Opinion Laundering

by Henry Farrell on February 16, 2009

John’s “post below”:https://crookedtimber.org/2009/02/16/a-long-dated-call/ reminds me of one of the odder conventions of American journalism. Because US journalists aren’t supposed to express their own opinions, they often need other people to express those opinions (or the opinions that will ‘balance’ out their story) for them, so that they can use quotes from these people to spin the interpretation of the facts in the one way or another. This leads to some very peculiar interview techniques from journalists. About two out of every three calls I get from journalists have a strong line in directly leading questions of the ‘would you agree that _x_ ‘ variety.

This is of course a minor example of a much more general phenomenon. A very large part of the communications and public relations industry is devoted to what you might call ‘opinion laundering’ – the job of disguising the origins of self-interested or otherwise problematic policy positions by getting apparently legitimate third parties to validate and repeat them. Which is why I get nervous every time I see a “survey”:http://www.edelman.com/trust/2009/ that purports to tell us that academics are the most trusted interlocutors on this or that issue. While this may sound very nice, it increases the relative returns to using academics as flacks rather than some other profession, and hence “helps screw up further”:https://crookedtimber.org/2008/12/16/ghostwritten/ a set of professional norms that are valuable ones to have.

Joe (a prospective teacher in an certification program) teasingly asks what is on my list of books about education that everyone should read. More useful, perhaps, would be my list of books that every teacher/prospective teacher should read. So, here’s the first in an occasional series of Brighouse recommendations. This is not strictly one that every teacher should read, but certainly every American non-rural public school teacher, and I’d guess most private school teachers too. I had long heard of The Shopping Mall High School: Winners and Losers in the Educational Marketplace, and been a little put off by the name (remember, I didn’t read any of this stuff in grad school). But in fact the title is perfect. The conceit, obviously, is that the large comprehensive high school is a shopping mall; it is attempting to cater to a variety of consumers, some of whom want very high quality goods, others of whom want a kind of “life and let live” approach, and others still have niche needs, like children with special needs, athletes, etc. In an added twist, schools differ in the composition of their clientele (I don’t remember them using the idea of the strip mall at any point — but they must have been in those schools too!), so different schools resemble different malls. By allowing students to select classes by schedule and even teacher, the school prompts a sorting process the effcts of which are nicely explained here; by establishing “electives” within departments, the school ensures that students will choose their way into college-prep, vocationally-oriented, or non-demanding classes depending on the attentiveness and aspirations of their parents, the peer group they are in, and their own perception of their own abilities. The texture of school life is beautifully placed on display in the book, and way that “empowering” students to choose classes ends up sorting them more effectively even than tracking would is nicely…well, tracked. (One of the many things that has always puzzled me about so American left-educators is that they oppose tracking and are utterly convinced that parental choice of schools will lead to inequality, but defend student choice of classes within schools to the hilt, whereas Shopping Mall High School shows that it has much the same effect as tracking, and is driven by exactly the same dynamic as choice of schools). The book was published in 1985, and seems to have been out of print for quite a while but you’ll be lucky if you don’t recognize your local high school in its pages.

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A long-dated call

by John Q on February 16, 2009

One of the big points to emerge from the collapse of the investment banking industry is that sky-high salaries for CEOs and star performers in banking aren’t just immoral and unjustified; they are an indication of unsound risk management practices. Such reward systems create an incentive for one-way bets with other people’s money. If high risk investments pay off, the genius who advocated them gets the rewards of stardom. If they go wrong, the worst that can happen is the loss of a job, and there may well be another one waiting.

The evidence for such an analysis has been available at least since the big disasters of the 1990s, such as LTCM and Barings Bank. But when was it first put forward, and who deserves the credit.

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