Wednesday, February 04, 2004

Rara Avis, Part IV (George Will)

George Will is another conservative columnist. I'm fixated on them, it seems. He caught my beady eye with his recent innovative column which argues that seriousness in American politics requires the weeding out of all feminization. This was in short order followed by another column explaining that Democrats are that way because they like to live off the government, whereas Republicans are all brave individualists. Given that he lives in a country which has one of the lowest percentages of female participation in politics among the developed world, and in which the Republican-voting states show a net gain from government transfers while the Democrat-voting states are net payers-in, George is clearly another rare bird who flies in skies unrelated to this mundane planet. Something worth a little study.

This is what I found in my Will-watching. George has been a major conservative voice in the media since 1973, and he is currently syndicated in over 450 newspapers. He appears regularly in the Washington Post, the Newsweek and on ABC's This Week.He is respected as an antidote to all those braying, hyperbolic, conservative voices. He is seen as serious, soft-spoken and intelligent, an 'honest broker of ideas', a sort of 'affirmative action case' for the brainy in the Republican party, a token boy for those who'd like some evidence with their weekly vitriol.

Everything is relative in the media, of course. Will may indeed come across as a careful researcher when Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter are used as a basis for comparisons. But his efforts would not always qualify for a passing-grade student essay in a sophomore course on politics, sociology or economics. Here's an example of some of the problems in the way Will uses his sources. It is based on one of his 2002 columns called "Feminism Hijacked". This might be a book review of Christine Stolba's Lying in a Room of One's Own: How Women's Studies Textbooks Miseducate Students, if Will actually reviewed the book instead of giving us an extremely condensed, approving summary of it.

Let's pretend that we are to grade Will's essay. The first thing to raise an alarm flag is the way he begins:

"Christine Stolba, a history PhD and senior fellow at the indispensable Independent Women's Forum (IWF), recently steeled herself for the ordeal of reading a lot of meretricious rubbish. The result is her report, "Lying in a Room of One's Own: How Women's Studies Textbooks Miseducate Students." It is published by the IWF, a voice for women unlike those who have hijacked feminism."

Notice that no evidence is offered for the 'indispensability' of the Independent Women's Forum, a girl's auxiliary of the extreme right wing. I, for one, could easily dispense with them. And if the IWF is a voice for women unlike those who have hijacked feminism, then I'm a voice for George Walker Bush.

Still, Will is writing an opinion column, so his partiality may be understandable. Opinion columnists, unlike news reporters, don't have to pretend to be objective, as we all know. But what about his superior use of evidence? The only evidence this column uses is Stolba's book. There is no attempt to verify her claims by using independent information. This wouldn't be good news for my hypothetical sophomore student with a similarly structured paper submitted for an academic grade.

The poor student would get another demerit from the way Will quotes from the textbooks Stolba criticizes:

"What Stolba calls the "women-under-siege" theme -- what one of the textbooks calls the "matrix of domination" -- is impervious to evidence. As one book insists: "The overall effect of the twentieth century on women was neither liberation nor gender equality as much as it was change in the nature and meaning of their fragmentation."

What are these 'one books'? Don't they have titles and authors? No, I'm afraid that Will the student would have to rewrite his essay.

To title the column "Hijacking Feminism" and to end it with the statement "How feminism has fallen" is a tiny bit overgeneralizing, as the body of the column talks about one person's views on several textbooks used in women's studies courses. There's a big leap from women's study textbooks to feminism and an even bigger leap from Christine Stolba's opinions of the same to the current state of the feminist movement.

I haven't read Stolba's book and I have never taken a single women's studies course, so I can't judge the veracity of her arguments. But I would suggest to Will the student that he might also consider how university level courses routinely assign many different readings, some describing one extreme set of beliefs and others describing the other extreme. The point about a university education is, after all, to learn critical thinking. I could probably make up lists of wildly deranged quotes from the readings in all sorts of university courses, and by a stint of careful writing make them all seem like something out of the worst conservative's or progressive's nightmare. In fact, I could do the same with the contents of this blog. And I would, if someone paid me the sorts of fees George Will routinely collects.

Not all these fees are for the honest brokerage of ideas in his well-researched, intellectual columns. Recent revelations suggest that Will may have unusual ideas about journalistic ethics. One fee he collected was $25,000 per day of consultations in the informal international board of advisers of Hollinger International, a newspaper company owned by the media baron Conrad Black. Nothing wrong with this. But then he wrote a column which described a speech Black made in favorable terms. When asked if his monetary relationship with Hollinger International should have been revealed to his readers, George replied that he saw no reason to do so and that:

""My business is my business," he said. "Got it?""

I got it. The rules are not only different for Republicans and Democrats, something to be expected in a conservative opinion writer, but also for George Will and everybody else. In fact, George has a long history of practising according to his very own journalistic ethics:

"During the 1980 campaign, he drew fire when it was learned he'd secretly coached Republican candidate Ronald Reagan for a debate with President Jimmy Carter using a debate briefing book stolen from the Carter campaign. Immediately following the debate, Will appeared on Nightline (10/28/80) to praise Reagan's "thoroughbred performance," never disclosing his role in rehearsing that performance (New York Times, 7/9/83)."

"During the 1996 campaign, Will caught some criticism for commenting on the presidential race while his second wife, Mari Maseng Will, was a senior staffer for the Dole presidential campaign. Defending a Dole speech on ABC News (1/28/96), Will, according to Washingtonian (3/96), "failed to mention.… that his wife not only counseled Dole to give the speech but also helped write it." Similarly, a Will column criticizing Clinton for proposing tariffs on Japanese luxury cars (5/19/95) included no mention that Maseng Will's public relations firm had received almost $200,000 from the Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association. When asked, Will defiantly dismissed any need for disclosure, declaring (Washington Post, 5/23/95), "I was for free trade long before I met my wife.""

Maybe honest brokers of ideas don't need disclosure? Maybe historians who do good research don't need to quote alternative sources? Maybe I'm far too hard on George just because I don't like his opinions? Who knows. But in doing the research for this essay, I did find something about George Will that has long been overlooked: his warm-heartedness. To see what I mean, carefully read the following quote:

"Will suffered another ethical lapse in the 2000 campaign when he met with George W. Bush just before the Republican candidate was to appear on ABC's This Week. Later, in a column (Washington Post, 3/4/01), Will admitted that he'd met with Bush to preview questions, not wanting to "ambush him with unfamiliar material." In the meeting, Will provided Bush with a 3-by-5 card containing a crucial question he would later ask the candidate on the air."

Set aside, for the time being, the question whether Will was ethically justified in helping the other George out. Now, isn't it really quite sweet how he came to the aid of a candidate who was probably quaking in his boots with stage fright? George Will, the concerned human being! Now that's what I call a rara avis!

This post is a part of a (possibly unending) series. The earlier ones are:
Rara Avis, Part I (Wendy McElroy), Part II (Rush Limbaugh) and Part III (Laura Schlessinger)