Monday, April 02, 2007

Media bias and the intellectual gate keepers.

I know that conservatives and some libertarians are obsessed with bias at the New York Times. The problem is that they are wrong and right at the same time. There is bias at the Times -- atrocious bias at times. But not in the ways that they think.

I have seen individuals point to bias by pointing to editorials. Except an editorial is an expression of opinion. It is not a news article at all. They conclude that because an editorial is expressing an opinion that news stories can’t be trusted. Newspaper stories do endeavor to be accurate but there is reason to be skeptical.

But the skepticism is not due to bias on the part of the journalists (though that can happen and good newspaper try to weed out those writers). The reason to be skeptical is merely the time frame which newspapers work with. Initial reports of any news events are the most unreliable. The more immediate the report the more likely that inadvertent falsehoods get inserted. Truth takes time and news is often time adverse. When the planes hit on 9/11 people wanted to know instantly what was going on.

The net result of immediate news is a fueling of conspiracist craziness. The conspiracist leaps upon any inconsistency as proof that someone is trying to hide something or intentionally distort the facts. Rumors that get reported in the early reports take precedence over information that was verified over time provided the initial reports back up the theory in question.

Rarely is it the news stories that exhibit the most bias. Bias there exists but is more subtle. There the bias is more likely to be exhibited by who gets quoted. The typical journalist, and having majored in this field in university I can verify it, is left of center. So they often assume that any “expert” saying something they agree with is clearly clued up on the topic and anyone disagreeing is obviously fringe. And that assumption gets through in many stories.

The facts mentioned are usually correct, though there have been notorious counter-examples, as we shall see. What the facts mean is where they almost always go wrong.

Where the real bias comes in is through their editorials and various “opinion” pieces. Again the people the journos find “respectable” are the people who get to write. And “respectable” means that the author agrees with the journos. Typically that means the editorial writers of the paper are pretty much left of center. To balance things out they periodically will take guest opinion pieces from other writers who don’t share their biases. Rarely, however do they get a fair shake. Some papers are extraordinarily fair in such matters and others notoriously unfair.

The worst section is the arts section and it is here that books are reviewed. Often books that disagree with the left bias (it isn’t a liberal bias) are simply ignored. Numerous, scholarly books that showed the greater complexities of the origins of World War II, for instance, were notoriously ignored by the major media. Historian Harry Elmer Barnes referred to that as the “blackout”. To a large degree that blackout lasted from 1940 until A.J.P. Taylor’s more popular treatise, The Origins of the Second World War was published in 1960.

When they do stoop to cover a book outside the “mainstream” they almost invariably give the review of the book to someone who is extremely biased against the book and spends the bulk of the review trashing it. For instance I have a clipping in my files of a review (which I think was in the New York Times) of Human Action by Ludwig von Mises. It was turned over to a sneering and snide John Kenneth Galbraith for comments. Of course no scholar of the stature of Mises, Hayek or Friedman was asked to review the latest Left-wing treatise on economics.

This process, whether intended or not, serves to create intellectual gatekeepers who prevent or hinder ideas contrary to their own from seeping into the market of ideas. Book buyers for book outlets often take their cues from such reviews. So do academics, libraries and others. To be ignored by the major papers, or smothered by derision, is one way that the Left prevents ideas contrary to their own from seeping out. (I should note that this is preferable to that of the Right which has a tendency to call for banning anything they don’t like. And I should note that with new technologies the ability to control the gates is diminishing.)

What brought all this to mind was a review that the New York Times ran of the new book Radicals for Capitalism. I read the review at the time and thought it relatively poor and clearly written by someone uniformed about the facts. I didn’t blog about it at the time because I’ve yet to read the book. But I was troubled by the review. Troubled because it seemed inaccurate to me but without reading the book in question I wasn’t going to try to pick about the review. Thankfully David Boaz at Cato has read the book and the review and he has shown how bad the review actually is. In actuality I suspect he might be too kind.

The reviewer said: “Libertarianism has its roots in the writings of a pair of major 20th-century Austrian economists, Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek.” Well, that is simply wrong. Libertarianism predates Mises and Hayek. Sure they were major influences on the libertarian movement of the last century but there were influential libertarians who were writing long before Mises or Hayek made a name for themselves in the US: Mencken, Nock and Spooner are three examples. I can’t believe that the book, written by Brian Doherty, at Reason, had made this mistake. I suspect he hasn’t.

And I also suspect the reviewer, David Leonhardt, only read bits and pieces of the book as interested him and this distorted his review. He certainly complained about the length of the book in a couple of snide remarks he made.

And he catalogues, from the book, “the movement’s failings”. Now I don’t know the context of the book but I do know the context of the failings that Leonhardt mentioned and he has distorted them grossly. He sneeringly refers to “people who claim to love freedom” but “have so often had a soft spot for those who would deny it to others”. But the cases Leonhardt catalogues are, for the most part, false.

He mentions Rand’s testimony before the House UnAmerican Activities Committee. Of course he doesn’t say what it was she talked about. Rand never went to HUAC to talk about individuals and whether they were communists. She was not there naming names. Her comments never came close to that. She wanted to talk about ideas and tried to but the HUAC members wanted to concentrate on what life was like in Russian—which she experienced first hand—versus how it was depicted in a second rate film Song of Russia. How that is having a “soft spot” for those who would deny freedom is never explained by Leonhardt. In fact Rand wrote an essay which dealt quite clearly with her views on the matter and she said the only proper way to fight bad ideas is which good ideas not with censorship and state interference. Leonhardt distorts the history of Milton Friedman claiming he “advised” Pinochet. Friedman met Pinochet once and told him the same things he told the leaders of Communist China or the President of the United States. But the Left loves to concoct a Friedman connection to Pinochet that really doesn’t exist.

The one that I found bizarre when I read it was that “Merwin Hart ‘infected his free market thought with anti-Semitism.” This site is vehemently opposed to anti-Semitism and bigotry of a similar kind. But my first thought was that I never understood Hart to be a libertarian. And I couldn’t figure out why Leonhardt was using this as an example. But I didn’t have time to go into the matter so I didn’t write on it. I had heard of Hart and knew he was an anti-Semite I just didn’t remember anyone saying he was a libertarian before. David Boaz wrote about it:

Despite 30 years in the libertarian movement, and despite having read this book, I had never heard of Merwin Hart. But I found him in the index (not always an easy thing; the best criticism of this book, which Leonhardt missed, is that the index is seriously inadequate; the Rand paragraphs on HUAC, for instance, are on page 188, not 150 as the index indicates). Turns out he ran something called the National Economic Council in the 1950s. And why is he in this book? Because he’s a major libertarian figure? Because he’s a minor libertarian figure? No. He gets one line in this book because movement founding father Leonard Read told people to stay away from Hart because, yes, he “infected his free-market thought with anti-Semitism” — in other words, he wasn’t one of us.

Of course any movement has its fringes but do you judge the movement by the fringes or by the mainstream thought within it? Libertarians have fringes that worry me greatly, individuals who are far too comfortable with racism, anti-Semitism, white supremacy and such. Most libertarians aren’t like that. If anything libertarians are too tolerant—that is how such bigots get in to movements in the first place.

But if you look at the major institutions of libertarianism like Cato, FEE, Reason, Heartland, the Institute for Economic Affairs, the Adam Smith Institute and so forth, you don’t find them cavorting with bigots.

What Leonhardt did is typical of how the gatekeepers work. He distorts the history that the book is talking about. In the process he ridicules libertarian ideas and he gives people a false impression about the nature of libertarians. He implies the book is too long while complaining about what was left out at the same time. The review would discourage libraries from ordering it, bookstores from buying it, readers from purchasing it, and sends the message to the intellectuals that the libertarian message is itself vastly deficient.

I have no doubt there are deficiencies in libertarianism. Just as there are in conservatism, socialism and every other human ideology. That is the problem of not being omniscient, there are flaws. But when stacked up against the other ideologies it actually does quite well for itself. And even if a few authoritarian types smuggled themselves into the movement it isn’t as if libertarians need to apologize half as much as the political Left has to for the tyrannies of Pol Pot, Mao, Castro, Stalin, Mugabe, et al. Nor do libertarians need to apologize to the world the way conservatives do over the coronation of King George.

Sure Rand had her personality quirks and could be a real bitch sometimes. Rothbard did do some strange and odd things but justifying genocide wasn’t one of them—something the Left did repeatedly. And as Boaz points out the New York Times doesn’t have a spotless record on that count. As he notes the notorious Times writer Walter Duranty used the paper to falsify, knowingly, the tyranny in Stalinist Russia. Compared to that the worst temper tantrum of Ayn Rand is nothing.

Murray Rothbard might have voted for Strom Thurmond when he was 22. (He did far odder things than that throughout his life.) But how does that compare to a reporter from the New York Times, Herbert Matthews, who wrote stunningly pro-Castro diatribes for the paper, distorting the facts and helping to create a dictatorship? Matthews bragged: “Many people thought that Fidel would listen to me, and only to me.” Friedman merely told Pinochet the same thing he told anyone who would listen. Matthews was friends and and an adviser to Castro. Friedman met Pinochet once for less than an hour. Friedman never wrote anything extolling the virtues of Pinochet but Matthews did write a book praising Castro even after his authoritarianism was no longer closeted.

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