Flawed But Indispensable Take Down of Malcolm Gladwell

SHAME Project, an organization founded by Yasha Levine and Mark Ames of The Exile, recently published a lengthy critique of writer Malcolm Gladwell. I finally read it, and recommend it even though it is a flawed piece. Highlights:

While a student at the University of Toronto, Gladwell’s admiration for Ronald Reagan led him into conservative activist circles. In 1982, while still an undergrad, he completed a 12-week training course at the National Journalism Center, a corporate-funded program created to counter the media’s alleged “anti-business bias” by molding college kids into corporate-friendly journalist-operatives and helping them infiltrate top-tier news media organizations. To quote Philip Morris, a major supporter of the National Journalism Center, its mission was to “train budding journalists in free market political and economic principles.” Over the years the National Journalism Center has produced hundreds of pro-business news media moles, including top-tier conservative talent like Ann Coulter and former Wall Street Journal columnist and editorial board member John Fund.

After graduating from University of Toronto in 1984, Gladwell spent a few years bouncing around the far-right fringe of the corporate media spectrum. He wrote for the American Spectator—notorious in the 1990s as the primary media organ promoting anti-Clinton conspiracy theories—as well as the Moonie-owned Insight on the News. From 1985-6, Gladwell served as assistant editor at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, which was created to bridge the gap between neoconservatives and Christian fundamentalists and help the two hostile factions to come together to counter a common enemy: activists fighting for economic justice. Rick Santorum was a fellow at EPPC until June 2011, when he left to concentrate on his attempt to secure the 2012 GOP presidential nomination. [...]

At the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell developed another branch of his branded Malcolm Gladwell, Inc. business: as a highly-paid corporate speaker. Indeed, Gladwell is ranked as one of the highest-paid speakers in America today, commanding anywhere from $40,000 to $80,000 for a single talk to corporations and industry groups eager to pay for his soothing wisdom. In 2007, Fast Company estimated Gladwell does “roughly 25 speaking gigs a year, his current going rate some $40,000 per appearance.”

That would translate into roughly $1 million that year in speaking fees alone—four times what he made at the New Yorker in 2005. It’s a huge amount of money, as far as speaker’s salaries go. For comparison: Mitt Romney only made $500,000 in speaking fees in 2010.

Most news organization have specific rules and guidelines about speaking fees, and some—including the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and the Washington Post—ban their journalists from taking fees for speeches. But the issue is far from settled, and regularly comes up in debates about journalistic ethics. Jonathan Salant, former president of the Society of Professional Journalists Washington chapter, considers corporate speaking fees to be outright bribes. He’s not the only one.

In a March 2012 article in the Columbia Journalism Review, Paul Starobin wondered if speaking fees are a “dark and an indelible stain on journalism” and noted that most journalists would not talk openly about the details of their corporate speaker side-gigs on the record and that some tried to prevent their names from being mentioned at all.

Full Story: Naked Capitalism: Malcolm Gladwell Unmasked: A Look Into the Life & Work of America’s Most Successful Propagandist

(via Innovation Patterns)

There’s an excellent conversation on MetaFilter. Here’s an interesting point from Mr.Know-it-some:

I stopped reading after “the notorious National Bureau of Economic Research, an organization with ties to the tobacco industry and bankrolled by the biggest names in right-wing corporate propaganda funding.” NBER is probably the preeminent economic research organization in the United States, if not the world, whose (approximately 1000) members include left-wingers like Joe Stiglitz and Paul Krugman. (Yes, you might argue that it leans a bit corporate, but calling it “notorious,” is simply ludicrous.)

(Though someone else on the thread points out that Paul Krugman actually did briefly work for Enron).

The thread hits all the points I would want to make about what’s good and bad about the piece. It’s clearly an example of the “hit piece” genre, but it does make good points.

Maias wrote:

What’s equally infuriating is that sometimes his arguments— and those of pharma— are correct. The case of ADHD drugs is one instance: some people are genuinely helped and their stories get drowned out in the cries of “drugging our kids” and “overmedication.” The idea that crack dealers or tobacco companies are solely responsible for addiction is genuinely problematic— it ignores the fact that people with addiction *do* tend to have underlying issues and the fact that humans have always sought consciousness alteration. Making this case does not mean you are a pharma or a tobacco shill, merely that you have read the literature and know something about drugs.

Ironically, it is exactly the type of journalism exhibited by both this piece and by Gladwell that is the problem: ignoring complexity leads to simplistic solutions (let’s just lock up the dealers! let’s ban ADHD meds! let’s prohibit cigarettes! let’s ban painkillers!) that don’t actually work.

And mediareport wrote:

There’s more than enough direct evidence of Gladwell distorting evidence and hiding conflicts of interest – and then responding by not directly responding to the criticisms – to make the critique stick and stick hard. Linking it to Gladwell’s early conservative training is an interesting approach, too.

The stuff about the pharmaceutical industry and Gladwell’s laughably wrong attempt at a defense of Enron execs seemed excellent and very much on point. That the intent of the piece was to savage Gladwell’s moronic brand is clear, but that doesn’t invalidate the accumulated information, which accomplishes the goal nicely.

(However, a few people on MeFi made the claim that S.H.A.M.E. implied that Gladwell was a white supremacist – they did not. S.H.A.M.E. wrote: “Gladwell, who is part-Jamaican, apparently didn’t mind working for a white supremacist who argued that people like Gladwell were inferior” (emphasis mine). That said, yes, mentioning Gladwell’s own work debunking the the thesis would have been charitable.

See Also:

The Tipping Point and the Long Tail debunked

Why, Unfortunately, Malcolm Gladwell Matters

3 Comments

  1. “Objective journalism is a pompous contradiction in terms” Hunter S. Thompson.

    Thanks for the reminder that I should read Naked Capitalism and the eXiled http://exiledonline.com/ far more often.

    Of course it’s a hit piece, but IMO, one with substance and asks the kind of questions the MSM would be asking if its job were to inform instead of entertain.

  2. I’ve been following Exiled Online since you mentioned it here but am thrown off by the undercurrent (especially in the comments sections) of this rabid WE ARE SERIOUS AND CHANGING THINGS vibe and the ridiculous ad hominem pieces (http://exiledonline.com/zach-galifianakis-is-a-plagiarist-hack-if-you-think-hes-funny-you-must-stop-thinking/). Am I missing something or are they just post-Disinformation Metzger mixed with John Stossell for the blatantly post-modern Left?

    • I don’t know – I don’t read it on a regular basis, just when someone links to a particular article. I just mentioned it for context as to who Ames is. I know it started out as a paper for expatriots living in Russia but has morphed into something else over the years.

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