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.

Airports and plane travel

I hate traveling by plane. The only thing in its favor (and it is an admittedly big advantage) is that it enables one to travel enormous distances quickly.

There was a time when air travel was fairly pleasant but not anymore. Going to the airport hours early, parking in distant lots, dragging one’s luggage around, standing in long lines to get checked in, the ridiculous process at security where one has to take off one’s shoes and show your toothpaste in little baggies, all these make plane travel a tedious chore. And then one has to hang around in airport terminals where one is surrounded by TVs with their inane chatter, repeated announcements over the speakers, and where everyone around you seem to be constantly using their cell phones as a means of combating their boredom.
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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.
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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.
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Capitalist Christianity and prophetic Christianity

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

The manufactured outrage over Barack Obama’s former pastor Jeremiah Wright’s comments shows the extent to which capitalist Christianity has taken over in America. In this version, Christianity is presented as some kind of self-help program, a lifestyle choice, that is designed to make you feel good about yourself. In this approach, you just have to say some slogan about accepting Jesus as your personal lord and savior, and bingo! you have automatically become a Good Person, guaranteed a place in heaven. This version of Christianity does not deal exclusively with heaven, though. It is also believed that god wants you to be rich and prosperous, so one has it nice both here and in the hereafter. Being poor or sick or otherwise troubled is seen as a sign that you are somehow unworthy or have failed god in some way.
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The myth of Essential Goodness

One of the things that would amuse me if it did not have such serious consequences is that white people in America are always shocked, just shocked, when they get even a glimpse of the anger and resentment that exists among many black people about they way they have been treated and still continue to be treated in this country.

The reason for this perpetual state of surprise is that many white people tend to unquestioningly accept a powerful myth: that America is the one country in the world possessed of an Essential Goodness, bestowed by god. They believe that not only do Americans as individuals possess this quality (that they mysteriously acquire simply by being born within its geographical boundaries), but that the nation as a whole, this political entity, collectively possesses this same quality. The possession of this Essential Goodness is believed to make America morally superior to every other country.

Of course we committed genocide against the Native Americans, we institutionalized and perpetuated a long and brutal slavery, along with lynchings and murders, we have killed millions and millions of people in many small countries under the pretence of defending and spreading democracy, but it is held that all that is in the past and anyway were done by a few misguided individuals a long time ago and is not a reflection on the people as a whole. Despite all that history, the myth persists that we are and always have been, Essentially Good, and that anyone who challenges that myth in any way is spreading a vicious and hateful lie that is borderline treasonous. People who adhere to that myth cannot seem to wrap their minds around the idea that other ethnic groups, with a history of being oppressed, might not find it so compelling.

This powerful myth serves as the basis of a sense of self-identity that is thought to be uplifting but is actually dangerous because it can lead to arrogance, blindness, hubris, and an unwillingness to learn from the harsh lessons of history. A paper in Psychological Review showed that individuals, groups, and even nations that think highly of themselves without any real basis for doing so, resort to violence when they do not receive the inflated respect they feel they are entitled to. High self-esteem that is unsupported by actual achievements or abilities turns out to be harmful. (Roy F. Baumeister, Laura Smart, Joseph M. Boden, Relation of Threatened Egotism to Violence and Aggression: The Dark Side of High Self-Esteem, Psychological Review, 1996, vol. 103, No. 1, 5-33.)

America’s politicians pander to this powerful and corrosive myth since it conveniently enables them to always get the benefit of the doubt of the public when they do something obviously wrong. Since America is Essentially Good, people think that there must be a benevolent reason for any action taken by its government and are eager to seize on any excuse to believe in its good intent. The public acceptance of the weak, almost non-existent, and obviously fraudulent case made for the invasion of Iraq is a case in point.

The brutal fact that history reveals, and which so many of us seem unwilling to accept, is that no people are special, no people are possessed of an Essential Goodness. Not the Germans who were passive in the face of the murder of Jews during World War II, not the Americans who were passive during the murder an estimated half million Vietnamese, not the Ethiopians who were passive during the destruction of Eritrea, not the Hutus who were passive during the murder of the Tutsis, with the list being continued almost indefinitely.

The hardest lesson for us to accept is that we are just like other people.

The commonly heard opening phrase “Only in America can . . .” is a symptom of this belief in American exceptionalism. That preamble is usually followed by a boast that can almost always easily shown to be false, but the truth is immaterial to the speaker of such sentiments. He is appealing to the myth about our Essential Goodness and thus cannot be challenged. Even Barack Obama appealed to this myth in his otherwise exemplary speech on race. He did this to distinguish himself from his former pastor Jeremiah Wright because Wright had committed the one unforgivable sin in American political discourse, a sin even worse than blasphemy, even worse than denying the Holy Spirit, which the Bible tells us is the only unforgivable sin. By listing all the crimes that he felt America had committed and then saying “Not God bless America, God damn America”, Wright had denied the Essential Goodness of America, denied that god had a special place in his heart for America and would always take its side.

For these words, he has been vilified by those who were looking for a reason, any reason, to fan racist flames and discredit Obama as a candidate. I think that a commenter at Talking Points Memo said it best

What drives me crazy is how this could have been avoided so easily if Wright was the slightest bit media-savvy. Had he merely controlled his tongue and limited himself to advocating an attack on Iran to encourage massive worldwide Muslim attacks leading to a fulfillment of the biblical prophecy of end-times and bringing about Armageddon and the summary slaughter of every Jew, Muslim, Catholic, and non-believer on the planet while rapturing him and his flock up to heaven, then followed it up by denouncing Catholics as cult members and blaming Hurricane Katrina on gay people, this story wouldn’t be metastasizing like this. One five minute milquetoast repudiation by Obama and it would all be behind him.

But what does Wright do instead? He spews this vile “God damn America” bile. What a psycho.

In the next post, I will look at the prophetic tradition in which Wright’s sermon is embedded.

Next: Capitalist Christianity versus prophetic Christianity

POST SCRIPT: Hilarious story

I wrote before that the intelligent design creationists were going to release a documentary called Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed where they continue their whining about how these mean scientists are saying nasty things about their nice theory.

Biologist and blogger P.Z. Myers, who has been a fierce critic of intelligent design creationism and was interviewed for the film, has an absolutely hilarious story about what happened to him when he went to see a prescreening of the film. I don’t want to spoil it for you. Just read his post.

Also, don’t forget today’s screening of The God Delusion Debate between Richard Dawkins and John Lennox in Strosacker Auditorium at 7:00 pm.

UPDATE: After the screening, Richard Dawkins and P. Z. Myers share a good laugh at what happened.

Barack Obama’s speech on race

As readers of this blog know, I have not been an enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama, voting for him in the Ohio primary as the default choice since the alternative of Hillary Clinton is much worse in comparison, and John McCain is truly awful.

But I was really impressed by the speech he gave last Tuesday on race, triggered by the ridiculous flap over some words spoken by the former pastor of his church. If you haven’t seen the speech, you can join the three million people who have viewed it on YouTube or read the full transcript.

The speech was quite extraordinary both for the things he did not say and do as well as for the things he said and did. It was a long speech, lasting about forty minutes, but it was not a stem-winder with resounding phrases. There were no jokes, no innuendo, no digs at political opponents. While there was applause from the audience on a few occasions, there were no built-in, cued-up, applause lines, like one sees in campaign speeches or the awful State of the Union addresses. In fact, Obama seemed to prefer no applause at all and seemed to want to just get on with it. There were no rhetorical flourishes, no crescendos, no dramatic modulations, not even very many memorable phrases.

In his understated and low-key speech, Obama used just one rhetorical device, the pause, and he used it extremely well in a way that reminded me of Harold Pinter’s memorable 2005 Nobel Prize acceptance speech which I have discussed earlier.

Obama quietly delivered a powerful message about the state of race relations in the US and how the way it is currently conducted poisons everything and everyone it touches and of the need to change that situation.

For once we had a major political figure talk like an adult about the serious issue of race. Even more impressive, he seemed to be assuming that the audience also consisted of adults. What made the event so extraordinary, and at the same time reflects so poorly on the state of our political discourse, was that such events are so rare.

He spoke about one issue that I have repeatedly emphasized, how race and other issues are almost always deliberately discussed in inflammatory ways, so that they become distractions from vital issues, and he issued a challenge to the media and to us to change that. He did not take a Pollyannaish view of race or try to disavow the people or history that are integral to dealing with it. Instead he correctly said that we need to know and understand that history if we are ever to overcome it.

The fact is that the comments that have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through – a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.

Understanding this reality requires a reminder of how we arrived at this point. As William Faulkner once wrote, “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” We do not need to recite here the history of racial injustice in this country. But we do need to remind ourselves that so many of the disparities that exist in the African-American community today can be directly traced to inequalities passed on from an earlier generation that suffered under the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow.

But what was most important in the speech was the indictment of the media about how they cover race and politics and the challenge that he issued to them and us to talk like adults about race, a topic that is at once so ephemeral (after all, the concept of race has no biological standing) and yet so important.

This is where we are right now. It’s a racial stalemate we’ve been stuck in for years. Contrary to the claims of some of my critics, black and white, I have never been so naïve as to believe that we can get beyond our racial divisions in a single election cycle, or with a single candidacy – particularly a candidacy as imperfect as my own.
. . .
For we have a choice in this country. We can accept a politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism. We can tackle race only as spectacle – as we did in the OJ trial – or in the wake of tragedy, as we did in the aftermath of Katrina – or as fodder for the nightly news. We can play Reverend Wright’s sermons on every channel, every day and talk about them from now until the election, and make the only question in this campaign whether or not the American people think that I somehow believe or sympathize with his most offensive words. We can pounce on some gaffe by a Hillary supporter as evidence that she’s playing the race card, or we can speculate on whether white men will all flock to John McCain in the general election regardless of his policies.

We can do that.

But if we do, I can tell you that in the next election, we’ll be talking about some other distraction. And then another one. And then another one. And nothing will change.

That is one option. Or, at this moment, in this election, we can come together and say, “Not this time.”

We have to look to comedian Jon Stewart who, between the jokes, gives one of the most adult media reactions to the speech.

The reactions to Obama’s speech are interesting. Those who would never have voted for him anyway have been nitpicking it to death but in the process come off looking petty. But he put in a tricky position those who pride themselves on being at least somewhat enlightened. If they continue to harp on Wright’s words, they will be acknowledging that they really don’t want the kind of discussion Obama is calling for but simply want to continue to use race as a divisive tool. Even Fox News’s Chris Wallace was so embarrassed by his colleagues on his own network over their relentless focus on precisely the kind discussion that Obama deplored that he publicly took them to task for it. It seemed like even he had had enough.

We can only hope that this speech will change the way that race is discussed in America.

In the next post, I will say more about the context in which Obama’s speech came to be delivered.

POST SCRIPT: The God Delusion Debate

Case’s Campus Freethought Alliance (CFA), in partnership with the Case InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, will present a screening of The God Delusion Debate beginning at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, March 25 in Strosacker Auditorium. The program features biologist Richard Dawkins, who needs no introduction, debating points from his book The God Delusion with John Lennox, a mathematician, philosopher of science, and a Christian.

You can see just the opening to the debate here. In the interests of time, this 20-minute introduction explaining the debate set up and having the debaters give brief biographies of themselves will not be shown at the event.

At 8:30, immediately, following the screening, there will be refreshments and then a panel discussion.

For more information about the program and CFA, see here.

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.
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Two somber anniversaries

Yesterday, March 19, 2008 saw the fifth anniversary of the tragic invasion of Iraq by the US, a deliberate act of aggression against a country that had posed no threat whatsoever to it, an action that is going to have serious negative consequences for US power an influence in the world, both militarily and economically. Historians looking back might see that as a watershed event, a peak in the power hubris of a country. Apart from the appalling death and destruction that has been wreaked on the people of Iraq, with hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead and injured and vast numbers of internal and external refugees, the invasion of Iraq has also brought to the surface the decline of US economic power.
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