The media propaganda model in action

In the previous post, I quoted a former Fox News staffer who revealed in 2003 how the senior management at Fox News carefully monitored and directed what news would be covered and, more importantly, how it should be covered. This was done by means of “The Memo” that was sent out by top management every day to all the news staff. For example, the staffer said:

[J]ust after the U.S. invaded Iraq, The Memo warned us that anti-war protesters would be “whining” about U.S. bombs killing Iraqi civilians, and suggested they could tell that to the families of American soldiers dying there. Editing copy that morning, I was not surprised when an eager young producer killed a correspondent’s report on the day’s fighting – simply because it included a brief shot of children in an Iraqi hospital.

These are not isolated incidents at Fox News Channel, where virtually no one of authority in the newsroom makes a move unmeasured against management’s politics, actual or perceived. At the Fair and Balanced network, everyone knows management’s point of view, and, in case they’re not sure how to get it on air, The Memo is there to remind them.

[Read more…]

The entangled media, business, and political monopolies

In many ways the monopoly media in the US reflects the monopolistic political system that exists here. For all the talk about being a two-party system, there is very little difference between the parties. This is not to say that they are identical, but we cannot understand how the media reflects the political system if we have an exaggerated idea of the differences between the Democratic and Republican parties.

It is more accurate to say that what exists in the US is not a two-party state but a single pro-war/pro-business party with two factions. The two parties share a common interest in promoting business interests and the interests of the well-to-do over that of the people in general and workers in particular. This pro-business attitude by both parties extends to both parties being pro-war because wars are, almost always (especially in the short run), good for business, especially certain kinds of businesses, those famously warned of by President Eisenhower when he referred to the ‘military industrial complex.’ It is interesting to note that he raised this issue in his farewell address in 1961 just three days he was due to leave office after completing two terms. In other words, he knew how things really worked but could not speak the truth until he was able to avoid any political repercussions.

Once one understands the pro-business nature of both major parties, it becomes easy to understand why our elected representatives have opposed things like single-payer health insurance plans (because these would go against the interests of the insurance companies), why they have opposed exploration of alternative fuel sources (because they go against the interests of the oil industries), why they have opposed better fuel standards for cars (because they go against the auto industry), and why they oppose raising the minimum wage (because it raises the cost of business)..

But for the purposes of analyzing the media, the most important fact is that the government has steadily allowed increasing monopoly ownership of the media, by removing the restrictions that used to exist limiting the number of television station and radio stations and newspapers that a single corporate entity could own in a single market. What we now have is a situation where just six big corporations dominate the media landscape. See this chart for how this interlocking web of interests operates. And since many of the same people populate the boards of these corporations, the homogeneity of the media is enhanced even more. Furthermore, these media conglomerates have strong ties to other business sectors. For example, one media giant is General Electric, which is also a powerhouse in the defense contracting industry, and thus directly benefits from wars.

So the media is closely intertwined with a wide network of business interests. These news media conglomerates are generous contributors to politicians who promote their interests. Only a very quixotic politician will speak out against them. Most of our elected legislators are more beholden to these interests that underwrite their campaigns and can lavishly entertain them, than they are to the voters who put them in office. The popular idea that these media giants became what they are because of free-market competition is a myth. As media analyst Robert McChesney says:

This concentrated, conglomerated and profit-driven media system is hardly the result of “free enterprise.” These giant companies are the recipients of enormous direct and indirect subsidies and/or government-granted monopoly franchises. They include: monopoly licenses to radio and TV frequencies, cable and satellite TV monopoly franchises, magazine postal subsidies and copyright, to mention a few. For these firms the most important competition may well be in Washington, getting the cushy subsidies and licenses. These policies, worth tens of billions annually, are generally made in our name but without our informed consent. That is the heart of the problem, and it points us to the solution: informed public participation on media policy-making.

One should not make the mistake of assuming that individual journalists are aware of all of these ties and consciously write in ways that avoid offending powerful interests. A few unprincipled careerists may do so but I suspect they are fairly rare. It is very hard for most people to believe in one thing and, on a daily basis, to conform to a culture that requires adhering to a completely opposite set of values. Doing so is perhaps a sure path to a mental breakdown.

One should also not assume that there exists a direct line of orders coming down from high to journalists as to what the news should be. In other words, it is not as if the CEO of General Electric tells the head of NBC to tell the head of the news division to tell the executive producer of NBC Nightly News to tell anchor Brian Williams that he should promote a new war with Iran because General Electric’s aircraft engines division needs to make more profits.

Fox News is one organization that actually does try to direct journalists in such brazen ways. It is no secret that Rupert Murdoch, the head of Fox’s parent company News Corporation takes a keen interest that the editorial content of his media empire serve his own business and political interests. There was some embarrassment in 2003 when a former staffer at Fox revealed that every day, Roger Ailes, the head of Fox News Channel (FNC), would send out a Daily Memo that told the journalists what they should cover and how they should cover it.

Editorially, the FNC newsroom is under the constant control and vigilance of management. The pressure ranges from subtle to direct
. . .
[T]he roots of FNC’s day-to-day on-air bias are actual and direct. They come in the form of an executive memo distributed electronically each morning, addressing what stories will be covered and, often, suggesting how they should be covered. To the newsroom personnel responsible for the channel’s daytime programming, The Memo is the bible. If, on any given day, you notice that the Fox anchors seem to be trying to drive a particular point home, you can bet The Memo is behind it.

Fox’s operation is a very crude propaganda model. Some countries, especially those with a totalitarian structure have used it but it is rarely effective in the long run because the news consumer quickly catches on to what is going on and starts to discount the news or look for alternative, even underground, sources. In the US, because of the obviousness of Fox’s actions, some people already realize that Fox News is determinedly pushing an agenda, though many still accept at face value its “fair and balanced” slogan.

A more sophisticated propaganda model is one in which everyone involved in the media, including journalists, believes they are reporting impartially without fear or favor, while at the same time serving the corporate interests of the owners of their media. The real success of a good propaganda model, such as exists in the US, is when people do not realize that this is what is in place but think that the news they get from the mainstream media is objective.

Next in the series: How a sophisticated propaganda model is created and operates.

Media self-censorship

When we talk of a ‘controlled’ media, we tend to think of editors and political leaders telling reporters what they should write about and how. That does happen in some countries and newspapers, and we rightly call those things ‘propaganda’. But that kind of overt control is rarely effective over the long term because when people know that journalists take their instructions from people with openly political agendas, they tend to factor that in and discount the credibility of those news sources.
[Read more…]

The consequences of having media monopolies

Understanding the US media is an important part of political education and two of the best analysts are Ben Bagdikian who wrote the classic The Media Monopoly (updated recently to The New Media Monopoly) and Robert McChesney, author of The Problem of the Media and other books.

Manufacturing Consent by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman (published in 1988) remains a powerful read in describing how the media, both wittingly and unwittingly, colludes with powerful interests in creating a public consensus that actually goes against the interests of the people they supposedly represent. If they updated their book, they would undoubtedly use as one of their examples how the media effectively aided the administration to persuade the American public to go along with the disastrous policy of invading Iraq and linking that hapless country to the events of September 11, 2001, even though there was no evidence linking those two events and there was no justifiable case for attacking Iraq at all.
[Read more…]

Keeping creationism out of Ohio’s science classes

Recall that the pro-IDC (intelligent design creationism) forces in Kansas received a setback in their Republican primary elections earlier this month. Now there is a chance to repeat that in Ohio.

I wrote earlier about a challenge being mounted to the attempt by Deborah Owens-Fink (one of the most pro-IDC activists in Ohio) to be re-elected to the Ohio Board of Education from Ohio District Seven. It seems as if the pro-science forces have managed to recruit a good candidate to run against her. He is Tom Sawyer, who is a former US congressman. I received the message below from Patricia Princehouse who has been tireless in her attempts at keeping religious ideas out of the science curriculum.

The worst creationist activist on Ohio’s Board of Education is up for re-election (Deborah Owens Fink).

But now she has competition! And with your help, we can win!

We have recruited former congressman Tom Sawyer to run against her. His website is here.

Contributions are urgently needed for Congressman Sawyer’s campaign.

(Credit cards accepted here or send check to address below.)

Fink has pledged to raise lots of money & we have no doubt that creationists across the country will pour tens of thousands of dollars into her campaign. We may not be able to match them, but Sawyer is an experienced politician who can make wise use of what he gets. We need to see he gets as much as possible.

HOW MUCH SHOULD I GIVE?

1) Remember that almost every Ohioan that pays Ohio income tax, can take as a
TAX CREDIT (not just a deduction) up to $50 ($100 married couples filing jointly) in donations to Board of Ed candidates. So, please try to give at least the free $50 that you can get back on your taxes.

2) How much would you give if you could erase the past 4 years of damage to Ohio’s public schools? $100? $1000? $5000? Please seriously consider giving more than you’ve ever given before. You stand poised to prevent worse damage over the next 4 years…

Fink is circulating a fund-raising letter in which she thumbs her nose at science & refers to America’s National Academy of Sciences as a “group of so-called scientists.”

We can protect Ohio from another 4 years of retrograde motion and put someone on the Board who can move Ohio forward toward solving real problems like school funding, literacy, and the achievement gap.

But your help is urgently needed…

www.votetomsawyer.com

I WANT TO DO MORE:

Great! Please spread the word about the web site –in & out of state! (Remember, what happens in Ohio gets exported around the country, so defeating creationism in Ohio benefits the entire country) You can do even more as a volunteer (at home, on the phone, or on the street, even 1 hour of your time can make a difference, especially as we get closer to the election) To volunteer, email Steve Weeks at eul1993@hotmail.com

For info on what Fink has done to science education in Ohio, see here.
For more info on Sawyer, see here.
For more info on other races in Ohio see the HOPE website.
For more info on races nationwide, see here.

To mail donations: Send a check made out to: Vote Tom Sawyer

and mail to:
Martin Spector, Treasurer
4040 Embassy Pkwy, Suite 500, Akron, OH 44333

I was not aware of this provision in Ohio’s tax code that effectively gives you a full refund for up to $50 for contributions to campaigns like this. I have not been able to check this information myself and see what, if any, restrcitions apply and if it applies only to school board elections or other elections as well.

For more information on other School Board elections where the pro-science HOPE (Help Ohio Public Education) organization is supporting candidates, see their website.

It would be nice if Ohio voters take the lead from Kansas voters and also reject IDC-promoting candidates.

POST SCRIPT: Saying what needs to be said

Keith Olbermann on MSNBC’s Countdown delivers a blistering commentary on Donald Rumsfeld and the rest of the Bush Administration. You can see it here.

The benefits of “unbalanced” media coverage

Since I am interested in how the media operates, I regularly go to the annual Susie Gharib Distinguished Lectureship series sponsored by the English Department at Case where they invite journalists to talk about their work.

It is always interesting to listen to journalists from the big newspapers such as the Washington Post describe how they work. One thing that always strikes me is how confident they are that the media and journalism in the US is far superior to that in other countries. They seem to accept this as an unquestioned truth.

Two years ago, two journalists from the Washington Post (a husband and wife team) described how they were in Iraq just prior to the US attack on that country, and he somewhat disdainfully spoke of the practices of their British journalistic counterparts. During the questions, I asked them why they thought they were superior. The husband replied that the US editors seemed to exercise much more oversight to make sure about getting the facts just right than the British newspapers. But if that was so, I said, how was it that the US media completely failed to discover the fact that the case being made at that time for Iraq having weapons of mass destruction was totally bogus. The US mainstream media pretty much accepted the administration’s arguments largely uncritically, whereas the supposedly inferior media in many other parts of the world were very skeptical.

He became very defensive and said that this was just one case where the US media dropped the ball but that in general it was much better than the rest of the world. He said unlike much of the world’s press, the US media was “objective” and “unbiased” in its coverage. My response was that this massive failure in what was the biggest story that any of them was likely to ever cover, and one that had momentous consequences, could not be dismissed as a mere aberration but pointed to a fundamental problem in the way that the media operates here.

Last year, Pulitzer prize winningWashington Post journalist Dana Priest (who won for her story on the secret prisons operated by the CIA to hold prisoners in foreign countries) was here and during the question time someone else brought up the deficiencies of the coverage leading up to the Iraq war, and brought up some examples of what he felt were stories that the US media missed.

Priest replied that the media did cover them. But the questioner persisted saying that saying something once was not enough in the face of repeated false assertions to the contrary by the Bush administration. He asked why the journalists did not periodically (say every week or month or so) keep raising the same issues again so as to act as an effective counter to the misleading propaganda pushed by the White House. She replied that they could not do so because that would imply that the journalists were pushing an agenda. She said that they had to be “objective” and “impartial.”

This exchange clearly highlights the fundamental problem. Priest was right that if you look carefully in the US media, you can probably find some journalist somewhere who did ask the right questions and did report on the facts of almost any issue. She is also right that many US reporters, especially those in the quality media, think that they should strive for some kind of impartiality and objectivity in their reporting.

But the key question is not the validity of some abstract ideal of journalism. The real question is what kind of system will end up with the general public having a good sense of the truth. And I think that a strong case can be made that partisan journalism is more likely to deliver the goods.

I grew up in Sri Lanka with partisan journalism. My father subscribed to three daily morning papers and two evening papers. These papers were much slimmer than the papers in the US, with far fewer ads and feature articles, and a greater percentage devoted to news and political commentary. The political affiliations of the papers were quite clear. There were the government-controlled papers, those that were sympathetic to each of the main political parties, plus those that were run by private entrepreneurs (kind of like Rupert Murdoch) who had their own agenda of using their newspapers as clout to further their business or political interests. There were also smaller circulation papers that had their own political leanings, representing trade unions and smaller political parties.

Everyone knew the partisan leanings of each paper. These were not secrets and readers factored them in when reading the news. So what kind of journalism was produced by this system?

What happened is that the newspapers, whatever the leanings, could not publish outright falsehoods. Newspapers rarely made flat out untrue statements because those are easily refuted by the other newspapers and there existed libel laws to prevent that, as well as a Press Council which could investigate charges of serious distortions What the newspapers did do was downplay the negative news about the people they favored and highlight their successes, while doing the opposite for the people they opposed. They would give wide coverage to political events of their side and to the speeches of the people they favored while downplaying those of their opponents.

They also used biased language. It was not unusual to see a photo of someone they disliked in an unflattering pose accompanied by a snide caption. You would never see such things in the US press and whenever I go back to Sri Lanka, it is always a bit of a jolt initially to see such blatant editorializing mixed in with the “hard” news.

As a reader, it was not hard to figure out what was going on. If one paper made a major allegation, and the other paper did not deny it but tried to ignore it or downplay it, the chances are that the story was credible. If a story was serious, a paper could keep harping on it day after day, making sure that it was not forgotten or buried, and forcing the people concerned to respond to it in one way or another.

Since it was clear to everyone what each paper’s agenda was, there was no point in really trying to hide it under cover of neutrality.

Of course this kind of media required the reader to do some of the intellectual heavy lifting, to read multiple sources, factor in their biases, and infer the real facts of the case. If you read only one newspaper, you were definitely missing important information. So people became adept at news interpretation and filtering.

This kind of partisan journalism is, I think, the norm in most countries. England’s newspapers are like this to some extent and so are the French. The US is unusual in its big media feeling that they have to be “neutral” and “objective” and “unbiased.”

Next: Is the US media actually unbiased? And how did it get to value “neutrality”?

Fundamental rights eroded even more

The federal government has prevented a 45-year old California man and his 18-year old son, both US citizens, from re-entering the country after a visit to Pakistan.

The two men are “the uncle and cousin of Hamid Hayat, a 23-year-old Lodi cherry packer who was convicted in April of supporting terrorists by attending a Pakistani training camp.” That case was itself a scandal (see here and here) relying largely on a paid informant and dubious confessions to obtain a conviction.

As Glenn Greenwald says about the blocking of the return of the two men:

[T]he two Americans have already submitted to an FBI interview, but one of them — the American-born 18-year-old — “had run afoul of the FBI when he declined to be interviewed again without a lawyer and refused to take a lie-detector test. ” For those actions — i.e., invoking his constitutional rights to counsel and against self-incrimination — he is being refused entry back into his country. And the Bush administration is now conditioning his re-entry on his relinquishing the most basic constitutional protections guaranteed to him by the Bill of Rights.

Since neither of the two Americans are citizens of any other country, they are in a bizarre legal limbo where the only country they have the right to enter, the U.S., is refusing to allow them to return home.
. . .
But what possible authority exists for the Bush administration — unilaterally, with no judicial authorization, and no charges being brought — to bar U.S. citizens from entering their own country? And what kind of American would favor vesting in the Federal Government the power to start prohibiting other American citizens from entering the U.S. even though they have been charged with no crime and no court has authorized their exclusion?

Over the past five years, this administration and its supporters have advocated empowering the Government to detain U.S. citizens indefinitely in military prisons without a trial, eavesdrop on their telephone conversations without any warrants, track and chronicle all of their telephone calls, and now bar their entry into the U.S. — all without any criminal charges being filed and without any opportunity to contest the accusations, all of which are formed in secret.

I wonder when Americans are going to realize that this administration has no respect at all for the rule of law or the constitution, that all it wants is unchecked power over everyone?

POST SCRIPT: It happened when? Really?

Amazingly, 30% of Americans cannot name the year in which the September 11 World Trade Center attacks took place.

Interestingly enough, 95% of those who could not do so were aged 55 and over. The media loves to highlight stories that indicate that young people are clueless idiots who cannot even find the US on a world map. But for some reason they are not hailing this as a good news item showing that younger people are more on the ball than their elders.

Is Bush an Idiot?

This was the startling title of a controversial segment in August on the MSNBC talk show Scarborough Country, in which host Joe Scarborough moderated a discussion between two guests who debated the possibility that it was true. The show also had a clip of some of Bush’s incoherent ramblings on important topics, a montage which has to be seen to be believed. It seemed to me that Scarborough had concluded that Bush was an idiot and was using the common rhetorical device of posing his conclusion as a question as a defensive strategy to protect himself.

(Most of the Bushisms in the montage were familiar golden oldies but there were some new ones. My personal favorite was when he says: “I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.” I became curious as to what possible context could have prompted him to express this heartwarming sentiment about interspecies harmony. Perhaps he said it during one of those summer shark attack news frenzies and he was calling for dialogue between the two species to end the bloodshed, his reworking of Rodney King’s “Can’t we all just get along?” The website Snopes says that Bush said these memorable words when he departed from the text of a campaign speech about dams in Saginaw, Michigan in September 2000. He did not elaborate on what he meant.)

The Scarborough Country program was remarkable not because of what the final verdict was on Bush’s mental capabilities but because such a question was even being asked at all by the mainstream media. Just a short while ago, they would have been debating the question “Is George Bush a god or is he simply the smartest, bravest man who has ever lived?”

If you think I am exaggerating, then take a look at this passage written by John Hinderaker just one year ago:

“It must be very strange to be President Bush. A man of extraordinary vision and brilliance approaching to genius, he can’t get anyone to notice. He is like a great painter or musician who is ahead of his time, and who unveils one masterpiece after another to a reception that, when not bored, is hostile.”

Bear in mind that Hinderaker is not some small-time nincompoop who suffers from an acute case of Bush worship. He and two others, all attorneys, are the authors of the Power Line blog which was voted by Time magazine as Blog of the Year in 2004. They are major players in the world of big-time nincompoops, the kind that populate the talking head shows on cable TV. Hinderaker is also someone who has access to the White House.

Scarborough came in for some heavy criticism from Bush cultists because of the program and he defended himself in a later program by showing even more clips of Bush’s idiocies. But he also said something significant. He pointed out that he himself is a proud conservative, who once served as a Republican congressman from the south, and that the question that he was posing was one that widely, but privately, being discussed among conservatives in the nation’s capital.

The reason that conservatives have become so uneasy about Bush is that his approval ratings have sunk to the thirties and remained there for some time. The Harriet Myers debacle, and Katrina fiasco, the continuing disaster that is Iraq, the unexpected disintegration of Afghanistan, and the horrendous events in Lebanon and Gaza have made it obvious to all but the most die-hard Bush supporters that this administration has completely botched almost everything it touched, with no end in sight to the steady ruination of the country.

It is clear that the White House is uneasy about this negative re-evaluation of Bush’s mental abilities. While they have been eager to cultivate the image of Bush as a folksy, plain-spoken, brush-clearing, mountain-bike riding ‘man of the people’, being seen as a total doofus would be going too far. So they have counterattacked, giving out, like the proud parents of a precocious child, what they claim is Bush’s summer and annual book reading lists that includes up to 60 titles including Albert Camus’ The Stranger, with the Press Secretary even saying that he and Bush had discussed that novel’s existentialist themes.

This attempt at intellectual rehabilitation has strained credulity among observers. Some have looked closely at the list and cranked out the numbers. Here is one analysis from the The Carpetbagger Report:

Of the twelve books listed, I come up with a total page count of 5,356 pages, including 1,585 pages not available until at least 4/2006 of this year. That is an average page count of 450 pages per book. Multiply by his 60 books so far this year for a total page count of 27,000. 27,000 pages means the President would have to average a little over 115 pages per day. Reading a quick pace of a little over a minute per page, that is two hours a day of reading, and let’s be honest, longer if you want to retain information in these types of books. And this from a man who prides himself in not reading the paper. I don’t buy it.

As the Carpetbagger reports: ” The fact that the White House gang is experimenting with a new persona — Bush, the reader — is embarrassing. He’s not supposed to be about book learnin’; he’s about governing by instinct and relying on the advice of educated people who tell him what he wants to hear. Switching gears now is not only literally unbelievable, it’s pointless. The die is already cast.”

But for an even more embarrassing display at damage control, one can reliably return to Hinderaker who is still determined to portray Bush as the obvious heir to Aristotle and Kant and Einstein and that it is only we who are the idiots for not being able to see the dazzling mind that is on display right in front of us. In an August 22, 2006 post, it is clear that while even other conservatives may see Bush as a low-power night light among the bright chandeliers in the showroom of great thinkers, Hinderaker, perhaps because of the special night vision goggles he wears, is still dazzled by the brilliance that is hidden from the rest of us.

I had the opportunity this afternoon to be part of a relatively small group who heard President Bush talk, extemporaneously, for around forty minutes. It was an absolutely riveting experience. It was the best I’ve ever seen him. Not only that; it may have been the best I’ve ever seen any politician. . .The conventional wisdom is that Bush is not a very good speaker. But up close, he is a great communicator, in a way that, in my opinion, Ronald Reagan was not. He was by turns instructive, persuasive, and funny. . . It was, in short, the most inspiring forty minutes I’ve experienced in politics.

There are many thinkers I admire greatly and have no hesitation in saying so. But I can never imagine myself writing about anybody using the words that Hinderaker habitually uses to describe Bush. There is an obsequiousness to them that is cloying and repulsive. Frankly, I cannot see how anyone, other than a total sycophant who has completely lost his self-respect and is angling for a job from a powerful person, could write in public in such an obviously ingratiating way.

Hinderaker is not, unfortunately, an isolated case. The disease that afflicts him can be found among many politicians and journalists who continue to assure us that the public still likes Bush and sees him as a great leader, when the polls have for a long time indicated that the country has turned away from him. And that raises an interesting issue. What exactly it is about Bush that makes so many men (and they do tend to be men) go weak in the knees and not see him clearly for what he is: a man who is completely out of his depth and desperately treading water, waiting for the clock to run out on his presidency before he drowns?

This intriguing question will be addressed in a future post.

Thoughts on the book Soul of a Chef

(Here are my remarks to the class of incoming first year students at Case’s Share the Vision program held in Severance Hall which featured the common reading book Soul of a Chef by Michael Ruhlman.)

They say that two things in life are inevitable – death and taxes. To this, you have to add a third and that is that at you will have to serve on many committees. Most committees, even in universities, tend to be routine and boring affairs but one of the best committees that I have served on for the past two years is that which selects the common reading for the incoming class and which this year selected the book Soul of a Chef. The reason that I enjoy this particular committee assignment is that I love books and reading, and this committee brings together students and staff and faculty who share that interest to talk about books and ideas. This exercise is what lies at the heart of a university. So you never have to twist my arm to get me to serve on this committee.

Having said all that, I must say that when this book was first selected, I had some personal misgivings about it. Let me explain why. How the selection process works is that any member of the university community is welcome to nominate books, so we get a huge number of nominations. Of those, some are immediately eliminated for various practical reasons that I won’t go into but that still leaves a lot of books remaining. Of course each person on the committee cannot all read all the books that make the final cut, so each person selects a few books to read and reports back to the committee on their merits. We then compare notes, whittle down the list even more, and then make the final selection.

I did not select Soul of a Chef as one of the books that I would personally read. It deals with material that is of no real interest to me. Food to me is largely just a means of sustenance and little more. The world of high cuisine is not my world. In fact, I have never ever even eaten in a fancy restaurant and have no real desire to do so, except as a curiosity, and only if somebody else is paying the expensive bill. I rarely ever cook and when I do no one else wants to eat what I make. I have no ambitions of rising to the level of being even a mediocre cook. So the book basically dealt with a world that was completely foreign to me and which I had no real desire to enter.

But I went along with the choice because the students on the committee were very enthusiastic about it and I respected their judgment. But now I had to read the book. How do you set about reading a book that one is unenthusiastic about? When I flipped open to the very first page, there were already three new words, cooking terms that I had never heard before in my life, which was also kind of discouraging.

It then occurred to me that the situation I was in was a reversal of the typical teacher-student roles. Usually, it is the teacher who selects a book and is really enthusiastic about it, while students are completely baffled as to what is so great about it, groan at the choice, and wonder how on Earth they are going to work their way through it. Those of you who had to read Moby Dick for high school English know exactly what I am talking about. The teacher excitedly announces that you are going to read the greatest novel in American literature and then hands out what initially seems to you like 500 pages of very small type of a textbook dealing with the whaling industry, a subject about which you never had the slightest interest.

So I told myself to follow the suggestions that I give my students when I assign a book for them to read and know that they may not be as enthusiastic as I. Rather than simply read the book and absorb all of it, I tell them to read it with an attitude, with the following four questions in mind, and to focus on those parts of the book that provide answers to them. The four questions are:

1. What is the author trying to convince me of?
2. What is the author assuming that I already think about the topic?
3. Was the author successful in getting me to change my mind?
4. Does the book provide any insights to things that I care more about?

Reading a book with this kind of attitude makes it much more enjoyable because then you are effectively engaging in a dialogue with the author, and sure enough I became very engrossed in the book that I had been initially hesitant to read. It also helped that it is a far easier read than Moby Dick.

So here are my answers to those four questions.

1. What is the author trying to convince me of?

It seemed to me that the author was trying to make the case that being a chef was very demanding and requires one to be very tough, both physically and mentally. There was a macho, even sexist, strain to being a chef that was revealed in the book, especially the first part where the cooks were taking the certified master chef exam. Recall the sole woman who was tearfully eliminated early on. Basically the author was implying that it takes a ‘real man’ to be a chef.

2. What is the author assuming that I already think about the topic?

It seemed to me that the author was assuming that the reader thought cooking was a pretty wimpy activity, a hobby, a pastime, something that anybody could do by just picking up a cookbook and following a recipe.

I will address question 3 after I discuss question 4 about the relevance to things I care about.

4. There were other important educational lessons from the book that relate closely to the academic experience you will have here at Case:

1. Many times students complain that what they learn in class is not related to “real” life. You would think that training to be a chef would not be like this, that it would involve only making real dishes that people eat. But in the certification exercises, I found it interesting that the training of chefs involved having students master highly contrived dishes that they would never actually make as chefs, but which were meant only to develop specific skills that would come in useful in actual cooking situations.

You will find the same thing in college. If you take an introductory physics course, you will study the behavior of blocks sliding down inclined planes and do a lot of problems about them. Here is a secret. No physicist really cares about blocks sliding down planes. The only reason we ask students to study this type of problem is because it is a very good method of learning important basic physics principles that can be applied in real situations.

Often you need to learn things that are artificial and contrived because they highlight important basics that you can then use for real-life complex problems. Many of the things you will do as students may seem arbitrary (just like the timed tests and the pressure that is put on the chefs) but they have a deeper purpose that may not be apparent at first.

I admit that this can be irritating. Following strict rules can seem tiresome especially when you see experts breaking the very rules that they tell you to follow. You too may want to rebel and break them. But great chefs break the rules only after learning all the rules, because only then do they know what rules to break and when, and what the consequences are. Michael Symon is quoted as an example of someone who knows how to break cooking rules to good ends. Professional physicists are also like that.

2. What may seem trivial or irrelevant to a student can, to the expert, be an important sign of understanding. This was the case of the student crying after failing buffet on page 59. To us, a buffet may seem trivial but not being able to handle it was considered a big deal by the examiners. Things that seem like petty details can contain deep subtleties.

3. Sometime students think that the only kinds of objective judgments that one can make are those to numerical problems on multiple-choice tests. Assessments of essays are thought to be subjective and thus inferior. But the reality is that all assessments are judgments and that expert professionals in the field can often make precise and consistent assessments of things that we might think are purely subjective and opinion. You might think that whether a dish is good or not is largely opinion, just like whether a painting is good or not. But experts in those fields can make surprisingly precise and consistent judgments. For example, Brian gets scores of 62.82 on classical cuisine and 62.55 on mystery basket (p. 115). OK, going to the second decimal point is a bit over the top, but the fact remains that the examiners had little difficulty is agreeing as to the quality of the dishes and rating it on a 100-point scale. The main difference in judgments between cooking and something that appears more objective like physics is that in physics, the judgments that need to be made are buried more deeply and not as easily visible to students until they get to the more advanced levels. But they are still there.

4. When teachers set high standards, it is usually meant to challenge students to reach excellence, not to cause them to fail. Teachers in college are sad when their students fail to do well, just like the examiners were sad when the chefs dropped out at various stages of the exam. Very, very few teachers delight in deliberately failing students and such people do not belong in the teaching profession. Most teachers want their students to succeed and delight when they do so, but at the same time want to ensure that students are challenged so that they grow.

5. The final insight that I got is that the key to success in any thing in life is discovering some aspect of the task that you want to do really well and using that as a gateway to other things. In the case of Thomas Heller, it started with his obsession with making a perfect Hollandaise sauce (p. 266). In repeatedly trying to perfect it, he realized that he wanted to be a chef and used that as his entry point.

Of course, you may not agree with me on any of these answers. That is the beauty of books. They do not have a unique meaning, even to the author. A writer of novels tells of how his book was assigned as a high school text and as a result he would occasionally get phone calls from students who had tracked him down. The students would say that their teacher wanted them to write about what a particular passage means and they thought that the author would know the ‘real’ answer. He tells them that he does not know what it means any better than they do.

All knowledge is obtained by taking the words that are ‘out there’ in books and other sources and combining them with our own life experiences to construct our own meanings. This is why the discussions that you have in seminars and with your friends and companions at other times is so important to learning, because that is how we best figure what we believe and what books are saying to us. If your experience at Case ends up as a four-year long in-depth conversation about ideas with other students and faculty, then you have got a real education.

For the third question, was the author successful in convincing me to change my mind? All I want to say is that while reading the book, especially the first part dealing with the grueling certification exam, Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket kept coming to my mind. The first half of that film dealt with the brutal and grueling training that new recruits to the marines undergo.

So I guess the author did manage to persuade me that being a chef required real toughness.

The language of science

Good scientists write carefully but not defensively. By carefully, I mean that they strive to be clear and to not over-reach, i.e., reach conclusions beyond what is warranted by the evidence. But they are not overly concerned with whether their words will be taken out of context and misused or subject to other forms of manipulation. It is an unwritten rule of scientific discourse that you do not score cheap debating points. Scientists are expected to respect those who oppose them and deal with the substance of their arguments and not indulge in superficial word games.
[Read more…]