Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Recently one of those increasingly familiar New York Times editorials disguised as news stories was headlined “Conservatives help Wal-Mart, and vice versa.” There was a chart with photos of people from conservative think tanks saying things favorable to Wal-Mart’s side of the controversies surrounding that company, along with dollar amounts over them and their statements, indicating how much Wal-Mart had donated to the think tanks where these individuals work.

Buried deep inside the story, near the end, was a passing comment that “labor unions have financed organizations that have been critical of Wal-Mart.” But no people or statements were singled out with dollar amounts over them.

The double standard was evident in another way: The charge was that these conservative think tanks and the scholars who work there “have consistently failed to disclose their ties” to Wal-Mart. There was no charge that liberal think tanks like the Brookings Institution, or its scholars, “failed to disclose their ties” to donors.

It is very doubtful if most of the scholars at either liberal or conservative think tanks know who all the many donors to these institutions are — or care.

For one thing, money comes from all points of the political compass and from a whole spectrum of special interest groups. You can say whatever you feel like and, if it doesn’t suit one think tank, it will suit another.

It so happens I work for a think tank, though not one mentioned in this New York Times “news” story, and I could not name five donors to the Hoover Institution if my life depended on it, though I am sure there are far more than five. For all I know, I may have defended some of those unknown donors — or I may have bitten the hand that feeds me by attacking them in this column.

It is by no means unknown for different scholars at the Hoover Institution to come out publicly on opposite sides of controversies. Nor is that unknown at other think tanks, liberal or conservative.

Why then should we “disclose” — even if we knew — who the donors are, as if we were delivering commercials for our sponsors?

Why do conservatives contribute money to conservative think tanks or liberals contribute money to liberal think tanks? Is it rocket science that people are likelier to contribute money to those they agree with? Or is it something sinister, as the New York Times implies — at least when the think tank is conservative?

Such cheap-shot journalism tells us more about those who engage in it, and the constituency to which they appeal than about those they write about. It tells us there are people so narrow and shallow they cannot understand how anyone else could possibly disagree with what they believe without having sold out.

Somehow such journalists, or those that they appeal to, believe they are so iron-clad right no one could even mistakenly disagree with them without being bought and paid for by the bad guys. Are we talking world-class chutzpa or what?

The self-infatuated idea nobody could disagree with you for honest and informed reasons is far more dangerous than possible influence from donors’ money. Far more is involved here than cheap-shot journalism. It is the audience for such journalism that is the real concern.

Our whole educational system, from the elementary schools to the universities, is increasingly turning out people who have never heard enough conflicting arguments to develop the skills and discipline required to produce a coherent analysis, based on logic and evidence.

The implications of having so many people so incapable of confronting opposing arguments with anything besides ad hominem responses reach far beyond Wal-Mart or think tanks. It is in fact the Achilles heel of this generation of our society and of Western civilization.

Thomas Sowell is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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