The Professors, The Press, The Think Tanks—And Their Problems

The slow collapse of the newspaper industry has opened up public discourse to additional infusions of ideologically motivated misinformation. Walter Lippmann wouldn’t be pleased.
By Eric Alterman

Some personal history: I graduated from college in 1982 and began a series of internships at two think tanks in Washington, DC. Believing I might make my career in this realm, I returned to school two years later to get my master’s degree in international relations, whereupon I landed a summer internship at a liberal New York think tank. Upon finishing my master’s, and after a failed Hemingway imitation in Paris, I returned to Washington, where I had managed to convert that internship into a gig worth $1,000 a month—this was 1986—to fill opinion magazines and op-ed pages with hard-earned wisdom garnered as a newspaper stringer and an arts columnist for the local alternative paper.

My only tangible duty was to serve a bagel breakfast—we were a New York think tank, after all—to Capitol Hill staffers and the occasional member of Congress once a month, where I would introduce some left-wing luminary to give a seminar about why everything Ronald Reagan said and did was in error. I had some success as a freelance writer but found I could not handle the requisite rejection that appeared embedded in even the most celebrated careers. So I returned to school at thirty-one, earned a history PhD, and, somehow, fell into my current career, where I work in all three realms—academia, journalism, and think tanks—simultaneously.

During that period—and ever since—I’ve had plenty of time to give some thought to how these three realms differently understand one categorical imperative: to tell the truth. Ah, but there’s the rub. What is “truth”? Its meaning changes between locations.

Lippmann-Dewey Debate

Think back to the famous 1920s debate between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey. The argument—begun by Lippmann with a series of three brilliant books published between 1919 and 1925 and ended by Dewey in 1927 with his book-length response to Public Opinion, Lippmann’s masterpiece—turned on many issues simultaneously but rested foundationally on the two men’s differing conceptions of truth. Lippmann understood reality to be “picturable.” Truth can be discovered by matching an independent, objective reality against a language that corresponds to it. This is where, in Lippmann’s view, democratic theory breaks down.

Lippmann argued that the social and political events that determine our collective destiny are well beyond the public’s range of experience and expertise.Only through incomplete, poorly comprehended media reports are these events made accessible. Public opinion, therefore, is shaped in response to people’s “maps” or “images” of the world and not to the world itself. Mass political consciousness does not pertain to the factual “environment” but to an intermediary “pseudo-environment.”

To complicate matters, this pseudo-environment is corrupted by the manner in which it is received.Given both the economic and professional limitations of the practice of journalism, Lippmann argued, news “comes [to us] helter-skelter.” This is fine for a baseball box score, a transatlantic flight, or the death of a monarch. But where the picture is more complex, the result is largely “derangement, misunderstanding and . . . misinterpretation.” Lippmann compared the average citizen to a deaf spectator sitting in the back row of a sporting event: “He does not know what is happening, why it is happening, what ought to happen; he lives in a world which he cannot see, does not understand and is unable to direct.”

John Dewey did not attempt to defend the public’s sophistication with regard to public affairs but insisted instead that Lippmann misunderstood the meaning of truth in a democratic society. While Lippmann argued for what the late journalism scholar James W. Carey termed a “spectator theory of knowledge,” Dewey viewed knowledge as a function of “communication and association.” Systematic inquiry, reified by Lippmann, was to Dewey only the beginning of knowledge. “Vision is a spectator,” he wrote. “Hearing is a participator.” The basis of democracy is not information but conversation.

News and Misinformation

Whether in journalism, academia, or the policy world in between, most participants in public discussion pretend to a Lippmannlike devotion to facts but reach conclusions through Dewey’s culture of communication and conversation. Academics tend to be both more knowledgeable than journalists about the topics on which they comment or write and more circumspect about what they profess to know about a given topic and the conclusions they feel comfortable drawing as a result. They test their truths with relevant counterarguments and footnoted references that can be examined by those with opposing views.

Journalists, on the other hand, usually treat anything as true if someone in a position of ostensible authority is willing to say it, even anonymously (and if no one is going to sue over it). The accuracy of anyone’s statement, particularly if that person is a public official, is often deemed irrelevant. If no evidence is available for an argument a journalist wishes to include in a story, then up pop weasel words such as “it seems” or “some claim” to enable inclusion of the argument, no matter how shaky its foundation in reality. What’s more, too many journalists believe that their job description does not require them to adjudicate between competing claims of truth. Sure, there are “two sides”—and only two sides—to every story, according to the rules of objectivity. But if both sides wish to deploy lies and other forms of deliberate deception for their own purposes, well, that’s somebody else’s problem.

The “truth” produced by think-tank denizens lies somewhere between that of journalism and academia. The research these organizations produce tends to be footnoted, but the footnotes themselves are often questionable, and ideological counterarguments are rarely entertained except in mocking tones. Truth is considered to be self-evident if it matches the belief of the author, though footnotes are nice, too, if only for the patina of authority they tend to lend one’s arguments.

In each of these realms, the actor in question is responding to professional stimuli that are fairly well defined and result, at least originally, from sensible conclusions. The world of journalism, for example, moves far too fast to allow for academic scrupulousness. Accurate information about complex matters can take decades to acquire and examine, but politicians, corporations, and individuals need to act in the moment. Just as justice delayed is justice denied, so, too, “news” loses its value when no longer “new.” But the upshot is that a well-funded, self-disciplined, and multifaceted attempt to replace what Lippmann termed the “pictures” in a public’s “head” with new ones—ones that serve the ideological, political, financial, or personal interests of the author or the interests said author represents—are likely to succeed if practiced in a sustained, disciplined fashion in a variety of media simultaneously.

And this is exactly what has happened in recent decades, as 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. At the same time, the growth of right-wing talk radio, cable news, and a bevy of well-funded think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and the Hoover Institution at Stanford University have overwhelmed what remains of their less ideologically committed counterparts, such as the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Corporation of New York, to say nothing of the advantage they enjoy over genuinely liberal organizations such as the labor-backed Economic Policy Institute and the more recently created Center for American Progress.

The slow collapse of the newspaper industry and the growth of online, less professionalized news sources, while salutary from a Deweyan conversational perspective, has also opened up public discourse to additional infusions of ideologically motivated misinformation.

The results are all around us. Did Saddam Hussein attack the World Trade Center? Did the Obama health-care reform bill call for “death panels”? Is man-made global climate change a hoax or nothing more than a purposeful conspiracy of scientists seeking greater funding? Do tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires really pay for themselves? “The quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the terrorist, can flourish only where the audience is deprived of independent access to information,” wrote Lippmann. But as we see today, he was being overly generous. They can thrive just as easily when elites cannot be bothered to provide accurate information or refuse to do so in the service of their own political, ideological, or economic interests. That such questions even need to be addressed is, sadly, a significant victory for those against whose machinations and manipulations both Lippmann and Dewey sought to defend us.

Eric Alterman is a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism; a columnist for The Nation, Moment, and The Daily Beast; and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, the Nation Institute, and the World Policy Institute. He is author of eight books, including, most recently, Kabuki Democracy: The System vs. Barack Obama.



This is an excellent article, and it should serve as a wakeup call to sleepy academics whose inductive powers are in for a rude shock when the billionaires decide that "thinktanks" and vocational schools are all that our society needs.

T. K.

Congratulations for avoiding the word "progressive". From here in New Zealand, your use of "liberal" is still acceptable, but political discourse here generally accepts that left leaning commentators can claim and award such untested accolades as "having a social conscience" and being "politically aware". It is this slant, together with a coordinated shift in the political spectrum, where the centre veers ever leftward, that colours many opinions of the media. (And drives many readers towards the blogosphere.)

M. H.

“The quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the terrorist, can flourish only where the audience is deprived of independent access to information,” wrote Lippmann.

But hasn’t that changed now that many people have access to a world of information via the internet?  True, not all of the information is going to be accurate, but now the common man has at his disposal a means to inform him/herself of any issue facing the nation or world, doesn’t that reduce the chances that the “quack, the charlatan, the jingo, and the terrorist” will gain the upper hand in the dissemination of accurate information?

D. Q.

To call out in particular "right-wing billionaires" but then to happen to omit any mention of George Soros or similar left-wing money sources taints an otherwise-decent article as tendentious at best, politically disingenuous at worst.

Excellent topic. But, of course, Mr Alterman can only cite right-wing examples to establish his point. Does he really think that there are no left-wing parallels? Or that, just possibly, the emergence of right-wing outlets may be a natural consequence of a prevailing left-wing status quo. News reporting on the Duke "rape" case transformed an incident that would have been totally unremarkable under a white/white or black/black paradigm into a frontpage scandal. Without any truth. Paul Krugman opines almost daily on global warming and other issues about which he has no technical expertise. The idea that there might just be some validity to doubts about catastrophic AGW is routinely presented as the ravings of right-wing "denialists," funded, of course, by the increasingly ubiquitous Koch brothers.

I vote left, have a Ph.D in physics and am continually astonished by the chutzpah of pundits both of the left and the right who think that they understand issues beyond their areas of competence. This unfortunately includes Mr Alterman. 

M. K.

Actually this is not an excellent article, but an intellectually dishonest one.  While the ancient Walter Lippmann/John Dewey debate can be a useful framework in which to address the issue of public discourse, Alterman's intention is purely polemical despite attempting to appear analytical.  For every right-wing factor he names in his last few paragraphs there is an active left-wing counterpart in American public discourse:  for the billionaire Koch brothers, there is George Soros, and for multinational corporations (not all of which support right-wing causes), there are many untaxed foundations and labor unions, all endeavoring "to shift the center of political gravity in our debate" leftward, not rightward, "on matters of economic, military, and social policy."  Opposite right-wing talk radio is left-wing Pacifica Radio, and Air America while it lasted; opposite right-wing cable news there is MSNBC, where Alterman himself came into his own; opposite right-wing academia like the Hoover Institution at Stanford there are the bevy of left-wing Centers on a host of topics at New York University; opposite the right-wing think-tanks he names, there are the Institute for Policy Analysis, the Center for Defense Information, the New America Foundation, the National Security Network, Media Matters for America, the Center for American Progress (which Alterman names without disclosing his affiliation), and others.  It makes for vigorous public debate, with neither side "overwhelmed" by the other, nor overwhelming "what remains of their less ideologically committed counterparts such as the Brookings Institution and the Carnegie Corporation," which at last report were doing just fine and consistently getting more of a hearing in the media and on Capitol Hill than comparable conservative outfits like the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.  The picture Alterman presents is false, and he is savvy enough a JournoList to know it.

J. L.

I've been wondering when someone would address this escalating problem of "the Truth" becoming harder to ascertain. May be it's time for more of us to shut our traps and listen.

J. K. L.

Eric Alterman feels competent to write about finding the "Truth"in political matters.  Alterman writes for  the far left magazine, the "Nation" , which presumably he would offer as an example of "Truth" telling.  He also speaks highly of the "scrupulousness" of  academics who are generally known to be left of center.  According to Alterman, the main enemies of the "Truth" and  purveyors of misinformation are  those "right-wing" think tanks and their billionaire supporters, and of course those terrible multinational corporations.  Alterman, perhaps unknowingly, provides a perfect summary of the liberal academic's view of the world.

A. S.

This was such an important and timely article but why didn't the author start with the final paragraph to reach a wider audience? I ho-hummed through the personal history and it is only due to early morning inertia that I kept reading. Once we got to the Dewey-Lippmann debate things began to pick up and I want to thank the author for planting that Lippmann image in my head of the average citizen as a deaf spectator sitting in the back row of a sporting event.

Apropos of academia, I was a bit disappointed that no mention was made of how stultifying academic discourse can be: often geared to one-upmanship among peers rather than sharing or spreading information to the general public.

As an American living in Berlusconi's Italy, I welcome articles like this one which warn against Big Money's increasing control over the media.

What? No talk of Soros and his billions? As the right wing media grow, what is it growing in relation to? The NYTimes, ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, CNN, The Post, all of academia, Hollywood. The commanding heights of American Culture all dominated by Liberals. The only way a completely unqualified man could rise from state legislator and infinite muser of his own brilliance to President in just 6 short years. All without any executive experience, building nothing more than his own self assurance, and a narrative that sends tingles up the legs of the sort of people Alterman thinks should be running things.

Funny how all things conservative are a dysfunction. And all things Liberal the only palliative to a public gone mad. I have been hearing this for forty years.

Download a new track for your iPod, Lefties, this one is getting old.

This article makes me doubly certain that Noblese Oblige is still a valid concept in today's society. I am neiter a journalist or academic and usually question most think tanks, but I still believe in this platform of the National Honor Society code stating that 'nobility obligates' and that those with knowledge are obligated to use and share it for the betterment of those without knowledge (note my induction was over 20 years ago so my recollection of the exact verbiage may have faded since then).

I may be one of the "deaf spectator" - not knowing how events start or feeling incapable of changing them - but I am not blind. This is why I scream at the television when allegedly objective commentators make claims or present explanations, but fail to acknowledge what seem to me to be glaringly obvious alternatives or ignore basic pertinent details.

More of them need to read this article. Thanks.

M. L.

Odd, no mention of all the governmentally sponsored research, and the influence such sponsorship might have on the academic. I would think that a matter that would be important in this venue.

R. N. D.

I was with Prof. Alterman right up until the point where he criticized all those conservative funders, commentators and media guys but failed to mentioned John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, George Soros, the New York Times, Washington Post  and all those liberal foundations.  Oh, but he did mention the "less ideologically committed" Brookings et al. , and that's the problem.  For Alterman "liberal" is the null hypothesis, it's what any reasonable person believes.  Anything to the right is "ideological" and totally unreasonable, anything to the left is in the right direction, just slightly too enthusiastic.

J. E. R. S.

While it is true that the forces of right leaning institutions far outweigh their counterparts on the left, the author fails to take into account the role of journalism which he dismisses as done for.  There is journalism and then there is journalism.  Op Eds continue to have an impact as do docking stations in cyberspace like Daily Kos and the Huff Post, Slate, Salon, etc.  The core point raised though should itself be Deweyfied--discussed and debated.  Do we have an array of forums for dialogue on major policy issues which will affect the outcome of how these issues are handled.  I believe we do if we enlarge the accurate number of policy players and look at all the various fields that such players engage in serious intellectual competition if not combat.

T. M.

I was disappointed with this article. The title was misleading. It purported to critique a much broader issue, but instead, it ironically suffers from the disease it maligns. This article did nothing more than set up the premise that the author is an educated, respectable authority - a scholar on the issue at hand - and then by naming conservative think tanks in a negative light, to cast doubts and aspersions on these institutions based on nothing but the aforementioned authority and reputation which the first part of the article set up.

It is good to have this report, from such an authoritative intellectual, and the assurances that it is only the conservative think tanks that are leading the world astray. If only we would hold with our full trust and respect the opinions of the traditional, liberal media elites and stop listening to their critics.

This article will make all the liberal progressives out there feel very good and self-assured about themselves and their opinions. I suppose that this is the intent of the article, however.

So I suppose congratulations are in order. Unfortunately, the author has accomplished his goal.

This piece starts off as a thought-provoking morsel of intellectual history, but quickly declines as the author pivots and delivers a sucker punch to the gut of  the hated 'right-wing.'  Other commenters have already done an excellent job skewering Alterman for the Leftist blinders he wears while dishing out his disapproval, but I would like to point out in addition that what makes a diatribe like this one possible is the philosophical incoherence of the stance on which it is based.  The problem here is the assumption that one may easily draw a distinction between specimens of good journalism, on the one hand, and 'ideological' screeds on the other.  Can someone remind me when it was that all the thorniest problems of epistemology got solved in a manner independent of the shared social, linguistic, political, and moral (read: ideological) commitments of the people who solved them?  It is fashionable today among Americans with well-branded educations to draw distinction between 'ideology' (which, whether of the lefty or righty variety, is understood to be unsubstantiated nonsense that causes one to willfully ignore what is 'actually' true) and 'science' or 'pragmatism' or 'facts' or 'the unbiased account' (which is held up to be the thing that any sober, sensible, intelligent person has to agree to).  The problem here is that any methodology for accumulating and disseminating knowledge is going to be defined in terms of various premises, conventions, terminologies etc. that derive from some set of epistemological/ideological commitments.  This is no less the case for scientists or New York Times staff writers than it is for witch doctors or creationists (I happen to be a scientist).  Pretending that some of us can transcend ideology (or that all of us ought to) makes a pernicious muddle of things.  The sooner people like Alterman admit to themselves and to others what their starting assumptions are, the sooner we'll again be able to have productive, clear discussions among intelligent people who disagree with one another.

J. E.

Great thanks for running the Eric Alterman piece on Lippmann and Dewey -- and how intellectuals still -- or more so -- fail today.

Love it best when the conclusion is so succinct:  that "most academics...have lost the ability to speak beyond their narrow disciplines."

I've a remedy -- shows how to open disciplinary blinders to include more of the human, more of parallel disciplines, and more of other cultures.  It's free.

Thanking you again for the lovely, witty, oh-so-true Eric Alterman piece,


P. B.

An excellent article, both for its insights and for its flaws.  As Prof. Alterman points out, the voter (and the congressman, too) is blinkered and misled by various ideologies, biases, and falsehoods, internally and externally sources, intentionally and unintentionally applied.  And we cannot help but affiliate ourselves with those who share our opinions, forming factions, voting blocs, and political parties.  I believe that our best hope going forward is for each of us to switch sides on arbitrarily selected issues on a regular basis, vigorously defending the opposing viewpoint, in order to understand and value the varieties of that strange Elephant named "Truth."  I'm aware that this idea sounds a bit odd, but it's the only way that each of us can deal directly with the certainty that we will be dead wrong a sizable percent of the time.  "Truth" will just as often wear the face of your opponent as it will the face of your allies!


The comments on this article are more instructive than the article itself.

A. N.

But has it not always been the case that an Arts man dominates in a world of specialists? The generalist has a worldview derived from deliberation; the specialist has no such thing – only the memory of other men's minds with perhaps a soupçon of original ideas applicable to his specialisation.

There is a second problem - the media addiction to prophecy and speculation. A quick review of the online Guardian's front page today (, and its one of the best English-language newspapers, shows 7-8 articles dealing entirely or in part with future possibilities, commonly expressing a distinct preference for one of these myriads. We all know our ability to predict is rudimentary; we all know a newspaper's function is to provide a record of events, yet this sort of wild imagining passes for news, even in papers with glorious histories like the Guardian. Pace J R Scott.

Thank you for focusing our attention on this subject Mr Alterman. I hope it stimulates the discussion it deserves.

As a journalist for more than 20 years, I'd agree that most journalists are liberal in their personal views, but believe they are agnostic as to issues and have no "leftist agenda."  Should they be self-examining as to their personal worldviews and how that affects coverage?  Absolutely.  Do they set out to elect liberals or establish the "welfare state"? Not in my experience.

The conservative "media" efforts noted here are different.  They assume there IS a liberal media agenda and seek to counteract it with a clear conservative agenda.  The inherent "liberalness" of any decent journalist is that he or she asks questions and questions the status quo.  In my case, no editor or colleague ever questioned stories I did  about how liberal programs from "urban renewal" to the "Great Society" and the "War on Poverty" failed and failed big time. 

This is what is lost by the conservatives at large and in this "mini-debate."  The concept of an ordered liberal agenda in the broad news media is absurd.  The concept of an ordered agenda in the broad conservative media -- Fox, the Washington Times, the Scaife newspapers -- is real.