Media Opacity

I recently came across the website called Media Transparency which purports to document “the money behind conservative media.”  The site was created and seems to be maintained by Rob Levine, once a staff photographer for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune  turned freelance photographer and computer consultant.  Levine is also the publisher a non-profit corporation “dedicated to media education and criticism.”   He recounts on his website, that be began investigating a Minneapolis-based think tank, the Center of the American Experiment in 1999, which led to his discovery that the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation makes grants to a lot of organizations that Levine regards as “conservative.”  

 Levine seems to be among those cultural critics who uses words such as “conservative” and “liberal” as rough synonyms of “egregious” and “superb.”   For him, “conservative” counts as the word of condemnation; for other writers, it is the reverse.    If American politics is exceptionally polarized, it is thanks in part to writers like Rob Levine for whom the world seems nothing but a battle of angels and devils, and the possibility of honest disagreement and good will among those who hold different views plays no part.

I came across Levine’s Media Transparency  site because it has an entry for the National Association of Scholars.  At a glance, the list of foundations that have supported NAS looks accurate—though incomplete.  The more arresting feature is the paragraph that defines the NAS:  

Founded in 1985 " unite right-wing faculty against 'politically correct' multicultural education and affirmative action policies." Played a key role in the California anti-affirmative action referendum. Backed by the Olin, Bradley, Sarah Scaife, Coors and Smith Richardson foundations, among others, receiving a combined total in excess of $348,000 from these foundations alone in 1990-91. 

The ellipsed quotation that follows is not sourced, but is self-evidently  a hostile view.  It is also false.  A good many of the NAS’s founding members were liberals; many members today regard themselves as liberal and are registered Democrats.  The founding impulse of the organization was not to “unite right-wing faculty” but to summon all faculty members concerned about the growing power on campus of illiberal ideologies.  We have never restricted this concern to the illiberal ideologies of the Left.  The NAS is and always has been an organization that advocates for academic freedom and the pursuit of truth.  

We have also upheld traditional academic values, a phrase that in our odd times has gained in the ears of some, the dull ring of counterfeit currency.  Any mention of tradition to such folks seems to conjure visions of mindless conformity to age-old prejudice.  To be clear, the traditions we have in mind are such things as respect for free speech, for disinterested inquiry, for the integrity of the curriculum, and the overall soundness of their colleges.  One wouldn’t think matters like these would be contentious, but in fact they have become exactly that.  Free speech is frequently violated on campus in the name of some allegedly higher good (e.g. “sensitivity”); disinterested inquiry has been displaced by advocacy—a change rationalized by the assertion that “objectivity” is a mask worn by the powerful to impose their will.  The integrity of the curriculum has been compromised in favor of phonebook-sized compendia of courses that have no internal rhyme or reason.  And the overall soundness of colleges has been damaged by faculty who, huddling in their specializations, have allowed their institutions to devolve into the hands of bureaucrats, few of whom comprehend the larger task at hand.  

Do these sound like “conservative” concerns?  They shouldn’t.   While the radicalized campus left is indeed a factor, so is the tendency among many conservatives to view with approbation the idea that higher education is nothing but a credentialing service for students on their way to white-collar careers.  We recognize that intelligent, principled, and constructive scholars on the political Left; and we recognize among conservatives substantial numbers of Babbitts and cultural ignoramuses, so concerned with the winning team or the bottom line, that nothing more profound gets through.  Both Left and the Right produce their share of intellectual obtuseness.  The NAS is not a partner with either.  We are not a political organization, but a body of scholars who hope to sustain a vision of the university as a fundamentally good institution that deserves to be sustained.

Yes, Rob Levine, we have taken stands against politically correct multicultural education and some affirmative action policies.  But Levine’s phrasing (or his unidentified source’s) is misleading.   The NAS views the American university as an heir and a custodian of Western civilization.  That puts us at odds with the shallower sorts of multiculturalism in which Homer can be swapped out for a West African griot reciting a clan genealogy, or Newton dispatched in favor of Incan sun dials.  But Western civilization, understood in any depth, is itself multicultural.   So it is multiculturalism—the callow doctrine of those who don’t know much history or ethnography of any sort—that we think has gained way too much purchase within the curriculum.   And to thump again a point I’ve already thumped, the support for this anti-intellectual and a-historical multiculturalism comes from the Right as well as the Left.  There are lots of ways to be stupid.  No one party or political persuasion has monopolized them.

As for “affirmative action,” Levine misspeaks.  NAS has strongly opposed racial preferences in college admissions.  Affirmative action is a broad set of policies that antedate racial preferences by at least fifteen years and focused on removing barriers to full participation by members of minority groups in American society.  Proponents of racial preferences like to confuse the debate by reducing affirmative action to racial preferences and then accusing opponents of one of being opponents of the other.   We could accomplish the same move by saying that Levine’s inaccuracies in his account of the National Association of Scholars show him to be opposed to Accuracy. 

 But I doubt that is so.  He is just another unreliable partisan journalist.  

 To be clear, the NAS has been the beneficiary of foundations that are generally considered “conservative” in outlook.  We are pleased that they like our work and we hope they will continue to support us.  But if the Ford Foundation or the Gates Foundation wants to support us too, we will gladly accept their contributions as part of the non-partisan effort to sustain the vital center of American higher education.

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