Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Profiles In Hackery

Caption: The first Stanhope press for the German newspaper Iserlohner Kreisanzeiger und Zeitung

Image credit: Bubo/Wikimedia

A couple of articles about people in the press caught my attention today. Taken separately, they're fascinating examples of how little in the way of intellectual honesty you need to demonstrate these days to write for a top American news organization, as long as what you write pleases the folks who run things. Taken together, they serve to explain a lot about why we know so little about what's going on in our own country these days, or at least why it's so hard to find out.

The first tale comes to us care of Yasha Levine, who has begun a project called “Shame the Hacks who Abuse Media Ethics” (SHAME). It's the story of Malcolm Gladwell, a man who has spent most of his adult life shilling for one powerful lobby or another. That wouldn't be a problem, I suppose, if he weren't also masquerading as a journalist.

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.

Malcolm Gladwell Unmasked: A Look Into the Life & Work of America’s Most Successful Propagandist

What follows is a long, sordid tale of someone who has spent a career pretending to be an investigative journalist, but who, often times, was writing questionably sourced articles that helped one industry or another explain away sleazy practices. He shilled for the tobacco industry, for Enron, and for big pharmaceutical firms. He makes a million dollars or so a year in speaking engagements for those industries, plus a few others that are just about as undesirable.

Of course, readers who remember the Pentagon's efforts to finesse the press will recognize elements of this story, not to mention the utter shamelessness of many former DoD officials caught up in that one. So will people who remember Larry Summer's speaking fees recognize that there's more than one way to pay off someone who's done you a favor in DC besides a bag full of cash. Still, what makes Gladwell's story all the more remarkable is that he wrote for the Washington Post and the New Yorker, two of our more prominent news publications, without ever having to identify these conflicts of interest.

Our second story is a more familiar one, I suppose, in that the name Tom Friedman has come up in this blog once or twice before, and not in a good way. Discussing Friedman's latest column in the New York Times Dean Baker tries to fill us in:

Friedman complains that:

"in the 1990s we enjoyed a peace dividend, a dot-com dividend and a low-oil-price dividend, which combined to sharply reduce the federal deficit. But 9/11, two wars accompanied by tax cuts, not tax increases, a Medicare prescription drug plan and a necessary bailout to prevent a potential depression put us more in debt than ever."

Well, this is not exactly right. The main reason for the shift from large surpluses to large deficits was the collapse of the stock bubble in 2000-2002. This sharply lowered revenue and threw the economy into a recession in 2001. However badly designed the Medicare drug benefit was (in order to boost the profits of the drug and insurance industries), it did make drugs affordable for millions of seniors and it did not cost all that much money.

The bailout was actually not necessary to prevent a depression. Argentina had a complete collapse of its financial system and then fully made up the lost ground in 1.5 years. Presumably Ben Bernanke, Timothy Geithner and the rest are not too much less competent than Argentina's economic leaders.

Educating Thomas Friedman on the Economy

These are mostly basic facts that you would hope anyone who was writing a column for a national newspaper would look into before he put fonts to template, but that appears to not be the case in Friedman's. There seems to be no end to the depths of ignorance on basic issues like this from both Friedman and most columnists for that paper.

It can't be coincidence. There are much smarter people writing in blogs and small journals all over this country. Choosing people this unethical or uninterested in understanding what they're writing about has to be deliberate.

And, as with our political parties, until we insist on better, this is what we'll continue to get. If you haven't done so already, I recommend heartily that you read those two articles. At the end of it, you'll know a lot more than that average newspaper columnist.

No comments: