The Corner

Of Juan Cole, David Frum, and Shoddy Journalism . . .

Maggie, Jonah, let me chime in, although not directly on David Frum’s writing; enough people have done that. While I like David and take his work very seriously (and have persuaded professors to assign his book How We Got Here: The 70s in their American-history classes), the press and pundit kerfuffle that has surrounded his departure from the American Enterprise Institute reminds me a bit of that which surrounded University of Michigan professor Juan Cole’s unsuccessful job application to Yale University. Knowing some of the details of both cases, I’ve found it illuminating to watch the press commentary develop:

In both cases, bloggers and journalists accepted a somewhat self-serving narrative of victimization, political persecution, and “McCarthyism,” while failing to ask some basic questions that might have challenged their conclusions.

In Cole’s case, journalists never bothered to ask about the description for the position that Yale was seeking to fill. The advertisement was not for a straight historian, but rather for someone with direct policy experience, as is true with slots at Harvard’s Kennedy School or Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School. Nor, when journalists accepted Juan’s claim that he had been politically railroaded, did they bother to ask whether Juan would duplicate the work of other professors at Yale, or about other unsuccessful job applications that Juan had made. Had journalists asked about any of these issues, they might have found Cole’s self-serving narrative to be dishonest and silly.

Pundits and commentators have used David’s case to question both the integrity of think tanks and their academic freedom. Few journalists or commentators have asked more mundane but pertinent questions about think tanks in general. I’ve interned at one think tank and worked at two others. I’ve also worked at four universities (not including three others in Iraqi Kurdistan). Based on my experience, a few questions that may be relevant:

• Is it common for scholars to meet with think-tank bosses?  Does this happen every year around the same time?

• Is it common for scholars to keep offices they seldom use? 

• Are there senior scholars who share offices or do not have offices?

• Is there a shortage of office space at a time when some offices are not often used?

• Is it common for senior scholars at think tanks around Washington to maintain an affiliation without salary? Or would David Frum, had he stayed a AEI, been a unique case?  Under what circumstances do scholars or fellows maintain affiliation without salary at other think tanks around Washington?

These are simple questions. Perhaps it’s time to ask them. That many journalists and commentators do not is unfortunate.

(And, no, lest I be misunderstood: I’m not comparing Frum to Cole. Frum is serious, his process exacting, and his work honest. He is no polemicist, and he does not tailor facts to fit his argument, nor try to drive square pegs through round holes; I’m simply noting similarities in the press coverage).

Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, senior lecturer at the Naval Postgraduate School’s Center for Civil-Military Relations, and a senior editor of the Middle East Quarterly.


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