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Think Again: How to Manipulate Form and Content for Fun and Profit (and Conservative Ideology) or 'Enough about You'

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In a lengthy post entitled "How Not to Raise the Discourse," The Economist's "Democracy in America" blogger, "W.W.," argues that your author is a hypocrite and that this somehow reflects on the inability of liberal critics of the mainstream media to accept truths they prefer to ignore. The argument is based on the author's interpretation of an essay I recently published in Academe, which is published by the American Association of University Professors, in which I "bemoa[n] the mere truthiness of journalism and think-tankery" relative to academic research.

Mr. "W" does not take issue with my overall argument. It's "true, to a limited extent," he explains. The problem arises in my argument that:

...right-wing billionaires like Richard Mellon Scaife, Rupert Murdoch, the Coors brothers, and, more recently, the Koch brothers have joined together with multinational corporations to shift the center of political gravity in our debate rightward on matters of economic, military, and social policy. They have been able to succeed, in part, because most academics who retain a commitment to intellectual scrupulousness have lost the ability to speak beyond their narrow disciplines to the larger public.

According to Mr. "W," "Though it appears in a publication for academics, this is not a scholarly argument," as I do:

...not attempt to quantify in any systematic (or even unsystematic) way the combined effect of Scaife, Murdoch, Coors, and Koch money on public opinion. He attempts no fair accounting of the sources of left-wing money, and presents no evidence whatsoever for the implicit claim that right-wing money has had a greater effect on public opinion than left-wing money. Mr Alterman does not appear to rise even to the standards of ideological think-tankery. There are no footnotes to lend his argument a patina of pseudo-scholarly authority. This is speculative ideological just-so-storytelling.

Here again we confront the problem of "truthiness." The attacks on my article are not exactly false -- at least not self-evidently so -- but they are purposely misleading.

First, the author misunderstands the form of the subject of his attack -- namely, the magazine article. Though Academe is intended for scholars, it is not a scholarly publication. It is a magazine and not the proper outlet for the kind of research described above.

Second, knowing that the article in question provided no opportunity to offer the kind of scholarly support for the arguments, were the author truly interested in whether I were interested in quantifying the effects of money on political discourse "in any systemic way," he might taken the trouble to do some research into the fully footnoted scholarly work I've published on this and related questions before leveling his accusations.

He could have, for instance, found it rather easily with a Google Book search in Sound & Fury (HarperCollins, 1992,1993, Cornell University Press, 1998); Who Speaks for America (Cornell University Press, 1998); What Liberal Media? (Basic Books, 2003,4) When Presidents Lie (Viking, 2004, Penguin, 2005); to a (much) more limited extent Why We're Liberals (Viking, 2008, Penguin 2009); and Kabuki Democracy (Nation Books, 2011).

Each of those books contains not only research on the questions addressed in my short article but also a discussion of the difficulty of assessing the value of such research in getting to the heart of the issue. Hence, they provide the foundational authority for the arguments I make.

So the author is only half right when he writes: "I don't know [how to judge the effect of conservative investments in elite opinion formation] and neither does Mr Alterman. It's the sort of thing you need actual evidence to speak intelligently about." I have the evidence. He doesn't. I've investigated the question over a period of two decades. He hasn't. I make no claims that go beyond what I understand to be true. He can't be bothered.

(To make an analogy regarding the ridiculousness of refusing to consider the form an argument takes, recall that in recent weeks, I mocked Slate editor Jacob Weisberg's misplaced enthusiasm for Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-WI) plan to destroy Medicare in order to further reduce taxes on the extremely wealthy on at the CAP website. Weisberg's defense came in the form of a tweet that read in its entirety: "Shorter Eric Alterman: blahblah evil Republicans phony liberals media media blah." Were I to ignore the form, I could complain that Weisberg has no citations, no footnotes, no quotes, no defense at all of his misguided arguments. Just a not-so-clever wise-crack [that by the way, ignores the fact that this is what I get paid for]. On the other hand, I might note that it's just a tweet, and while it's significant that Weisberg felt he could only reply in a form that allows 140 characters, there's not a heck of a lot of room for him for to do much more than snark in reply.)

To continue reading, please go here.

But while we're on the topic of me, please indulge my desire to let readers of this column know that I was presented with the 2011 Mirror Award, sponsored by Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Journalism, for "Best Commentary, Digital Media."

At the ceremony at the Plaza Hotel in New York on Tuesday, I expressed my gratitude to CAP and to my editors here for their help and support, and caused a minor ruckus by asking my fellow media writers to stop pretending that Fox News is actually a news operation. I felt this was relevant because it was the topic of one of the columns that was being honored. You can read about it here.