Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Beeman Guest Editorial: The Journalism/Think Tank Merry-Go-Round

Beeman Guest Editorial: The Journalism/Think Tank Merry-Go-Round,

Posted on Informed Comment, Blog maintained by Juan Cole

William O. Beeman

"The Journalism/Think Tank Merry-Go-Round
And the Dilemma of the Academic Public Intellectual"

' [I want to address] the question of the sad, sad state of American academics in policy formation in the United States today. Think tanks, where no one ever has to go through peer review before publishing the most questionable material, are in the ascendancy. Real scholars are derided as the academy is openly attacked by these quasi-intellectual bodies. No wonder! If the think-tankers' shoddy methods and ideological biases were subject to the scrutiny they deserve, 90% of the garbage that is self-published by their house organs and pushed by their publicity machinery would never see the light of day.

It is so sad now that governmental bodies are no longer calling on academic experts for public testimony in even the most crucial matters where they have unique knowledge. On no subject is this more true than in the Middle East area. If you are not in a think tank in Washington, apparently your expertise matters not at all. Never mind that that the think tank denizens were never in the region, don't know the languages, and never did any research in their lives. If their ideology is in line with the White House, that is good enough.

The media bears a great deal of responsibility in this matter. Lazy, news-cycle driven and subject to the pressure of ideology and publicity flackers, it is so much easier to just call the think tank down the street, or a PR firm like Benador Associates where someone is on call and already in suit and tie, or skirted suit to get to the studio within the next 20 minutes, than to spend the extra half-hour trying to locate an ISDN feed in . . . Minneapolis or Austin to get the best possible expertise on a subject at hand. For the print media a quote--any quote--is often good enough to anchor a story. No time to wait for someone to call back after a seminar! If the reporter can't get the quotable phrase on the first phone call, its on to the next, or once again, to the on-call quotables at the think-tank around the corner.

Even when someone with real expertise can be located, the media vitiates the message by making a fetish of "balance"--an odd feature of American public discourse, documented by my colleague Deborah Tannen in her classic book, The Argument Culture. This means that whatever the subject, a pro and con side must be represented--even if one of the positions is absurd, or representative of an extreme fringe opinion. This results in match-ups like Paul Krugman debating Bill O'Reilly on economic matters and other such ludicrous pairings. This situation has created careers for people like Anne Coulter, David Frum and Jonah Goldberg, who otherwise know very little--but they are reliable as "cons" (pun intended) on virtually any topic that requires an expansion of intellect. No wonder the public doesn't know which way is up.

Sadly, the academy has reacted badly to this state of affairs--not by encouraging its members to shine the light on the slime and mold generated by these propaganda machines, but by fomenting retreat into its own dark little corner where it can be safe and "uncontroversial." The better not to run afoul of its more vocal and ideologically driven alumni and trustees, who believe along with Bill O'Reilly that all knowledge is just opinion anyway, so why not just tell the professoriate what they should be teaching, and what positions they should be espousing? Writing for the public is not only unrewarded by the academy, it is absolutely detrimental to academic careers. Thus fine scholars who do decide to speak out are hit both ways--both by the ideological hacks for whom their truths are uncomfortable, and by their own institutions who see their public activities as controversial and undignified.

Contrast this with the situation in Japan, France, Brazil--in fact, anywhere else in the world--where academics are welcomed and respected in the field of public discourse, and move readily in and out of positions of public responsibility. Likewise, scholars of distinction, such as the incomparable Eric Rouleau, are prized and well-compensated members of the fourth estate.

Despite these stringencies, those of us who are tenured at institutions of higher learning have a special responsibility--a sacred duty--to speak out at every turn to defend free inquiry, and solid knowledge. We are privileged to be able to have careers in research, writing and teaching, and are in debt to society for this. We have the obligation as patriotic citizens and seekers of truth to use, as Juan has consistently, the fruits of our research and knowledge to inform not just the dozen or so colleagues who share our academic sub-specialization, but the public who is hungry for this material, and in the current intellectual desert in America, who desperately needs it. '

William O. Beeman
Professor, Anthropology; and Theatre, Speech and Dance
Brown University

Blog and current Op-ed pieces--Culture and International Affairs
(2004-2005 Visiting Professor, Cultural and Social Anthropology,
Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305)

Professor Beeman's latest book: The "Great Satan" vs. The "Mad Mullahs": How the United States and Iran Demonize Each Other. (Praeger/Greenwood). '