April 05, 2016

It’s an occupational characteristic for professors to be strongly biased toward reading so when I’m reading something that supports that partiality I feel great vindication. Two separate articles by political scientists have me very animated about the value of reading.

The first article is by Professor Dan Drezner of Tufts Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, who contributes to the Washington Post.  Recently the New York Times Nicholas Kristof blasted the media for failing to adequately expose Donald Trump. Drezner was having none of that, and had several reactions to Kristof, the first of which was: “Kristof is really writing about television rather than all news media.”

There is a lot of excellent political analysis available to be read these days, much of it by political scientists like Drezner, Lynn Vavreck, TheMonkeyCage and we hope, MassPoliticsProfs. On the other hand, Marco Rubio’s penis joke about Donald Trump was not intended for a reading audience, it was aimed at cable viewers and social media consumers. Television will give us an entire Donald Trump victory speech live, even though it consists mostly of an infomercial for failed Trump products. As the head of CBS says, “It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS." 

Another critique of media coverage comes from Paul Pierson and Jacob Hacker at The American Prospect, in a post called Don’t Dismantle Government – Fix It, an excerpt from their new book American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper.

Pierson and Hacker ask us to imagine this headline: “Things are Getting Better, Slowly, Because of Government Policy.” That is not a marketable headline – no conflict, no scandal. Then there is the “he said, she said” convention. Often a blatantly ridiculous position is given the same credibility as an opposing side based on scientific evidence: global climate change, for example. And of course, the side granted the undeserved credibility is often one backed by rent seeking industries – the fossil fuel industry for instance; or recall tobacco industry studies arguing that tobacco presents no health risk. When such conflicts arise, credentialed experts should be presented as having greater legitimacy.

Hacker and Pierson praise the rise of Internet journalism, which has its share of junk but also “has encouraged the development of deep and data-driven journalism”, like Vox, 538, Wonkblog at the Washington Post, and The Upshot at the New York Times.

There is plenty of elite commentary out there that is terrible, too. Hacker and Pierson write, “Now the stakes need to be raised. Too often, public figures and anointed experts pay no reputational price when they shill for private interests or state things that are patently untrue.” Seen John Bolton or Bill Kristol lately?

Pierson and Hacker are writing about government though, and how we should recognize its many benefits. So while I’ve lingered on the media critique here, the American Prospect piece is well worth reading for its defense of government. I’ll have more to say when I’ve read the book.

Reading is slow, sometimes difficult, depends on the ability to analyze and interconnect, to reference other sources, acquire some background knowledge, have a dictionary ready, and it encourages and requires thought. It can be hard work. It is also, as Neil Postman wrote in Amusing Ourselves to Death, endangered by modern media. But there is plenty of good writing available: Drezner online (he’s working on a book), Hacker & Pierson excerpting their own book online. If we want to minimize the impact of the carney barkers and charlatans, we have to read.

Plus, reading is lots of fun.

Dan Drezner, Jacob Hacker, Paul Pierson

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