James Glassman and TCS have given birth to something quite new in Washington: journo-lobbying. It’s an innovation driven primarily by the influence industry. Lobbying firms that once specialized in gaining person-to-person access to key decision-makers have branched out. The new game is to dominate the entire intellectual environment in which officials make policy decisions, which means funding everything from think tanks to issue ads to phony grassroots pressure groups. But the institution that most affects the intellectual atmosphere in Washington, the media, has also proven the hardest for K Street to influence–until now…. Like its publishing arm, DCI’s business is to influence elite opinion in Washington. But instead of publishing articles, DCI specializes in what’s known as “corporate-financed grass-roots organizing,” such as setting up front groups to agitate for a client’s position, placing letters to the editor with key newspapers, and using phone banks to generate calls to politicians. TCS, for its part, includes a disclaimer on its site noting that “the opinions expressed on these pages are solely those of the writers and not necessarily those of any corporation or other organization.” But it is startling how often the opinions of TCS’s writers and sponsors converge. —Nicholas Confessore
—Meet the Press: How James Glassman reinvented journalism–as lobbying. (Washington Monthly)
Thanks Jess, SHU’s webmaster, for sending this one my way. I have complex feelings about it.
Glassman is the libertarian-conservative economist who is probably most famous for insisting that in the months before the dot-com crash, the stock market was wildly undervalued. Needless to say, he was very wrong. The gist of the article (see a brief discussion on Ars Technica) is that James Glassman’s opinion columns tend to match extremely closely views advocated by the sponsors of his “Tech Central Station” magazine, which isn’t really a magazine at all but rather a mouthpiece for the think tank that publishes it. The mission of TCS, according to its detractors, is to use corporate funding to generate grass-roots movements that support the funders’ positions (a term appropriately enough called ‘Astroturfing’).
There’s nothing wrong with publishing a magazine around the views of a particular entity (Oprah Winfrey or Rosie O’Donnell, or onion farmers, for instance), but the content of those lifestyle and trade magazines isn’t presented as scholarly research. And as far as using donated money to generate grass-roots activity, there is little difference between Microsoft donating a boatload of money and Barbara Streisand or Paul Newman using their celebrity status to attract attention to a cause. Which side of the political spectrum is the “Rock the Vote” campaign designed to reach, anyway? Still, nobody will mistake a pop music performance or the donated proceeds from a bottle of salad dressing for unbiased research and scholarly opinion.
On the other hand, in a free economy, why shouldn’t Publisher X be permitted to buy the rights to Author Y’s article, and base that decision on whether the viewpoint expressed by Author Y is consistent with the expectations of Publisher X’s audience and advertisers? I mean, you wouldn’t fault Rolling Stone for not publishing an article that all pop stars and the people who listen to their music are going to hell, would you? The subtitle of TCS is “Where Free Markets Meet Technology,” which is a pretty obvious way of identifying a pro-business profile. Still and all, I’m not sure whether there is any real moral difference between the corporate way of manipulating the opinion of the public or the Hollywood way of doing the same thing. In general, most people are too apathetic to bother thinking critically about important issues; it’s human nature that we believe in the people we like and trust, which is why actors, pop stars, and TV journalists have such an impact on our society, and why people with money who want to make even more money work hard for access to and control of these cultural forces.
For me, the solution is not to denounce TCS, but rather to redouble my resolve to teach my students to look beneath the glossy package of the message (whether that comes from Hollywood, Wall Street, Washington, or academia).
Update, 20 Nov: Corrected a few typos.