Mar 1 1995

Why Read the Right?

A Feminist Perspective

One breezy October evening three weeks before last fall’s election, Ellen Messer-Davidow, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota, advised New York feminists to start reading the writings of the right. Because most progressives don’t spend their time perusing conservative publications, she said, they usually don’t notice right-wing arguments until they spread to the media’s center stream.

Long before Christina Hoff Sommers published her attack on feminist scholarship, Who Stole Feminism? How Women Have Betrayed Women, for example, Carol Iannone, vice president of the National Association of Scholars (NAS), had authored “Feminism and Literature” (New Criterion, 11/85), “The Barbarism of Feminist Scholarship” (Intercollegiate Review, Fall/87) and “Analyzing the Feminist Whine” (American Spectator, 5/88).

Failing to cover the process by which certain arguments pass from the margins to the mainstream, news reporters have missed a vital story, said Davidow, and left the public dangerously ill-informed.

Davidow, who is preparing a book on right-wing institutions, was invited by FAIR’s Women’s Desk and the Sister Fund to address feminist media activists at a briefing hosted by the Ms. Foundation in New York City. She began her research by reading academic works, she explained, then turned her attentions to journalism to track the traveling rhetoric of the right. Then in 1992-93, she spent time “undercover” at the landmark conservative think-tank, the Heritage Foundation, and at two conservative training programs for journalists.

At Heritage, she watched how ideologically driven research was used to influence national policy. In 1989, for example, when Heritage published a 127-page monograph calling for a “National Health System for America,” under which prices would be set through “the market choices of those who can afford to buy their own healthcare protection,” the first step was to give an exclusive interview to the Washington Post (6/1/89). When the story appeared, Heritage marketers sent it to 40 syndicated columnists, 600 opinion page editors and 1,100 healthcare reporters at major dailies.

Local newspaper endorsements were brought to the attention of appropriate politicians. Another marketing division at the foundation targeted particular audiences like the elderly or people concerned about healthcare, and helped them build pressure for new laws. “Out of nowhere,” Davidow told FAIR, “this monograph suddenly became a major contender for conservatives in Congress.”

The National Journalism Center and the Leadership Institute train reporters, authors and activists: the catchers, one could say, for what think-tanks like Heritage pitch. The Leadership Institute runs nine schools that offer training in fundraising, organizing and broadcast journalism. Rep. Dick Armey (R.-Texas), now House Majority Leader, once wrote a fund-raising letter for the institute that began, “While you read this letter, left-wing journalism professors are preparing their new crop of media radicals.”

The National Journalism Center runs free, six-week training programs four times a year for students, followed by internships that give them pseudo-credentials and experience in the job market. In 1990, NJC estimated that “500 alumni were working in media posts at AP, UPI, ABC, CBS, CNN, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, etc.,” Davidow said.

In an article in Social Text (Fall/93), Ellen Messer-Davidow wrote that when “p.c.” hit the newsstands, progressive academics, “limited by their training, came to the attack through texts and focused on its textual features–the rhetoric, the ideas, the validity of the claims.”

Most people mistakenly assumed, wrote Davidow, “that the debate is the attack. The debate is only part of the attack.” By the time conservative ideas about campus radicalism, welfare, healthcare or faulty feminist facts hit the headlines in a sympathetic or at best uncritical mainstream media, part of the right’s social change program is “already a fait accompli.”

At a time, for example, when the very notion of state protection for the vulnerable is being discussed in Congress, the effective destruction of feminist credibility is key. In the wake of Sommers and her allies, the details are forgotten, but many in the public and the media are left doubting statistics perceived to have come from feminist sources. A vast range of experts are cast into doubt; and they are the experts on precisely those issues, like poverty, the family and welfare, that are up for legislative debate.