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Media Smears: One Man’s Experiences

A noted economist fires back.

By From the May 1982 issue

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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.

Wrong "Facts"
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.

Unsupported Insinuations
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.

Not as far as the press was concerned.

Opinions that I had been expressing for more than a decade were now suddenly depicted as opportunistic statements echoing the Reagan Administration in order to get me a job in Washington. On January 31, 1981, the Pittsburgh Courier said: "Like flies chasing a garbage truck, opportunists of all stripes (and colors) are scrambling to align themselves with the new Reagan administration." Among these were "Thomas Sowell of the notorious Hoover Institution." Columnist Carl Rowan likewise said, "Sowell parrots the Reaganites," and included me among the "supplicants" for Administration largesse. None of those who wrote this way ever found it necessary to show where I had ever gotten a dime from the Reagan Administration.

The most they could come up with was my unpaid position as a member of a committee that met occasionally, had no powers, and could only offer outside advice to the Administration. Even this position I gave up after one meeting, when it became clear that the combination of jet lag and long meetings created medical problems for me.

But some newspapers would not give up the idea that I was part of the Reagan Administration, even after it was public knowledge that I was not. The Baton Rouge Community Leader called me "the most prominent Black policy maker," even though I never made a policy in my life. Lee Daniels in the New York Times called me "the Administration's favored black spokesman," even though I had never spoken a word for the Administration, had gone for months without saying anything publicly on any subject, and had turned down innumerable requests for interviews. How one can be a spokesman without speaking remains a mystery.

In a similar vein, a book reviewer in the New York Times called my Ethnic America a book "to be feared -- as a signpost pointing to the probable future direction of the present national administration regarding minorities." Not a single policy is recommended in Ethnic America, which is a history book. It was begun in 1978 and completed before the 1980 elections, which is to say, before there was a Reagan Administration. Even now, I have no hard information that anybody in the Administration has ever read it.

The really ugly insinuations concern money. A writer in the Sacramento Observer depicted an article of mine as showing a "soul sold for a little money." What money was of course never specified. Money also figured prominently in the Washington Post story about my nonexistent organization -- $100,000 which unnamed corporations and foundations had "promised" to contribute. I wish I knew who made those promises, because I have not seen a penny materialize.

There is an irony for me in the constant emphasis on money. As one who quit his job as an economic analyst for the world's largest corporation to become an academic, I was hardly following a course of action likely to maximize my income. Moreover, even within the academic world, there was far more money to be made, over the past 20 years, saying the direct opposite of what I said. Large lecture fees, foundation grants, directorships of minority programs (and of major corporations) went to those who shouted and shook their fists and demanded special programs. Those of us who questioned that whole approach were at best tolerated. At more than one university during the 1960s, I lived in cramped, rented quarters while "militant" black academics owned spacious homes. And they drove Mercedes while I drove a Volkswagen. Yet innuendoes about selling out were directed toward me, but never toward them. The blatant facts of the situation seemed not to make the slightest difference. Nor did it seem to occur to critics that no one sells out to the lowest bidder.

Even in today's changed climate of opinion, a number of blacks at the other end of the political spectrum make several times my income. Again, the media never question whether what they say might be influenced by what they receive from the very programs they champion.

Personal Attacks and Double Standards
For much of the decade of the 1970s, I engaged in research on American ethnic groups. What I discovered often conflicted with prevailing views in the media and among politicians and civil rights leaders. For example, I discovered that group differences in income had many causes, some of them with much greater impact than employer discrimination. A close look at the data also showed that school busing and "affirmative action" policies not only failed to achieve their goals, but generally ended up making the disadvantaged even more disadvantaged. Some of these facts were surprising to me, and forced me to change some of my own thinking. I expected them to be surprising to others, and probably, not very popular.

What I did not expect was that the facts would be so widely and totally disregarded, and that so much of the response would consist of purely personal attacks on me -- and that the press would apply a double standard in the controversies that followed.

For example, in December 1980, Washington Post reporter Herbert Denton told me that an NAACP official had called me by the vile epithet, "a house nigger." When I threw the charge back in his face, the headline in Demon's story proclaimed my attack on the NAACP as "house niggers." You would have to dig quite a ways into the story to find out who attacked and who replied. A later story by Denton called me "vituperative" in my "attacks" on the civil rights organizations.

When former Cabinet member Patricia Roberts Harris proclaimed that I did not know what poverty was, no one questioned what basis she had for that statement, or what relevance it had to the facts about public policy. It so happened that I grew up in such poverty that I was eight years old before I lived in a home with hot running water. Patricia Roberts Harris, though black, grew up in a middle-class home and in college belonged to a sorority too snobbish to admit dark-skinned women. When I reported these facts, there was a storm of outrage in the press -- and claims that I was attacking Mrs. Harris for being lightskinned! The lady herself played this theme to the hilt, saying that it was a "use of South African apartheid concepts of racial gradations, combined with an exotic infusion of Marxist class warfare notions." By and large, the press bought her version.

The behind-the-scenes story of this controversy was more of the same double standard. Editor Meg Greenfield of the Washington Post tried repeatedly to get me to water down or eliminate various criticisms -- including that of Patricia Harris -- in a pair of articles I wrote for that paper. I challenged her to find a single misstatement of fact in my articles, but she complained instead of the harshness of what was said. After her many phone calls, weeks of delay, and heated words between us, Meg Greenfield finally agreed to print what I had said -- but with a weary air of being much put upon.

No such standards applied to the many articles which the Post then printed denouncing my position. For one thing, they appeared much too quickly for Meg Greenfield to have engaged in weeks of agonized discussions and hand-wringing. Neither harshness, nor irrelevance, nor inaccuracy stopped them from being published. If someone wanted to refer to my "blackface sociology" or to my nonexistent castigation of Vernon Jordan, that was fine. If they had no specific facts but only vague innuendoes about "selling out," that was fine. If later Carl Rowan wanted to say that I did more harm to blacks than Quisling did to his fellow-Norwegians under Nazi rule, the Post was ready to print it.

Apparently, it all depends on whose ox is being gored.

I have not been the only target of such unsupported innuendoes or such double standards. Various black writers have emerged in recent years to challenge some of the prevailing assumptions of the civil rights establishment and have encountered personal attacks rather than substantive criticism of their work. Sociologist William Julius Wilson of the University of Chicago produced a widely read study that questioned whether racial economic differences today were nearly as much due to racial discrimination as in the past. Economist Walter Williams of George Mason University wrote a prize-winning article on numerous government programs that harm minorities -- including some programs, such as the minimum wage law, that are ostensibly intended to be beneficial. Former civil rights attorney Derrick Bell, now dean of the law school at the University of Oregon, questioned whether massive busing was really in the interest of black children. Professor of psychiatry Gloria Powell of UCLA published a massive study which failed to show any clear pattern of psychological gains by black children who had been "integrated" in the public schools, despite what was widely expected, promised, or claimed.

Several things are remarkable about this group of people. They arrived at their conclusions by research, independently of each other, and without a common social or political position. They are academics with neither a financial nor a political stake in one conclusion rather than another. Yet they have all been accused of seeking personal gain or political advancement, or of being too affluent to understand the ghetto. Yet the press has seldom used the same standards when judging their critics. The New York Times, for example, asked NAACP Executive Director Benjamin Hooks whether Walter Williams's middleclass status and income did not undermine Williams's positions on racial issues, without ever considering whether Hooks's own background was not far more middle class than Williams's or his current income far higher -- and dependent on the very programs he advocated. Carl Rowan's innuendoes that people were taking certain public positions on issues to get political appointments for themselves centered on two academics (Williams and myself) who have never been politically appointed to any job -- though Rowan himself has. Nathaniel Jones of the NAACP publicly questioned whether Derrick Bell was not trying for personal career gain by opposing busing, though in fact the real gains were to be made by taking Jones's position -- which gained him a federal judgeship through appointment by President Carter, while Bell remains an academic.

If facts about issues are to be subordinated to speculations about personal motives, then at least the standards can be the same for those on opposite sides of the issues.

"Real" Meanings
When there is nothing that can even be lifted out of context to support a damaging interpretation, some writers resort to reporting your "real" meaning. "Real" meanings require no evidence whatever, and can never be disproved. They are ideal for smears.

According to book reviewer Paul Buhle in the Nation, the real purpose of Ethnic America was to offer "economic and historical justification" for "gutting social services." Nowhere in the book is any social service mentioned as requiring reduction. According to St. Clair Drake in the Palo Alto Weekly, the real purpose is to "put forward a conservative agenda" -- though no agenda at all is put forth in the book -- a fact which other reviewers (including those in Time and Newsweek) complained about. In the same vein, David Herbert Donald declared in the New York Times that "Mr. Sowell is really less interested in the past than in the present and the future," even though the book is a history, with almost no discussion of current policies.

Among the "real" meanings discerned was one presented by Carl Rowan in such a way that unwary readers might think it was a direct quote from me about my career: "I did all this on my own, with hard work, so I don't want government to give any lazy bastard anything." What I actually said about my own career was written a decade ago in Black Education: Myths and Tragedies:

It would be premature at best and presumptuous at worst to attempt to draw sweeping or definitive conclusions from my personal experiences. It would be especially unwarranted to draw Horatio Alger conclusions, that perseverance and/or ability "win out" despite obstacles. The fact is, I was losing in every way until my life was changed by the Korean War, the draft, and the GI Bill -- none of which I can take credit for. I have no false modesty about having seized the opportunity and worked to make it pay off, but there is no way to avoid the fact that there first had to be an opportunity to seize.

Words lose a lot in translation when other people start reporting your "real" meaning. Lem Tucker on the CBS morning program had me claiming "that he alone, almost without bootstraps, pulled himself out of the ghetto through Harvard and the University of Chicago." Others have depicted me as advising other blacks to emulate my example, though they could never seem to come up with any specific quote from when I had done so. It would of course be a ridiculous piece of advice, for luck was an important element, and there is no way to emulate luck. What I have urged is that other disadvantaged people be allowed more options -- school vouchers as just one example -- and less advice from "experts."

Responsible Journalism
Any discussion of irresponsible or malicious statements in the press is itself misleading if it does not mention that there are fair, honest, and intelligent journalists as well. But it takes relatively few individuals to keep a smear campaign going. And once certain distortions are repeated often enough, they become "facts" to many readers and even to other writers.

People are constantly telling me how surprised they are at reading something I have written, because it is so different from what they have been led to believe by the media. But the problem is much bigger than me or my ideas. If I were going to let smears stop me, I would have stopped years ago. What is far more important is that an atmosphere of character assassination is not one in which there is a widespread clash of opposing views. It is not even a question of which view is right. No single individual or set of "leaders" has a monopoly on understanding. Even the truth may be an incomplete truth, and need additional perspectives that lie beyond one person's vision. In short, the process of airing different perspectives is even more important than the question of which is closest to the truth.

Implicit in much that is said about the emotional subject of race and ethnicity is the presumption that no honest disagreement is possible on the orthodoxy promoted by the civil rights leaders and liberal politicians. "Lay not that flattering unction to your soul," Hamlet warned. It is a warning that is as timely today as it was centuries ago.

Historically, people who have looked at things differently have always been seen as a threat -- in science, religion, the military, and every other field of human concern and commitment. Even the most advanced nations in Western Civilization -- including the United States -- burned women alive as witches within the past three centuries. Where feelings run deep, rationality has often broken down. Moreover, the time pressures of the media and the need for excitement to attract readers and viewers promote the creation of stereotypes, bogeymen, and scapegoats. But surely it is time we learned from history that the particular victims and scapegoats are not the only losers in an atmosphere of witch-hunting. We all lose when we stifle the diversities of opinion which alone give us some hope of understanding complex and difficult social issues.

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About the Author

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, Stanford, CA 94305. His website is www.tsowell.com. To find out more about Thomas Sowell and read features by other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.