Cheap-shot journalism

September 14, 2006|By Thomas Sowell

Recently, one of those increasingly familiar New York Times editorials disguised as news stories was headlined "Conservatives Help Wal-Mart, and Vice Versa."

There was a chart with photos of people from conservative think tanks saying things favorable to Wal-Mart's side of the controversies surrounding that company, along with dollar amounts over them and their statements, indicating how much Wal-Mart had donated to the think tanks where these individuals work.

Buried deep inside the story, near the end, there was a passing comment that "labor unions have financed organizations that have been critical of Wal-Mart." But there were no people or statements singled out with dollar amounts over them.

The double standard was evident in another way: The damning charge was that these conservative think tanks and the scholars who work there "have consistently failed to disclose their ties" to Wal-Mart.

There was no charge that liberal think tanks such as the Brookings Institution or the scholars there "failed to disclose their ties" to their donors.

It is very doubtful whether most of the scholars at either liberal or conservative think tanks know who all the many donors to these institutions are - or care.

For one thing, there is money coming from all points of the political compass and from a whole spectrum of special interest groups. You can say whatever you feel like and if it doesn't suit one think tank, it will suit another.

It so happens that I work for a think tank, though not one mentioned in this New York Times "news" story, and I could not name five donors to the Hoover Institution if my life depended on it, though I am sure that there are far more than five.

For all I know, I may have defended some of those unknown donors - or I may have bitten the hand that feeds me by attacking them in this column.

It is by no means unknown for different scholars at the Hoover Institution to come out publicly on opposite sides of controversies. Nor is that unknown at other think tanks, liberal or conservative.

Why, then, should we "disclose" - even if we knew - who the donors are, as if we were delivering commercials for our sponsors?

Why do conservative donors contribute money to conservative think tanks and liberal donors to liberal think tanks? Is it rocket science that people are more likely to contribute money to those they agree with?

Or is it something sinister, as The New York Times implies - at least when the think tank is conservative?

Such cheap-shot journalism tells us more about the people who engage in it, and the constituency to which they appeal, than it tells us about those they write about.

What it tells us is that there are people so narrow and shallow that they cannot understand how anyone else could possibly disagree with what they believe without having sold out.

Are we talking world-class chutzpah, or what?

The self-infatuated idea that nobody could disagree with you for honest and informed reasons is far more dangerous than any influence that donors' money may exercise.

Far more is involved here than cheap-shot journalism. The audience for such journalism is the real concern.

Our whole educational system, from elementary schools to universities, is increasingly turning out people who have never heard enough conflicting arguments to develop the skills and discipline required to produce a coherent analysis, based on logic and evidence.

The implications of having so many people so incapable of confronting opposing arguments with anything besides ad hominem responses reach far beyond Wal-Mart or think tanks. It is the Achilles' heel of this generation of our society and of Western civilization.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. His column appears Thursdays in The Sun. His e-mail is

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