Monday, September 19, 2005

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Think tanks and the media

A week ago I posted some (half-formed) thoughts on think tanks. There have been a few responses.

Virginia Postrel has been all over this -- triggering responses from Fabio Rojas, Tim Kane, and Will Wilkinson. All three observe that think tanks are a more diverse ecosphere than perhaps Postrel or I observed (see the Rojas post in particular).

See Arnold Kling's defense as well.

Tyler Cowen offers some quote-worthy points as well:

Some think tanks simply are markers or beacons for the ideologically faithful. I do object to the hypocrisy involved, and to the quality of their policy outputs. That being said, they are providing real services, just as churches do.

I view the interaction between blogs (and other decentralized information and opinion sources) and think tanks as a key question for the future. Will blogs "smack down" the rot of lower-quality think tank outputs, thereby leading to intellectual improvements? Or will blogs push think tanks out of serious policy discourse altogether, making them more like churches? Will blogs amplify the influence of some kinds of think tanks, at the expense of others? On these questions, all bets are off.

Note that scholars no longer need think tanks to take their ideas to larger audiences. The think tank sector has yet to absorb the import of this fact. Could Google -- and not universities -- be the real competitor to policy think tanks?

Well.... scholars still need operate within the mediasphere to get attention, and the constraints on that sphere remain formidable. It's far from clear to me whether an academic with a politically unclassifiable idea -- like, say, this suggestion for how to better assist the disabled and the elderly -- could get the necessary oxygen. Consider this missive from economist Bruce Bartlett:

Once again, I just got off the phone with a booker for one of the cable news channels who wanted me to play the role of the knee-jerk Bush supporter and I had to decline. Although I am a conservative who generally supports Republican policies and generally opposes those that come from Democrats, I am uncomfortable being locked into that position. I also donít think it makes for very good television.

I understand that news shows want to show both sides -- or perhaps I should say two sides -- to controversial issues, lest they appear biased towards one position. But why must this always take the form of a debate? Why canít they interview a person with one position separately and then interview someone else with another position in another segment? Wouldnít this be a better way of achieving balance than by always having a debate?

Itís hard enough to make oneís point in sound-bite form without being distracted by the debating tactics of oneís opponent. And, unfortunately, everyone is now trained to know that when one has the camera and microphone they are pretty much free to say what they like, even if it is totally off topic and even untrue. On one occasion, my opponent called me a liar on air at the end of the segment, so that I could not respond. Afterwards, off camera, he conceded that I was right. But no one watching the exchange ever knew that....

Although I havenít discussed this matter with friends in the Washington policy community, I am sure most -- if not all -- would agree with me. I suspect that it is why it is less and less common to see widely respected policy people on cable news programs and why one more and more often sees total nobodies labeled as ďconsultantsĒ to one party or the other. Such people know absolutely nothing except how to memorize talking points and disagree vigorously with their opponent, regardless of the facts or logic of the case. I donít see how this does anything to enhance public discourse or even attract viewers.

The fact is -- and everyone knows this -- that few issues are black-and-white. There are always nuances that are impossible to discuss in a debate format. But the debate format creates the illusion that there is always a simple answer to every complex problem and encourages average television viewers to assume that those of us in the Washington policymaking community are all idiots totally beholden to our party, without a lick of common sense or integrity.

I believe that the news channel that adopts the approach I am suggesting will gain both in the quality of its guests and the quality of its programming, thereby gaining a competitive edge.

I am more skeptical than Bartlett. I've had the same experience with bookers that he has had. Worse, there is only one show that I remember appearing on in which I was allowed to voice all the nuances of my position -- Gretchen Helfrech's Odyssey on Chicago Public Radio.

Naturally, Odyssey has been cancelled.

UPDATE: More from Postrel here and here.

posted by Dan on 09.19.05 at 05:06 PM


I don't have time to read all the comments on your original post, but my take on this is that the think tanks are in the position of public intellectuals, writ large. This means that I can recycle my views on the need for the thoroughly modern public intellectual to be versatile in propagating ideas, with a website, a blog, a print outlet (or outlets) and a presence of some kind on radio and TV. The full set will only work for people who are hyperactive and don't need to sleep, but of course a think tank will have the numbers to cover all the bases to a greater or lesser extent. Then it is a matter of balance and positioning, how much to put into competing with the universities and how much to competing with the political PR industry. Then at the stage of disseminating ideas and maintaining a profile in current debates, the question of balance comes up again, with the mix of op eds, larger columns, press releases and media briefings, and last but (possibly not least) blogs. Presumbly there will soon be some research to suggest how blogs are doing in terms of readership and influence.

posted by: Rafe Champion on 09.19.05 at 05:06 PM [permalink]

And good riddance. "Oddyssey" was pompous crap. The sound of Gretchen Helfrich's voice, to me, is like nails on a blackboard. Not to say that TV shows are any good; just couldn't let that praise go unrefuted.

posted by: Kevin O'Reilly on 09.19.05 at 05:06 PM [permalink]

Why do people call these double-interview TV shows "debates." They're not. Neither side is given time to address a pre-arranged question. Neither side is given a chance to cross examine. A real debate would be really useful, allow for nuance, and require the participants to actually have knowledge.

The "That's a good point, Jim. What do you say to that, Frank?" moderator has got to go. S/he only stifles the arguments by interruption and (seemingly) random turn-taking.

posted by: brent on 09.19.05 at 05:06 PM [permalink]

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