Should Academics Respond to Glenn Beck?

Before I say anything negative about Glenn Beck, the erratic conservative Fox news commentator, let me give credit where it’s due: it is nothing short of remarkable that Beck manages to mobilize his viewers by standing in front of a black board and lecturing on the meaning of social justice and American political and economic history. After all, the American left has long ago abandoned those terms and much of those debates, concluding that it was a lost cause to rehash the accomplishments of the progressive era and the New Deal. So in a grudging way, I admire Beck’s audacity for sticking his hands into the murky mire of history and trying to connect big social ideas.

That he has it all wrong is besides the point. My real concern, and the question I would like to pose to others, is whether academics should be trying to constructively engage with Beck, or even Fox news.

Last week the American Political Science Association and the American Sociological Association sent letters to Beck and Fox news urging them to tone down their rhetoric, especially Beck’s ongoing rant against CUNY Professor Frances Fox Piven. Beck has repeatedly identified Piven as being part of a conspiracy to destabilize the American economy — a claim made on the basis of her writings in the 1960s calling for greater political organization among poor welfare recipients. Coming more than 30 years later, and after welfare reform, Beck’s claim feels a little bit like wagging the dog (but nevermind that).

My first reaction was why bother confronting Beck? If he wants to take on Piven, Cass Sunstein, or any other scholar on the left, the allegation is only going to get traction if he gets a response from the “liberal” academic establishment. It will be just another case of the eggheads trying to silence the not-so silent minority. That fits Beck’s narrative very well indeed. Beck is not going to stop making veiled threats on the air, and his viewers are not going to stop making not-so veiled threats on his blog (says one of his readers: “The only redistribution I am interested in is that of a precious metal…. LEAD“).

By feeding into Beck hysteria, progressive academics arguably leave themselves open to a media battle they cannot win. Fox news has developed a very sophisticated attack machine that has become adept at twisting words or outright lying. Responding with reasoned facts and analysis is not likely to succeed, and is more likely to undermine whatever incipient efforts are underway on the left to join empirical analysis with progressive politics. As researchers our first responsibility is to the truth, but it is also important to find ways to explain what we understand to be the truth to all members of society, including Fox’s core viewership. Engaging with Fox provides them with an opportunity to take control of that narrative before academic researchers have a chance to adequately explain it themselves.

On the other hand, leaving Beck’s criticism of Piven unanswered might set a dangerous precedent. Elements of the professional rightwing (I take pains to emphasize that there are many moderate conservatives that scorn these tactics) have made it an objective to intimidate and shout-down scholars on the leftwing. In a related effort, the right fringe of Congress has tried to politicize the academic research process by threatening to defund any research on social policy or politics: the alternative proposed by Senator Tom Coburn: “just watch Fox news.”

So there is a genuine dilemma: ignore Beck and Fox news and risk having the entire enterprise of objective research pulled away like a dirty rug, engage with Fox news through criticism and dialogue and risk having the message become distorted. What is needed, but not forthcoming, are rules of the road: a general code of conduct that Fox and the other media giants agree to abide by. Any organization that wants to be considered credible news obviously has an obligation to not threaten or intimidate private citizens, but they also have an obligation to give a fair and balanced hearing to both sides of the issue. Or at least not to lie about what the other half is saying.

About Brendan Saloner

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars Program. I completed a PhD in health policy at Harvard in 2012. My current research focuses on children's health, public programs, racial/ethnic disparities, and mental health. I am also interested in justice and health care.
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5 Responses to Should Academics Respond to Glenn Beck?

  1. John Holmes says:

    Interesting stuff Brendan. I’m in two minds as to whether a code of conduct will be effective. The UK print media operates under such a code which all the major daily newspapers subscribe too (with the exception of the Express and Star which have just withdrawn from it). Although the tone of comment is less exaggerated than that seen on Fox, the processes are similar. For example there is still the development of pseudo-factual news narratives (Muslims are taking over, militant gay lobbies, secret New Labour plots to secure enduring power by permitting mass immigration). There is also the denigration of social science academics as inherently socialist with the word experts usually written between inverted commas. Statistics are routinely distorted(particularly those relating to disability benefit currently) and there are many blogs (e.g. Minority Throught, No Sleep ’til Brooklands, Fiver Chinese Crackers, Angry Mob) pointing out the false premises behind stories. All of this is overseen by the Independent Press Complaints Commission (IPCC) whose toothlessness can be best demonstrated by the fact it’s chair, Paul Dacre, is editor of the Daily Mail – the newspaper which has been censured by the IPCC more than any other.

    Perhaps the code of conduct is too broadly drawn but at least keeps the tone of news coverage on the right side of the line between mis-information and incitement and in that sense such a code would be beneficial in the US. UK TV new is subject to far stricter rules about balance and, as such, despite regular allegations of BBC bias, there is little serious suggestion that any of the news stations present a strong political perspective. Rupert Murdoch is currently campaigning for this to change so he can launch a Fox News UK-style service but there seems little appetite for that. Perhaps something between the UK print and UK TV code of conduct is the right space, where balance is respected but particular political opinions can still be freely and consistently presented. One thing, for me, is clear however. The industry itself should have no role in policing it as this has been one of the most obvious failings of the IPCC.

  2. I generally share the sense expressed in your first point. I’m a militant Millian on speech and ideas, so it’s not that I can’t see the benefits to the “other hand,” but Brian Leiter often cites Ezra Pound’s observation that “You can’t talk to the ignorant about lies, since they have no criteria.”

    Although I am more egalitarian in my sense of knowledge than that quote might suggest, I also take Donald Davidson’s points on the significance of epistemic charity. It is difficult to gain anything from a dialogue — even where persuasion is not a major rhetorical goal — without a minimum level of respect and charity for an interlocutor’s beliefs. For a variety of reasons, television pundits have no reason to extend such charity, and many reasons not to, which makes engaging with such pundits a significant waste of time and energy, to my mind.

    Fortunately, I find it extremely difficult to believe that any pundit anywhere will remotely care about anything I have to say one way or the other.

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention Should Academics Respond to Glenn Beck? | Inequalities -- Topsy.com

  4. Thank you for the comments John and Daniel.

    John — I had no idea that there was an entity like the IPCC in the UK (however toothless). I don’t believe there’s anything even remotely equivalent here, although there are some good media watchdog organizations that try to call out Fox (ex. Media Matters for America)

    Daniel — that Ezra Pound quotation is a gem! I’m not sure Pound was the picture of balance and reason in his own time, but I’ll leave that be for now.

  5. I was very tempted to just refer to this article below by the New Yorker published last year and leave it at that but a) I know Brendan has already read it and b) I can think of only one way to interact with Glen and Fox in this context. When reading this article I was remind of one piece of advice that both Sun-Tzu and Machiavelli had. Never play the same game that your opponent is playing but force them to play the game you want them to play. I know, quoting the likes of Sun-Tzu and Machiavelli also makes me cringe a bit but they make a good point.

    Firstly it is very important to not respond to the criticisms leveled by Glen/Fox directly and in the same context that they have made them. This would only give them a perfect frame of reference to twist the story and the issue in the direction that they would like it to go. Instead what should be done is to use the ‘political oxygen’ that Glen/Fox have given an issue by using it as an opportunity to instead present the issue accurately and in a way that illustrates the need for reform and/or further research. Not answering Glens misinterpretations of meaning of social justice directly but using it as an opportunity to highlight the importance of social justice and then in that context explaining what it means. In this way the political context of the issue is changed so that there is less space for the misinterpretations that Glen likes to use.

    Secondly Glen/Fox are relying on people they criticize to come on Fox and Glen’s show to defend them selves. Some thing that Brendan rightly points out is what they are only too prepared for and would only serve to hijack the issue before one has time to explain them selves properly. What should be done instead of going on Fox and Glen’s show is to aviod them and instead focus on other platforms to make one’s case. Such as CNBC, PBN, ABC, or what ever.

    Now Glen might respond to the second point by stating that the targeted academic or group of academics are too scared to appear on his show and must be hiding some thing by not going on his show to defend them selves. But so what, the best way to react to this, in my mind, would be to turn the tables and instead invite Glen to rather defend his attach in a more neutral environment where he and Fox do not have editorial control.

    Well thats my 2 cents on this. Not so sure it is worth much but its some thing. BTW, below is a link to the New Yorker story I mentioned earlier.

    Confounding Fathers (2010), New Yorker – http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2010/10/18/101018fa_fact_wilentz

    Have a good one and happy year of the metal rabbit (for last Thursday).

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