A noted economist fires back.
In the movie, Absence of Malice, lives are damaged and even destroyed by irresponsible reporting — and the law offers no real protection. In real life as well, the most damaging, unsupported, and inaccurate statements about an individual can be written and broadcast coast to coast, without the law’s offering any meaningful recourse. Judges have so watered down the laws on slander and libel that only in special cases can you nail those who are being irresponsible, vindictive, or even outright liars.
I know. As one who has taken controversial stands on various issues, I have been the target of a smear campaign for more than a year. Demonstrably false statements have been made about me in the media and positions attributed to me that are the direct opposite of what I have said for years in my own published writings. And yet a lawsuit would probably do nothing but waste months of my time, at the end of which the smear artists could slip out through one of the many loopholes — and proclaim themselves vindicated and their charges substantiated.
Instead, let me submit some examples to the court of public opinion — some merely irresponsible, and others more vicious.
The most staggering of many false charges was made by CBS correspondent Lem Tucker on that network’s morning television program. According to a broadcast by Tucker on October 13, 1981, my viewpoint “seems to place him in the school that believes that maybe most blacks are genetically inferior to whites.” For a charge as sweeping and inflammatory as genetic inferiority of a race — my race — you would think there would have to be some speck of hard evidence. But you would be wrong. For ten years, I have repeatedly and extensively argued against the genetic inferiority theory — in four books, two newspapers, two magazines, and various lectures. These included a feature article I wrote on I.Q. in the New York Times Magazine of March 27, 1977. There I pointed out that European immigrants had the same I.Q. scores as blacks when they lived under conditions similar to blacks, and cited massive amounts of data I had collected on the subject.
Anyone who wanted the facts about my position could easily have found them. Lem Tucker chose instead to broadcast sensational rhetoric coast to coast. The closest thing to factual evidence that he had was a newspaper interview in which another reporter had asked where my personal “stubbornness and isolation” came from, and I suggested that these traits were probably inherited, since some of my relatives had similar personalities. How one gets from this to genetic inferiority is a mystery only Lem Tucker can solve.
False statements in the press can have serious consequences, even when they are not smears. In the Washington Post of February 5, 1981, Herbert Denton reported that I had formed an organization “which was incorporated this week in California under the name Black Alternatives Association, Inc.” This organization never existed, even though the Washington Post story was carried coast to coast in other newspapers. It is a matter of public record when an organization is incorporated, so anyone can check the incorporation records for that week — or any other week — and find no “Black Alternatives” organization incorporated by Thomas Sowell.
Although the organization was nonexistent, the results of the story were quite real. For weeks an avalanche of mail and telephone calls came to my office and my one secretary. We struggled day in and day out to get our regular work done, to organize a conference that was scheduled, and to proofread the galleys for my book, Ethnic America — all the while being interrupted every few minutes by phone calls from people wanting to join the nonexistent organization, or from reporters wanting a detailed blueprint of its far-flung operations, as reported in the Washington Post.
In order to try to keep up with our regular work despite incessant interruptions, my secretary and I began coming in to work earlier and earlier in the morning, and leaving later and later at night. We still fell behind. Eventually exhaustion caught up with us. She took a week off. My doctor put me on medication and I stayed home for two weeks. Our conference was cancelled, and other commitments and deadlines had to be left unmet.
What was the basis for the Washington Post story? Some friends and I were thinking of establishing an organization, but its specific activities had not been worked out, nor any money collected, nor an “office rented or stationery printed. One of my associates reported his own speculations to Denton, who turned them into “facts” — and headlines — about my plans. When Denton phoned me for verification, I told him that there was already enough misinformation in the world, without his printing such a story. Apparently he disagreed.
Ironically, my staying home led to another fictitious story. Jet magazine reported that I was hospitalized in Palo Alto. Actually, I have not been hospitalized in more than a decade, and do not even know the location of a hospital in Palo Alto. But again, a fictitious story had real consequences. A member of my family on the East Coast read the Jet story and became alarmed. Having heard nothing about hospitalization from me, she concluded that I must be so gravely ill that the family was keeping the news from her because of her own serious heart condition. Her worst suspicions seemed to be confirmed when she phoned my home while I was out. I was at a local pool, swimming 500 yards while supposedly “hospitalized.”
Among the many false charges in the media, the one that most piqued my curiosity was that I had “castigated” Vernon Jordan. Dorothy Gilliam of the Washington Post was the source of this charge, later repeated by others. I could not for the life of me remember mentioning Vernon Jordan, much less attacking him. I first went through two articles of mine that Gilliam was denouncing. No Vernon Jordan. Then I started going through the indexes of my books. Still no Vernon Jordan.
Finally, I wrote to Vernon Jordan. He had never heard of any such attack either, and advised me to “pay it no mind.”
Not all demonstrably false statements can be attributed to political bias or personal animosity. Some media statements have been miles off base without being either favorable or unfavorable. For example, I have been repeatedly identified as a Republican, on television and in newspapers. In reality, I have never been a Republican, nor even addressed a Republican gathering. It has been a decade since I was a registered member of any party: and then I was a Democrat. The only partisan gathering I have ever addressed was an informal luncheon sponsored by the Libertarian Party.
After the 1980 election, stories began to appear in many newspapers that I was going to become a Cabinet member in the Reagan Administration. Some papers said Secretary of Labor, others Secretary of Education, or of Housing and Urban Development. Some said Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. They all sounded very sure of their facts, though obviously one man could not be holding all these jobs.
I of course knew all along that I was not about to go to Washington for any job. I had declined offers of presidential appointments in previous administrations, and saw no reason to change now. But since no one in the new administration had asked me, it would have been a gratuitous insult to the incoming President to have said so. Finally I was asked, declined politely, and figured that was the end of that.
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