Malcolm Gladwell, corporate shill

In the comments to my earlier post on Malcolm Gladwell, commenter sisu pointed me to a link to an excellent and detailed article that exposes how Gladwell was groomed from his early days to be a shameless huckster in the service of right-wing and corporate interests.

In the vast ecosystem of corporate shills, which one is the most effective? Propaganda works best when it is not perceived as propaganda: nuance, obfuscation, distraction, suggestion, the subtle introduction of doubt—these are more effective in the long run than shotgun blasts of lies. The master of this approach is Malcolm Gladwell.

Malcolm Gladwell is the New Yorker’s leading essayist and bestselling author. Time magazine named Gladwell one of the world’s 100 most influential people. His books sell copies in the millions, and he is in hot demand as one of the nation’s top public intellectual and pop gurus. Gladwell plays his role as a disinterested public intellectual like few others, right down to the frizzy hairdo and smock-y getups. His political aloofness, high-brow contrarianism and constant challenges to “popular wisdom” are all part of his shtick.

But beneath Malcolm Gladwell’s cleverly-crafted ambiguity, beneath the branded facade, one finds, with surprising ease, a common huckster on the take. I say “surprising ease” because it’s all out there on the public record.

As this article will demonstrate, Gladwell has shilled for Big Tobacco, Pharma and defended Enron-style financial fraud, all while earning hundreds of thousands of dollars as a corporate speaker, sometimes from the same companies and industries that he covers as a journalist.

Malcolm Gladwell is a one-man branding and distribution pipeline for valuable corporate messages, constructed on the public’s gullibility in trusting his probity and intellectual honesty in the pages of America’s most important weekly magazine, The New Yorker, and other highly prominent media outlets.

The rest of the article details Gladwell’s activities in the services of the tobacco, pharmaceutical, and the big financial interests interests. The article was produced as part of a project known as S.H.A.M.E. (Shame the Hacks who Abuse Media Ethics) that I was not aware of until I read this article.

A long time ago, before I started blogging. I read an article that criticized Gladwell for touting the benefits of some drug or device (I forget which now) marketed to women that turned out to have serious negative effects. When called out on his support in spite of the clear evidence against it, he breezily acknowledged the substance of the criticisms without explaining why he had originally ignored the counter-evidence he had known about, apologizing for propagating a distorted message, or acknowledging that his support for the drug could have hard harmful consequences to those who were unaware of all the facts. I put that down to a combination of carelessness and unwillingness to admit a mistake, traits that are not uncommon in journalism.

The above article, on the other hand, demonstrates that that was not an isolated misstep but part of an ongoing pattern. The article and the others created by the S.H.A.M.E. project website are well worth reading.

Thanks, sisu, for a great tip!


  1. Mano Singham says

    In some ways, Penn Jillette is not a surprise. He is a staunch libertarian and those people can be appealed to think of smoking as a right that should not be interfered with in any way.

    What did surprise me when I looked at the full list was the appearance of humorist Dave Barry. But against his name it says no contact so it may be that he was someone they wanted to try and reach because so many people read him.

  2. sisu says

    Hey, thanks for reposting it! I had never heard of the SHAME project or Gladwell’s background either before reading that article.

  3. itzac says

    In perusing the SHAME website, I found this.

    I find it totally baffling. “Glenn Greenwald of the Libertarian Cato Institute!?” Who on earth would believe Glenn Greenwald is a Libertarian?

    As a civil-libertarian, I realize that my values and interests must align to some extent with those of Cato and it’s supporters, but I would never in my wildest dreams call myself a capital-L Libertarian. And nor would any of Libertarian friends.

    I wonder if this site isn’t a little too quick to sling its mud.

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