think tanks are awash in money since there are many wealthy business people eager to portray themselves in a positive light. A lot of them channel their contributions to the think tanks through conservative foundations.

In the previous post in this series, I argued that one function of 'think tanks' is to serve specific business interests by muddying the waters about (say) whether tobacco smoking causes cancer or whether global warming is a problem. But over and above all these specific issues, one key goal is to persuade the public that the media and academia have a pervasive liberal bias, and the strategy for doing that is repeating that message over and over again.

And this strategy seems to be working. As Robert McChesney says in his book The Problem of the Media (2003), "One study of press coverage between 1992 and 2002 finds that references to the liberal bias of the news media outnumber references to a conservative bias by a factor of more than 17 to 1." (p. 113) As a result, "a 2003 Gallup poll found that 45% of Americans thought the news media were "too liberal," while only 15% found them "too conservative." (p. 114) . . . Punditry and commentary provided by corporate-owned news media almost unfailingly ranges from center to right. According to Editor & Publisher, the four most widely syndicated political columnists in the United States speak from the Right. TV news runs from pro-business centrist to rabidly pro-business right, and most newspaper journalism is only a bit broader. Perhaps most important, the explicitly right-wing media are now strong enough and incessant enough to push stories until they are covered by more centrist mainstream media." (p. 115). A survey in 2003 "showed that 22 percent of Americans considered talk radio their primary source for news, double the figure for 1998." (p. 116)

It is in the creation of that kind of environment that the shoddy scholarship produced by the think tanks can survive scrutiny. For example, if one points out, as many academics did the travesty of scholarship that was Charles Murray's and Richard Herrnstein's The Bell Curve (see for example, The Bell Curve Wars: Race, Intelligence, and the Future of America, Steve Fraser, (Ed.), 1995), the substantive criticisms can be ignored by dismissing the critics as merely operating from a liberal bias.

There is a crucial difference between the papers and books produced by academic scholars and those produced by the people in think tanks. Scholars in universities have to publish papers in peer-reviewed journals. The academic presses that usually publish their books also send the manuscripts out for peer review. This imposes some major hurdles on getting one's words into print. One has to do real research, get data, construct coherent theories, and make arguments that are reality-based and defensible. This does not mean that the research publications are always right. One can easily find any number of examples of peer-reviewed publications that have subsequently been shown to be wrong. But such papers, whatever their faults and even if they are wrong, have to be grounded in reality. One cannot simply shoot off one's mouth or manufacture conclusions out of whole cloth.

When the accusation is made that universities are 'liberally biased', that is misleading. Contrary to the criticisms that university academics live in an ivory tower that is far removed from the real world, the research done in universities has to be based on reality and is thus more accurately described as 'reality biased'. But, as Stephen Colbert said in his brilliant speech at the White House Correspondents Association dinner, "Reality has a well-known liberal bias."

But while academic scholars are restricted by reality, the rules of operation of their disciplines, and their research protocols, they are not restricted in what their conclusions are. If I do good research and find a result that goes counter to the dominant ideas in my field, I am not banished or dismissed from my job for publishing it. In fact, if my results are replicated by others and seem to hold up, that could be my ticket to major advancement in my career.

But the pseudo-scholars in think tanks are under no such constraints as academic rigor in their methods. In fact, the situation for them is exactly reversed from that of academics. They are constrained by their conclusions but not by their methods. Their conclusions are largely pre-ordained because, since they work for institutions that (unlike universities) are pursuing a specific agenda, they have to say what their paymasters want them to say, but they are free to make any crackpot arguments they wish in support of their conclusions.

POST SCRIPT: Flying penguins?

I came across this item yesterday.

March 31, 2008

The propaganda machine-7: The rise of think tanks

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

As I said in the previous post, a key development in the growth of the propaganda machine over the last three decades has been the growth in the number of so-called 'think tanks'.

So what exactly is a 'think tank' and what does it do? If you look at how they are portrayed in the major media, you will get the impression that they are non-university based organizations that perform the same kinds of study and research functions that universities do. But that is misleading. Think tanks are essentially propaganda operations disguised as academic ones, which allows propagandists and ideologues to pretend that they are disinterested academics. They are far closer to Madison Avenue advertising firms than they are to university departments. As the website SourceWatch says:

A Think Tank is an organization that claims to serve as a center for research and/or analysis of important public issues. In reality, many think tanks are little more than public relations fronts, usually headquartered in state or national seats of government and generating self-serving scholarship that serves the advocacy goals of their industry sponsors.
. . .
Of course, some think tanks are more legitimate than that. Private funding does not necessarily make a researcher a shill, and some think-tanks produce worthwhile public policy research. In general, however, research from think tanks is ideologically driven in accordance with the interests of its funders.

Think tanks are funded primarily by large businesses and major foundations. They devise and promote policies that shape the lives of everyday Americans: Social Security privatization, tax and investment laws, regulation of everything from oil to the Internet. They supply experts to testify on Capitol Hill, write articles for the op-ed pages of newspapers, and appear as TV commentators. They advise presidential aspirants and lead orientation seminars to train incoming members of Congress.

Think tanks have a decided political leaning. There are twice as many conservative think tanks as liberal ones, and the conservative ones generally have more money. This is no accident, as one of the important functions of think tanks is to provide a backdoor way for wealthy business interests to promote their ideas or to support economic and sociological research not taking place elsewhere that they feel may turn out in their favor. Conservative think tanks also offer donors an opportunity to support conservative policies outside academia, which during the 1960s and 1970s was accused of having a strong "collectivist" bias.

The goal of many of these think-tanks is to provide a right-wing alternative to what they assert is a left-wing bias in academia, but their larger goal is to dominate the media and shift it rightward by alleging that the media and academic has a left-wing bias and flooding the market with their point of view.

The think tanks work hard to make themselves look and sound like academia, so that they can exploit the reputation for careful study and scholarly objectivity that universities have accumulated over the centuries. They create job titles like Senior Research Scholars and Fellows and even give them names that sound like endowed chairs. In universities, endowed chairs are usually awarded to highly distinguished scholars who have an exemplary research and publishing history. But such titles are intellectually cheap at think tanks. For example, Charles Murray at the AEI, who co-authored The Bell Curve has the title of 'W. H. Brady Scholar', which makes him sound like he has earned academic credibility the same way that the holder of an endowed chair in a university has. But he does not have to have done anything of the sort. One does not have to earn those titles by publishing in academic journals and meet the scholarly criteria set by one's peers. All one has to do is to please one's bosses which means having the willingness and ability to say well whatever they want you to say.

Politicians and businesses find think tanks to be useful since they can get pseudo-scholarly support from them for almost any policy they wish to implement. As Plain Dealer reporter Tom Brazaitis said: "Modern think tanks are nonprofit, tax-exempt, political idea factories where donations can be as big as the donor's checkbook and are seldom publicized. . .Technology companies give to think tanks that promote open access to the internet. Wall Street firms donate to think tanks that espouse private investment of retirement funds." If a business or politician wants some scholarly-looking study to support some policy, think tanks are only too eager to oblige, as long as they get paid. Thus the universities, the usual source for at least somewhat dispassionate research and analysis, can be bypassed.

The American Enterprise Institute (AEI), one of the oldest right-wing think tanks, is a preferred choice since it is by now a well-known name. For example, during the time that the tobacco industry was disputing the scientific consensus that smoking was a killer, they commissioned AEI to produce a 'study' to try and discredit the strong scientific evidence of the link between smoking and death.

Global warming provides another example. There is an emerging scientific consensus (though not unanimous) that this is a serious problem requiring urgent action to reverse the trend. But businesses find this issue irksome because efforts to combat warming constrain their ability to maximize profits. So how can you discredit global warming? You get a sympathetic think tank to generate opposing views, to supposedly provide 'balance', by cherry-picking data to support your desired conclusions.So the AEI offered $10,000 to scientists to write against global warming. They have the money and the impetus to do such things because ExxonMobil CEO Lee Raymond is on the AEI board of trustees and the company gave AEI approximately $925,000 between 1998 and 2003.

The idea is to use the think tanks to create in the public's mind that there is disagreement and controversy over whatever the issue is and thus defer any action until a 'solution' is found. The real goal is to delay action for as long as possible.

These are classic examples of how businesses and politicians use these think tanks to advance specific agendas.

Next: The difference between academia and think tanks.

POST SCRIPT: Madness caused by religion

These are the kinds of news reports that make me furious.

An 11-year-old girl died from diabetes after her parents prayed for her recovery rather than calling for medical assistance.

Madeline Neumann died on Sunday in Wisconsin, from an undiagnosed but treatable ailment.

Dan Vergin, the local police chief, said she had been ill for a month, suffering symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, excessive thirst, loss of appetite and weakness.

"She just got sicker and sicker until she was dead," he said.

Even after her death, her parents, Dale and Leilani Neumann, who did not belong to any organised faith, prayed over her body in the hope that she might be resurrected.

This is what 'faith' does to people. It robs them of basic thought. And even after this appalling tragedy, the parents cannot draw the proper lesson. Blinded and brainwashed by religion, they reach exactly the wrong conclusion.

Mr Vergin said the couple, who run a coffee shop in Wausau, had blamed her death on their lack of faith. (my emphasis)

"They have a little Bible study of a few people," said Mr Vergin. "These are not bizarre people."

Police chief Vergin, sad to say, is probably right. The parents are not "bizarre" in the sense of being unusual in their beliefs. They are not even bad people. They are merely carrying out what religious leaders have always told them is a good thing: just put your faith in god and all will be well.

And as a result, their daughter, whom I am sure they loved dearly, is dead.

March 28, 2008

The propaganda machine-6: The Powell memo and its aftermath

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Lewis Powell's confidential 1971 memo to the US Chamber of Commerce laid out the framework that was largely followed by the business community in the subsequent decades. In it he admits quite frankly that the media and academia are already owned or controlled by big business interests and expresses puzzlement as to why they are not using that power more overtly to serve their own interests.

Here are some excerpts from the memo:

No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack . . . We are not dealing with sporadic or isolated attacks from a relatively few extremists or even from the minority socialist cadre. Rather, the assault on the enterprise system is broadly based and consistently pursued. It is gaining momentum and converts . . . .The most disquieting voices joining the chorus of criticism come from perfectly respectable elements of society: from the college campus, the pulpit, the media, the intellectual and literary journals, the arts and sciences, and from politicians.
. . .
One of the bewildering paradoxes of our time is the extent to which the enterprise system tolerates, if not participates in, its own destruction.

The campuses from which much of the criticism emanates are supported by (i) tax funds generated largely from American business, and (ii) contributions from capital funds controlled or generated by American business. The boards of trustees of our universities overwhelmingly are composed of men and women who are leaders in the system.

Most of the media, including the national TV systems, are owned and theoretically controlled by corporations which depend upon profits, and the enterprise system to survive.

He then argues that the business community should organize and take specific action to control the discourse in its favor, based on a carefully thought out, long range strategy, and be willing to pour considerable financial resources into it.

What specifically should be done? The first essential -- a prerequisite to any effective action -- is for businessmen to confront this problem as a primary responsibility of corporate management.

The overriding first need is for businessmen to recognize that the ultimate issue may be survival -- survival of what we call the free enterprise system, and all that this means for the strength and prosperity of America and the freedom of our people.
. . .
Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years, in the scale of financing available only through joint effort, and in the political power available only through united action and national organizations.

Powell went on to outline what should be done on campuses, in secondary schools, in the media, and in the courts to combat what he clearly viewed as a menace. Among other things, he recommended the creation of a 'staff of scholars' sympathetic to business interests who would be prolific in writing articles and books and thus flood the market with that point of view. He also recommended creating a pro-business 'staff of speakers' and 'speakers bureaus' that would be able to similarly flood campuses and the media with their point of view.

The Powell memo became the basis on which we saw the rapid proliferation in the 1970s of so-called 'think tanks' (i.e., the 'staff of scholars'). Right-wing business leaders and foundations started pouring money into this kind of activity to support the activities of an increasingly large number of people to enable them to eventually have an impact on policy and the media. What has become apparent in the decades following the Powell memo is that there are a large number of very wealthy very right-wing people who are willing to spend large sums of money to support mouthpieces who will espouse the kinds of views they want to be disseminated.

Before long, there was an alphabet soup of right wing foundations, think tanks, and institutes, all dedicated to flooding college campuses and the media with right-wing views, while all the while complaining that those institutions had a pervasive left-wing bias. Before the Powell memo, only the Hoover Institute at Stanford (1919) and the American Enterprise Institute (1943) played that role in a significant way. After the Powell memo, businesses and wealthy right-wing interests started pouring money into creating an alternative to academic scholarship and as a result, the 1970s saw the explosion of right-wing so-called 'think tanks'. The Heritage Foundation was set up in 1973, the Cato Institute in 1977, the Manhattan Institute in 1978, and many more later.

It was necessary, though, to create a cadre of intellectuals who would understand that their role was to propagate this pro-business message and who could occupy all these new positions that were being created and to do all the writing and speaking that were called for. So business groups poured money into privately funded right-wing campus newspapers and other publications to serve as kind of a farm system to develop the skills in selected young people so that they could play the roles assigned to them. These people were supported as they obtained advanced degrees and started working in the think tanks that began sprouting like mushrooms.

One could think of the whole project as essentially a privately funded welfare program for right-wingers.

An article in the National Review describes the early days of this process that shows how this policy was carried out on campuses. In 1978 William Simon, who had been President Ford's Treasury secretary, and Irving Kristol, a founder of neo-conservatism, established the Institute for Educational Affairs (IEA).

The institute would "seek out promising Ph.D. candidates and undergraduate leaders, help them establish themselves through grants and fellowships and then help them get jobs with activist organizations, research projects, student publications, federal agencies or leading periodicals."
. . .
The IEA received significant start-up funds from corporations such as Dow Chemical, Coca-Cola, and General Electric.
. . .
The IEA ended up playing a pivotal role in the rise of conservative college papers founded in the early Eighties. The new decade saw the founding of, to name just a few, The Dartmouth Review, The Michigan Review, The Primary Source at Tufts, The Harvard Salient, The Princeton Tory, The Oregon Commentator, and The Virginia Advocate. IEA also organized conferences where the editors of these new papers could connect, as well as learn more about journalism.

This was just one of the early efforts. But because of the farm system established by identifying and funding and grooming young people on college campuses, there are now enough people who are both able and willing to play that role, and are well-rewarded for doing so. It is precisely within this framework that the third-tier pundits have found their niche. But in a sense they are just the entertainers while the people in the think tanks are the ones who really develop the conservative and neo-conservative pro-business agenda. These people and places became the sources of targeted attacks on the media and the universities.

Next: What is a think tank and how do they function?

POST SCRIPT: The 'good' war reexamined

World War II grows in misty memory as the last major 'good war'. As such, it has served a valuable role in justifying other wars. Each new enemy of the US is now routinely identified as the new Hitler driven by the desire to control the whole world. This was the rhetoric used against Saddam Hussein and Iraq and is now being used against Ahmadinejad and Iran.

A recent review by Mark Kurlansky of Nicholson Baker's Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization says that the book debunks the myth that World War II was a 'good' war.

According to the myth, British and American statesmen naively thought they could reason with such brutal fascists as Germany's Hitler and Japan's Tojo. Faced with this weakness, Hitler and Tojo tried to take over the world, and the United States and Britain were forced to use military might to stop them.

Rather than Roosevelt and Churchill being doughty fighters against fascism reluctantly drawn into a major war, the book argues that they were a rabid warmongers and anti-Semites who until very late in the game were quite friendly towards Hitler and the fascists. What Roosevelt and Churchill were really concerned about was defeating communism.

Kurlansky ends his review:

Read Human Smoke. It may be one of the most important books you will ever read. It could help the world to understand that there is no Just War, there is just war -- and that wars are not caused by isolationists and peaceniks but by the promoters of warfare.

You can read an interview with Baker here and an except from his book here.

March 27, 2008

The propaganda machine-5: The Fairness Doctrine and the Powell memo

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Three factors discussed so far in the creation of the propaganda machine are the rise of 24/7 cable news networks, nationwide talk radio enabled by satellite communications and toll-free numbers, and the relaxation of media ownership rules that resulted in the concentration of ownership.

The fourth factor in the creation of the propaganda machine was the elimination of the 'Fairness Doctrine' in 1987 that resulted in media outlets being allowed to become explicitly and overtly and consistently partisan and ideological. As Steve Rendall says, that doctrine, adopted in 1949, tried to at least limit the extent to which public airwaves could be hijacked by narrowly commercial or partisan interests or by those seeking to use them exclusively for their own profit.

[The Fairness Doctrine] required broadcasters to devote some of their airtime to discussing controversial matters of public interest, and to air contrasting views regarding those matters. Stations were given wide latitude as to how to provide contrasting views: It could be done through news segments, public affairs shows or editorials.
. . .
There are many misconceptions about the Fairness Doctrine. For instance, it did not require that each program be internally balanced, nor did it mandate equal time for opposing points of view. And it didn’t require that the balance of a station’s program lineup be anything like 50/50.
. . .
The Fairness Doctrine simply prohibited stations from broadcasting from a single perspective, day after day, without presenting opposing views.

After the repeal of this doctrine during the Reagan administration, media outlets gave up any pretence to being neutral on public policy matters. This opened the way to stations broadcasting Rush Limbaugh and his clones for hour after hour. As Robert McChesney says in his book The Problem of the Media (2003):

Talk radio has not only stormed into prominence on the AM dial but it also "tends to run the gamut from conservative . . . to very conservative," as one reporter characterized it. "There are 1,500 conservative radio talk show hosts," the conservative activist Paul M. Weyrich boasts. "The ability to reach people with our message is like nothing we have ever seen before." The right wing dominance of broadcasting is demonstrated by the shift of groups such as Reed Irvine's Accuracy in Media and Phyllis Schlafley's Eagle Forum. Back in the 1970s and 1980s they crusaded for the Fairness doctrine – which required broadcasters to present contrasting perspectives on politics – as a way to battle liberal bias on the airwaves; since the ascendance of Rush Limbaugh et al. these groups now oppose the Fairness Doctrine. (p. 116)

In fact, on March 11, 2008, Bush said that he would veto any legislation incorporating the Fairness Doctrine.

For all their bluster about the 'liberal bias' in the media, the people who make this charge know it is not true.

"There's been a massive change in the media in this country in the last fifteen years," Rush Limbaugh exulted. "Now it's 2002 and the traditional liberal media monopoly does not exist anymore." But such celebratory comments are usually confined to more private back-slapping sessions. The dominating conservative pundits still sing the incessant refrain that the media are dominated by . . . liberals." (McChesney, p. 116)

This drumbeat is so steady that the media has internalized it (we will look more closely into this phenomenon in a later posting) and now goes out of its way to placate conservatives by giving their voices a lot of prominence. In 2001, CNN's chief Walter Isaacson even went to the extent of asking conservatives how his network could be made more palatable to them. (McChesney, p. 116)

The fifth major factor in the rise of the propaganda machine may the most important one since it forms the foundation on which the other four were built. It is the deliberate policy set into motion in the 1970s to push media determinedly to the right.

To understand how this last but most important development came about, we need to go back in time to the late 1960s and look at how events during those turbulent years were perceived.

[C]onservative critics blamed the liberal media for losing the Vietnam war and for fomenting dissent in the United States. Pro-business foundations were aghast at what they perceived as anti-business sentiment prevalent among Americans, especially middle-class youth who had typically supplied a core constituency. Mainstream journalism – which, in reporting the activities of official sources, was giving people like Ralph Nader sympathetic exposure – was seen as turning Americans away from business. At that point the political Right, supported by its wealthy donors, began to devote enormous resources to criticizing and intimidating the news media. This was a cornerstone of the broader campaign to make the political culture more pro-business and more conservative. (McChesney, p. 111)

Leaders in the conservative business community felt that action had to be taken to counter this trend. In 1971, Lewis Powell (then a corporate lawyer) was invited by his friend, the Director of the US Chamber of Commerce, to analyze the problem and make recommendations for how to deal with it. Powell submitted a confidential memo just two months before he was nominated to the Supreme Court by President Nixon.

UC Berkeley professor of linguistics and cognitive science George Lakoff, who has written extensively about the importance of the way that political issues get framed in public policy debates, says that Powell reported that "all of our best students are becoming anti-business because of the Vietnam War, and that we needed to do something about it. Powell's agenda included getting wealthy conservatives to set up professorships, setting up institutes on and off campus where intellectuals would write books from a conservative business perspective, and setting up think tanks."

This memo was instrumental in setting in motion a whole program aimed at dominating the discourse in both academia and media with a decidedly pro-business message.

Next: What the Powell memo actually said and what actions emanated from it.

POST SCRIPT: Gay scientists isolate gene that causes Christianity

(Thanks to OneGoodMove.)

March 21, 2008

The propaganda machine-4: Major developments in its creation

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

The third tier pundits are a byproduct of five significant developments in media ownership and control.

The first is the rise of 24/7 cable news networks that has created a voracious demand for people to fill all that airtime. There is just not enough real news to report, and creating good investigative reports on important topics costs money which eats into profits. There is a limit to how much time one can spend on celebrity gossip. Even coverage of Britney Spears can get stale. The supply of attractive young women who go missing, another source of endless cable news media fascination, is also limited. As a result, the cable news networks depend heavily on talk shows since having people give opinions costs little money. But the people who have studied issues in depth and have informed opinions based on deep knowledge tend to be academics but they have jobs that require them to teach and do research and thus are not readily available at a moment's notice to come and talk about the day's events, assuming they even wanted to. This leaves a niche for a large number of professional pundits whose job is to be at the media's beck and call. The third tier pundits fill that niche.

The second development that facilitated the growth of the propaganda machine is the rise of talk radio. Along with cable news TV, it came to prominence in the late 1980s as a result of satellite technology, and its functioning was greatly aided by the increasing use of toll free phone numbers (which originated in 1967), which enabled nationwide call-in shows to become popular.

A third factor is the increasing concentration of media ownership in a few hands. As former dean of the University of California-Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism Ben Bagdikian says in his book The Media Monopoly (1997):

With each passing year ... the number of controlling firms in all these media has shrunk: from fifty corporations in 1984 to twenty-six in 1987, followed by twenty-three in l990, and then, as the borders between the different media began to blur, to less than twenty in 1993. In 1996 the number of media corporations with dominant power in society is closer to ten. In terms of media possessions and resources, the newest dominant ten are Time Warner, Disney, Viacom, News Corporation Limited (Murdoch), Sony, Tele-Communications, Inc., Seagram (TV, movies, cable, books, music), Westinghouse, Gannett, and General Electric.

As Robert McChesney says in his book The Problem of the Media (2003, p. 224-235), in the late 19th and early twentieth centuries, the issue of what to do with the power of corporations, including media, was a burning issue. There were many alternative models that were possible that would have allowed for diverse views in the media. But the government, under the powerful influence of corporations, decided to allow private, profit-making entities to rule the media. They were aided in this by one of the most controversial Supreme Court decisions ever, the 1886 ruling of County of Santa Clara v. Southern Pacific Railroad Company which was erroneously interpreted as granting personhood (and thus constitutional rights protections) to corporations. In other words, it is now widely (but erroneously) assumed that the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations have the same rights as you and me, although they have much greater powers than us. (After all, they can be in many places at once, have much greater resources of all kinds, and live far longer than people).

The media giants had long-chafed at the limits placed on the number of media outlets that could be owned by a single entity. Even though the Federal Communication Commission was very sympathetic to media owners and wanted to accommodate them, overturning those restrictions proved to be difficult because the general public had an intuitive sense that such restrictions were a good thing and opposed moves to remove them. But Bill Clinton in 1996 had legislation passed that eliminated the caps on the number of radio stations that companies could own nationally and as a result, "Almost overnight, the radio industry's structure was turned upside down. Well over half the stations were sold until a few massive firms like Clear Channel (owner of more than 1,200 stations) and Viacom came to rule the roost." (McChesney, p. 231)

Of course, you are not likely to find the media reporting on this topic extensively. The media is quite shy about revealing the extent of its own reach and power and dominance.

Next: The other two developments: the Fairness Doctrine and the Powell memo

POST SCRIPT: Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke died on Tuesday at the age of 90 in his adopted country of Sri Lanka, where he had lived since 1956. I am not a huge fan of the science fiction genre in general but I liked the writings of Clarke, who was grounded in good science, although he never went to college. You can see the list of his scientific predictions here. The one that came true most spectacularly being the idea of geosynchronous communication satellites. [UPDATE: Commenter Vasantha corrects me and says that Clarke went back to college after serving in World War II and earned a first class degree (the highest category awarded by British universities) in physics and mathematics.]

I had the pleasure of meeting Clarke when I was teaching at the University of Colombo. I was teaching an optics course and wanted to show the students holograms, which were somewhat of a novelty in the early 1980s. I tried to make one in the physics department darkroom but failed miserably. I heard that Clarke had some and went to his home to see if I could borrow one. He was very friendly, and in addition to lending me a few holograms, he also enthusiastically talked about science.

Clarke's death reminded me of how much pleasure I derived from two of his books Childhood's End and Rendezvous with Rama and Stanley Kubrik's terrific film 2001: A Space Odyssey, all of which I experienced long ago while I was in college. I plan to enjoy them again soon.

March 17, 2008

The propaganda machine-3: The third tier pundits' role and purpose

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

In my previous post in this series, I described the kinds of arguments put out by some of the better-known third tier pundits. You can probably discern a characteristic common to all of them. They start by identifying an enemy (people or ideas) and then throw everything at it, using any spurious argument they can think up, hoping that something will stick. Their purpose seems to be to fill the airways and print media with noise and confusion. The idea is not to make a cogent case but to create a fog through which the public is encouraged to see the designated enemy as vaguely disreputable even if no one can say exactly why. One enemy they have agreed upon is 'liberal', a word with an honorable ancestry but now so muddied that they can use it in almost any way they like. So they assert that liberals are weak, fascistic, atheistic, immoral, anti-American, terrorist-loving appeasers. It does not even matter if their assertions contradict one another. The third tier pundits are glib and have a superficial cleverness that seems to be convincing to some people but they lack good rhetorical forensic skills, instead using the equivalents of sledgehammers.

By swarming through the media in large numbers like locusts, the third tier pundits convey the misleading impression that they represent a sizeable segment of opinion, even the mainstream, and their style of argumentation (narrowly focused, using rudeness, sarcasm, and ridicule as substitutes for arguments) is such that it makes for 'good' TV for those weaned on sports and reality shows. For some reason, people seem to enjoy political talk shows in which people talk fast and interrupt and yell at each other. Such programs are not suitable for reasoned discussion. In that noise, the lack of actual evidence and logical arguments and, more importantly, any truly alternative opinions are not immediately apparent. The Iraq war, for example, was sold to the American people by hucksters like these all yelling out fake arguments about the dangers posed by Iraq and not being challenged to produce the evidence or to defend their weak logic.

The third tier pundits can confidently behave like this knowing that they will rarely encounter a knowledgeable interviewer or program host who will hold them accountable or ask them to back up their statements with anything resembling facts or a line of coherent reasoning. As a result, this kind of vacuous hit-and-run punditry has become commonplace in the US. People can say absurd things on TV or on the radio, not be challenged by their interviewers, and then go on to make some new charge the next day. After doing this for years, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that one is untouchable.

But sometimes they trip up. Ann Coulter encountered a Canadian interviewer Bob McKeown who actually challenged her on the facts and did not back down in the face of her repeated assertions of something that was false. You have to watch the video of the exchange to see the deer-in-the-headlights look she gets when she is challenged, and her desperate attempts to bluster her way out of an embarrassing situation. She was clearly not expecting this. But interviewers rarely hold their interviewees accountable in this way. (I wrote about this particular Coulter incident earlier.)

So why do third-tier pundits exist at all if their contribution to the public discourse is not just zero but actually negative? How is it that such obviously unserious people get so much space and airtime in the major media outlets? How come they seem to sell so many books so that this tripe even gets on best-seller lists?

It would be a mistake to think of these people as coming into being spontaneously or because of some talent they possess or even by sheer accident. The third tier pundits are a front for more important developments occurring elsewhere. If you use a circus metaphor, the third tier pundits are like the clowns who are brought out to distract and amuse the audience while the set is being changed. They are primarily entertainers whose purpose is to fill up the air time on radio and TV to the exclusion of more knowledgeable voices. By expressing extreme views in an inflammatory way, they put into circulation ideas that their more 'respectable' ideological allies cannot, allowing the more dangerous warmongering ideologues (William Kristol, Charles Krauthammer, Michael Ledeen, etc.) to sound reasonable. They draw the fire of their ideological opponents, making them spend all their time and energy refuting their bizarre charges.

There are a host of well-funded foundations and think tanks and media outlets which are willing to hire these third tier pundits and let them loose as front line troops in the media war to persuade the public that policies that in reality will harm them are good for them. The antennae of the third tier pundit brigade are carefully tuned to pick up the cues about what their patrons want. Want the public to support an attack on a country like Iraq that never threatened the US? Want to provide tax cuts for rich people? Want to prevent the introduction of a single-payer health care system? Want to eliminate the estate tax so that inherited wealth can accumulate even more rapidly? Want to privatize social security and cut back on Medicare? Want to undermine public education? Want to take away even the little support that poor people get from the government? If the US oligarchy wants any or all of these things to be advocated, whom are they going to call? The third tier pundits of course. In a flash, they will come storming out of their luxury penthouse barracks, laptops blazing, occupying all the vantage points in the media so that more thoughtful voices are squeezed out, leaving little room for reasoned discussion.

By this technique, almost any crackpot idea becomes fodder for 'serious' discussion. A Tom Tomorrow cartoon, as usual, makes the point succinctly.

As a result of such repeated media exposure, the third tier pundits become, like Paris Hilton, famous just for being famous, although they have little of substance to contribute.

What is significant about them is not their contribution to the political discourse, but that they are visible markers of the underlying media structure. In the next post in this series, I will discuss five significant developments in media ownership and control that have resulted in the current media climate that enables this phenomenon to occur.

POST SCRIPT: "We own the world"

Noam Chomsky analyzes the current state of discussions in the mainstream media about US foreign policy and says that the analyses only make sense if you start out with the assumption that the US owns the world.

March 12, 2008

The propaganda machine-2: Examples of third tier pundit work

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

One does not have to go very deep to understand why third tier pundits are not worth spending much time on. In making my criticisms of them, I have to confess that I do not take the time to read these people's books, so readers will have to take that into account in weighing my comments on them. Fortunately there are people among the first-tier pundits and other commentators who freely and voluntarily take on this truly thankless task and document the bankruptcy of these people and their ideas. You couldn't pay me enough to waste my time reading their books when there are so many worthwhile books to read. I have read enough articles written by them and about them and watched some interviews, sufficient I think to judge their caliber. It is of course theoretically possible that if I spend the hours necessary to wade through all the prolific output of these third tier pundits, I may find that they have produced works of extreme profundity and elegance that their critics have overlooked. But given the evidence from their other works, I would put the chances of that about as close to zero as you can imagine.

Take for example Jonah Goldberg. He has recently published a book arguing, if you can believe it, that fascism is an outgrowth of liberalism. In a review, Brad Reed says that early on in the book Goldberg apparently acknowledges that he could not really define fascism and he revealed a lack of awareness of its historical roots. That small problem might have stopped you or me from pursuing the idea of writing a book on the topic but Goldberg's ignorance actually served his purposes since he could then argue, on the basis of the most tenuous links, that almost anything was fascistic. He lists things that some fascists liked (organic food, vegetarianism) which are also liked by some of the people in America he dislikes and presto! this makes those people fascists. As Jon Stewart pointed out, by that line of reasoning one could argue that mustaches are symbols of fascism since Hitler had one. See his interview on The Daily Show where Stewart quickly exposes the vacuity of his arguments.

Goldberg's book has deservedly been received with hoots of derision. Even conservatives are embarrassed. As this article in the conservative Taki's Magazine says:

One of the stranger aspects of contemporary American "mainstream conservatism" is the obsession with "fascism," a political philosophy one might have supposed was safely buried under the rubble of 1945 Europe . . . The need to label everything conservatives oppose as "fascist" hardly stops with Osama bin Laden and his ilk. Goldberg sees FDR and the New Deal as "fascist," even though FDR was far more eager to wage war against Hitler than was the contemporary American Right . . . Goldberg and his admirers also seem not to fully appreciate that what so thoroughly discredited fascism was not the domestic policies of Mussolini's Italy, but the aggressive wars waged by the Fascist dictators, culminating in the horrific Nazi crimes of World War II . . . In other words, even though those [i.e., like Goldberg] who like invading other countries have often also liked building up the state and curtailing freedom at home, crusading around the world for "democracy" and invading foreign countries at will is now okay and definitely not "fascist"—as long as you still want to repeal the "death tax."

Moving along the rogue's gallery of third tier pundits, we come to Hall-of-Famer Michelle Malkin. She authored a book actually approving the internment of all Japanese-Americans (including children!) during World War II, an act that is now widely seen as one of the most shameful governmental policies in recent history and for which the government in 1988 formally apologized. She has also been arguing for racial, religious, and nationality profiling to be taken against all people of Middle Eastern origins and of the Islamic faith. She is constantly scaremongering about the threat posed by Muslims.

Her most recent book argues that liberals are more unhinged (her preferred term is 'moonbats') than the rest of the population.

The level of her analyses can be judged by the following clip that she herself proudly produced. This cheerleader clip has been a big hit on YouTube, but perhaps not for the reasons she hoped.

Can you believe your eyes? Are we supposed to take people like her seriously?

And of course, Ann Coulter has mastered the art of gaining attention by saying outrageous things that will get her noticed. The very titles of her books (How to talk to a liberal (if you must) and Godless: The church of liberalism) are good indications of the level at which these people pitch their discourse. I will not waste much time arguing that her work is worthless because I think that has been well established by others.

Dinesh D'Souza wrote a book that blamed American liberals, going all the way back to FDR for the events of 9/11. How did he arrive at that breathtaking conclusion? By arguing that liberals in America, with their permissive attitudes, had caused the moral decline of the US. The fear that this US-inspired decadence would pollute the Middle East so inflamed the Islamic radicals in al Qaeda that they decided to punish America by flying planes into building. In order to combat this, he argues that traditional conservative Americans should join up with traditional conservative Muslims to fight the liberals and their pursuit of moral decline. Really, that's his argument. How is one expected to respond to such idiocy?

Incidentally, when third tier pundits like D'Souza speak of 'moral decline', you can be sure that they are referring to sexual sins. Genocide or racism or sexism or homophobia or the abuse of power or the neglect of the underprivileged do not seem to trouble their moral sensibilities.

Watch this interview on The Colbert Report. People like D'Souza have so self-awareness that he does not seem to realize that Stephen Colbert is having immense fun at his expense and that he is being made to look ridiculous

The silliness of D'Souza's arguments is truly breathtaking. Alan Wolfe reviewing D'Souza's book says: "Like his hero Joe McCarthy, he has no sense of shame. He is a childish thinker and writer tackling subjects about which he knows little to make arguments that reek of political extremism. His book is a national disgrace, a sorry example of a publishing culture more concerned with the sensational than the sensible."

Wolfe's words apply equally well to all the third-tier pundits.

Next in the series: The special media niche that the third tier pundits occupy

POST SCRIPT: In praise of bad musicianship

Have you ever listened with envy to an orchestra and thought it looked like a lot of fun but sighed with regret that you didn't have anywhere close to the talent or skill to play alongside such accomplished musicians? Well, there are a lot of us like that out there but one enterprising group in Scotland has decided that they are going to play anyway. They have created what they call the Really Terrible Orchestra where lack of skill is no barrier to participation.

They seem to be a hit, playing to capacity audiences, and have even made a CD with original compositions. This idea may catch on.

March 10, 2008

The propaganda machine-1: The third tier pundits

When I was interviewed recently on Blog Talk Radio about my 2005 posts about the people I call third tier pundits and the baleful influence that they have on political discourse, I didn't really have the time to go more deeply into how it is that they got to play the particular role they currently play. It would be a mistake to think that they are merely the flotsam brought to the surface by media currents. They play a vacuous but integral part in a propaganda machine.

Third tier pundits are those people who occupy almost the bottom rung of the punditry world, the value of their contributions rising just barely above that of the people who write graffiti on bathroom walls. The most prominent examples of this species are people like Michelle Malkin, Ann Coulter, Jonah Goldberg, and Dinesh D'Souza but unfortunately there are many, many more. In fact, it seems like there is a seemingly endless supply of such people, available at a moment's notice to appear on TV and radio and fill up newspaper op-ed space or the shelves of bookstores, spouting a predictable line of nonsense. But while they add little, they fill a significant niche in the media world and it is interesting to see what the purpose of that niche is and how they fit into the overall structure of the media. As Jonathan Schwarz says about the whole species:

A few weeks ago I wrote something comparing Michelle Malkin's moral and intellectual standards to those of Holocaust deniers. But I also said Malkin has no significance in and of herself; every country has people as strange and confused and angry as she is. What matters is that normal societies leave them to fulminate in their parents' basement. In contrast, troubled societies let them organize "conferences" and guest host national television programs.

In an absolute sense these third tier pundits are not important because they have nothing important to say. But understanding how they became a ubiquitous presence can give us insights into how the media is currently structured. The next series of posts will focus on this topic.

The first tier pundits are those people who actually have useful things to say. They often have deep specialized knowledge in some area. They are grounded in reality and data, do careful analyses, have a good historical and global perspective, and are not narrowly blinkered by nationalistic or jingoistic sentiments. They are not quick to rush to judgment and often have their own sources and do some original reporting and thus have new information to add to their thoughtful analyses. These people tend to write for opinion magazines (both online and traditional) that do not have huge circulations and a few of them sometimes appear on TV talk shows, though not the high profile ones. Their names tend to be not very well known to the general public, being familiar mostly to political junkies.

Some of the first tier pundits are Noam Chomsky, Norman Solomon, Howard Zinn, Edward Herman, Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Katha Pollitt, Matthew Yglesias, Steve Benen, Juan Cole, Stephen Zunes, Robert Jensen, Jonathan Schwarz, the pseudonymous Digby, Justin Raimondo, Ken Silverstein, Jim Lobe, Ray McGovern, Bill and Kathleen Christianson, Greg Sargent, Josh Marshall, Paul Craig Roberts, and Alexander Cockburn. (In writing this partial list, it struck me that there were only three women in it and (as far as I know) no people of color. I am not sure why that is. Have I overlooked some people or is punditry more appealing to men? Or is this another instance of women and minorities having to struggle to break through traditional barriers?)

The second tier pundits are far less informative but much better known than the first tier. They consist of widely syndicated columnists who have regular access to the op-ed pages of the major news outlets. They appear often on the high-profile TV talk shows. These are people such as David Brooks, Maureen Dowd, George Will, Charles Krauthammer, David Broder, etc. Their names are usually familiar to those members of the general public who follow politics even casually. They are people who consider themselves and each other to be 'serious' commentators. They do not use inflammatory language. They are courted by political figures who desperately want their approval.

But notwithstanding their serious tone, as I have discussed before, their analyses are most often shallow and greatly inferior to those of the first-tier pundits. They do, however, serve an important ideological purpose, which is to limit the range of 'acceptable' opinion to the narrow piece of turf bounded by their views, and to advance the agenda of the pro-war/pro-business party that runs the country. While the analyses of these people tends to be ideologically driven, lack content, and sometimes don't even make much sense, reading them is not entirely a waste of time since they give you a good sense of what the agenda of the ruling class is, what they want you to think.

The third tier pundits are near the bottom of the barrel. They are to journalism and political analyses what Paris Hilton is to acting, i.e., people who have become well known for reasons that have nothing to do with any intrinsic ability but, as a result of our celebrity-obsessed culture which assumes that if one is well known there must be a reason, have now have become fixtures on the public stage. They are a waste of time and airspace and their views range between the silly and the despicable.

Next in the series: Examples of third tier punditry

POST SCRIPT: Believing myths

Forget about who can answer the phone at 3:00am. Hillary Clinton was interviewed in June 2007 on the Christian Broadcasting Network and said the following:

Reporter: Can I ask you theologically, do you believe that the resurrection of Jesus actually happened, that it actually historically did happen?

Clinton: Yes, I do.

So here in the 21st century we have a potential president who believes in something that violates scientific laws, not to mention plain common sense. The sad thing is that not only are such questions considered reasonable to ask but that every candidate for any major elected office in the US would probably feel obliged to answer the same way, even if they felt that these were absurd things to believe in. They probably can not even evade the question by saying that religion is a private affair, because that would lead to the sneaking suspicion that they are rational and scientific thinkers, who use logic and evidence to come to their conclusions, and we can't have that in a president, can we?

You can read the full transcript of the interview here.