Jonathan Chait contends that “Real budget wonks who circulate among genuine experts often fail to understand the degree to which the public debate is driven by pure hacks.” Further, “The same basic phenomenon can be seen is debates over climate change, supply-side economics, and other issues. You have a whole ideological movement that, to a substantial degree, relies upon the pseudo-expertise of cranks and hacks.” David Kurtz thinks these folks “give anti-Enlightenment conservatives a patina of intellectual legitimacy.”
Noah Millman makes an even broader claim, that somewhere along the way conservative intellectuals ceased to be intellectuals but rather advocates for Establishment views favored by funders. Kevin Drum isn’t so sure that this is a recent phenomenon.
I don’t think this is quite right. There are oodles of conservative intellectuals out there, whether on university campuses, the journalistic circuit, the blogs, or whathaveyou. But I’d agree that the Official House Organs of the Conservative Movement are increasingly orthodox and that the hacks seem to get most of the airtime.
Partly, I think, it’s a function of network effects. People who book shows are looking for people with recognizably conservative views, and the Official House Organs of the Conservative Movement are the obvious places to look. And not only is it hard to get hired at those places if you’re far outside the orthodoxy but your views are likely to more closely approach the orthodoxy if you’re surrounded by people steeped in it. (The reverse is also true: Conservatives or liberals surrounded by reasonable and friendly people of the opposite persuasion will naturally moderate their views over time.)
Partly, too, there’s a self-selection effect. As the house blogger (among other things) at the Atlantic Council, I frequently write about breaking topics in the foreign policy realm. Sometimes, it’s about something in which I’m expert or close enough to expert that I’ve got a strong opinion. Sometimes, it’s very important to our constituency that I have to get something up quickly (and thus don’t have time to solicit and wait for a genuine expert to write something) but sufficiently outside the scope of my interests or expertise that all I can do is aggregate the news and commentary that’s out there in a way that’s hopefully of use to the reader.
Quite frequently, I’ll be approached by the booker of a show to talk about one of these second types of posts. For example, last night, a major international network asked me to be a guest this morning to talk about the mess in Kyrgyzstan. I thanked them for their invitation and expressed interest in appearing again at some point in the future, but politely declined the offer — as I frequently do — on the basis that I simply don’t know the subject well enough. [UPDATE: I’ve now turned down a second request from another major international outlet. Sigh: They almost always approach me after one-off posts rather than things in my wheelhouse.]
I’ve watched enough news television and heard enough news radio to know that this stance is unusual. There are clearly people who will show up any time, anywhere, to talk about anything. But that pretty much defines a hack. Doing that reduces you to regurgitating a few talking points you’ve picked up and steering the conversation back to them.
But guess what? The incentive is to do precisely that. Producers love guests they can count on in a moment’s notice and whom they can comfortably pigeonhole ideologically. And talking points make for breezy sound bytes and conflict, whereas people like me tend to talk in paragraphs and shades of gray. Outside of a handful of longer form venues like NPR, that’s not what they’re looking for.
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