Flack Central Station

by Henry on November 20, 2003

Glenn Reynolds tells us that he just doesn’t get Nick Confessore’s article on TCS’s connections with the Astroturf purveyors of the DCI Group. Reynolds says that he’s never felt pressure to write articles in a certain way, or on certain subjects. He then goes on to treat us to some ponderous sarcasm, effectively dismissing Confessore, Marshall et al. as conspiracy theorists. Now, accusations of conspiracy theory are a bit rich from someone who bought into Den Beste’s crackpot explanations of European opposition to the war. But that’s a side issue. Reynolds (deliberately?) misses the main point of Confessore’s article. I’m quite happy to believe Reynolds when he says that he never felt any pressure to change his writing. But Confessore doesn’t say (or imply) that every article for TCS is driven by a corporate agenda. If Confessore’s insinuations are on the mark (and he’s amassed some fairly convincing circumstantial evidence to support his claims), one may easily imagine why a crowd of flacks might solicit articles from independent outsiders. They provide useful camouflage for the corporate shill-pieces that are written to order. To put it in terms that Glenn can understand, there’s a better than even chance that he’s been a useful idiot. I wonder how it feels.

{ 14 comments }

1

David Sucher 11.20.03 at 3:06 am

Hardly any need for pressure. For one thing he probably believe what he writes: “He may be wrong but at least he is sincere.”

And isn’t a parallel phenomenon referred to as ‘self-censorship?’

2

JP 11.20.03 at 3:43 am

They don’t have to ask him to write a certain way. If they know what his positions are on certain issues beforehand, they can selectively solicit articles on those issues where his views line up with those of their sponsors.

3

Jon H 11.20.03 at 3:46 am

Considering how it’s so rare for bloggers to make any money from their hobby, they’re a prime recruiting ground for writers of chaff columns.

4

Jon H 11.20.03 at 3:56 am

david sucher writes :”Hardly any need for pressure”

The point, I think, is that there is no pressure. TCS doesn’t need to guide or suggest the content of most of their columns. Reynolds and others can write what they want.

The point is that TCS can slip in the occasional column, written to order, by an industry flack or a political flack. That column will benefit from a veneer of credibility provided by Reynolds and other writers who write independent but ideologically acceptable columns.

If, on the other hand, TCS ran mostly flack columns, then nobody would take them seriously, or would treat TCS columns as press releases, with the requisite grains of salt.

Instead, they’re maintaining a semi-journalistic pretense, by running independent columns to act as camouflage for the flack PR pieces.

A lobbying firm wouldn’t waste money funding TCS if it couldn’t be used to further their clients’ agendas.

5

Steve Smith 11.20.03 at 4:30 am

Far from being a loss-leader for TCS, publishing articles from Reynolds, McArdle, Totten, et al., enhances the business of the lobbying firm, since their opinions tend to reflect the interests of the corporations sponsoring TCS. The bloggers can maintain the fiction of independence, while still receiving the material benefits of writing for a widely-read website. The corporations get the benefit of “astroturfing” political commentary that shares their views.

6

ASG 11.20.03 at 4:38 am

What struck me most about Confessore’s article is its premise that the identity and/or agenda of a person who writes an article has great impact on the validity of the arguments in the article. Confessore dresses this up by alluding to human nature, saying that TCS takes advantage of a veneer of independence to lend credence to carefully-placed thrusts in corporate PR campaigns, since most people tend to lend greater credence to articles that are written by independent observers. But that tendency is purely irrational, an ingrained and internalized form of the ad hominem fallacy. It should go without saying that a lobbyist’s argument should be accepted or rejected solely on the basis of its premises and logic, and not discounted because a lobbyist is making it.

The phrase “idea laundering” also encapsulates this notion. Confessore implies with this choice of words that ideas can be tainted by the agendas of the people who advance them; Glassman, he argues, is a shady character who conceals — “launders” — this taint from the reading public. But pandering to the human tendency to dismiss arguments for irrelevant reasons seems to me more distasteful than anything Glassman does.

7

Jason McCullough 11.20.03 at 6:01 am

“It should go without saying that a lobbyist’s argument should be accepted or rejected solely on the basis of its premises and logic, and not discounted because a lobbyist is making it.”

Maybe on planet Logicon. Here on earth, it’s useful to know who’s hiring the willing to bullshit me for money.

8

Jack 11.20.03 at 8:17 am

Perhaps ANSWER organised demonstrations and bias from, say, the BBC and the “liberal media” in general provide an interesting test for those saying the source doesn’t matter.

9

taak 11.20.03 at 8:27 am

Confessore dresses this up by alluding to human nature, saying that TCS takes advantage of a veneer of independence to lend credence to carefully-placed thrusts in corporate PR campaigns, since most people tend to lend greater credence to articles that are written by independent observers. But that tendency is purely irrational, an ingrained and internalized form of the ad hominem fallacy. It should go without saying that a lobbyist’s argument should be accepted or rejected solely on the basis of its premises and logic, and not discounted because a lobbyist is making it.

In an ideal world this is true, but evaluating arguments consumes time and resources, and even then most audiences are not terribly good at it, so trust is a useful tool barring perfect information and unlimited time. There are only so many voices you can listen to in a given day.

Trust and credibility are valuable when an arguer presents evidence which is impractical for you to verify. This is why it’s so important in journalism and in the academic world.

I find that most of the time when I find out about a heuristic people use that prima facie seems irrational, even laughably silly if you think about it in a certain way that lets you do that, upon closer inspection that certain way of thinking is leaving out relevant contraints that people face in reality. People develop heuristics because on average their benefits exceed their costs* given time, information and resource scarcity.

(*Note that benefits may be short-term at the cost of long-term and social costs may exceed private costs. E.G. benefits might be ego protection, addiction satisfaction, dissonance reduction, etc.)

10

Barry 11.20.03 at 11:51 am

“Glenn Reynolds tells us that he just doesn’t get Nick Confessore’s article ….”.

Wow. For a law professor, he sure seems incapable of understanding things, doesn’t he? He also couldn’t understand the Plame affair, due to it’s alleged complexity.

Maybe I should apply for a position at the U Tenn law school – after all, it’s not like I’d have to be qualified, or anything.

11

Chocolatier 11.20.03 at 12:03 pm

“Now, accusations of conspiracy theory are a bit rich from someone who bought into Den Beste’s crackpot explanations of European opposition to the war.”

Now this statement is outrageous. Everybody knows, and I mean everybody, that soon – within just days, maybe even just hours – the US forces will discover a whole network of HUGE UNDERGROUND FACTORIES CHURNING OUT GAZILLIONS OF LETHAL WMD’S ALL OPERATED BY THE TREACHEROUS FRENCH AND GERMANS. How can you dare doubt this self-evident fact?

P.S.: has someone followed den Beste’s dementia to see if he has cared to explain the lack of WMDs in Iraq? Or the absence of the famed brand new French and German made Iraqi arsenal?

12

asg 11.20.03 at 9:05 pm

The points made above are well taken. I did want to comment on the following, though —

Perhaps ANSWER organised demonstrations and bias from, say, the BBC and the “liberal media” in general provide an interesting test for those saying the source doesn’t matter.

Two things —

1. It doesn’t just provide a test for those saying the source doesn’t matter — it provides a test for those saying it does. Are we to assume that people who hold anti-war views and who also know of ANSWER’s support for demonstrations at which those views were advanced are, prima facie, Stalinists? Of course not.

2. I don’t think the issue with ANSWER was with their misrepresenting themselves as a mainstream organization — they made little attempt to hide their respect for North Korea, for example. The issue was, rather, the fact that the *real* mainstream media yawned at the fact that the face of the antiwar movement was a Stalinist group, when one can imagine that the reaction might have been a tad different if they had been Klansmen.

13

anne.elk 11.21.03 at 7:31 am

It’s curious how many idiot lawyers, profs, and other professionals (reynolds, pejman, etc. can’t figure out the astroturf, fig-leaf, beard, shield angle.

It’s not that say they don’t think it’s occuring, they say they don’t understand the argument, and then they defend something else, they haven’t been asked to modify what they write.

Sheesh, denial, embarassment, or purposeful obfuscation?

14

Johnathan Peace 11.21.03 at 12:43 pm

I have been asked to contribute to TCS and have never been told what to write. I don’t write for them because it would clash with my regular job.

It is true that TCS generally writes in support of capitalism, the free society and embraces technology as well as dissing militant environmentalism. All of which no doubt is unforgiveable for the left. But unlike the BBC propoganda, you don’t have to pay for it.

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