Why I...I believe academics should avoid the mass media

November 8, 2002

To have an academic reputation is increasingly less to do with research and knowledge development and more to do with having a media presence.

For the mass media, experts provide a sense of authenticity and can be a cheaper option than doing careful research.

Academic institutions recognise the link between academic ambition and media logic. Hence almost all have media offices and most list their experts on their internet sites.

The television show or newspaper feature that presents the perspective of some serious researcher can undoubtedly be rewarding, but even in the most productive cases the focus on the personality and the weight of the academic's presence is often subsuming. The appearance and the rhetoric choke the argument and the method, and the whole exercise becomes theatre, with the expert as hero. But these are the rare high points. More often than not, erroneous and distorted information is broadcast, with lurid dramatisations and rhetoric thrown in to raise ratings.

The thinking audience is generally disappointed by the contributions of experts in TV news bulletins and programmes. They too often present brief statements of opinion and findings that have to be taken on trust. It is expertise at its most hollow - little more than a mindless assertion of media savvyness. It has nothing to do with the so-called expert's expertise itself.

But the mendacity of the mass media's use of experts goes deeper than being simply misuse for the sake of satisfying the unthinking consumer. It has something to do with ideological control. David Herman and Noam Chomsky have argued that the US mass media are consciously or unconsciously ideologically biased in favour of corporate capitalist interests. Perhaps there is too much of the conspiracy theory about this for it to be swallowed wholesale, but there is surely an element of truth.

I was recently approached by a big US satellite TV channel for an interview on my views about international terrorism one year after September 11. I was told my book would be mentioned twice. I agreed but heard nothing until after the Yemen explosion and the Bali bombs. In a preliminary interview, I was asked what the global response should be to the regrouping of al-Qaida. I replied that there were two sides to the question. First, if al-Qaida was the coherent international network it was alleged to be, similar acts of terrorism would occur and preventive measures would have to be taken. It was, though, difficult to see how that fit with the prevailing fixation with regime change in Iraq. Second, I was interested in how every suspected terrorism act everywhere was being attributed in a pre-emptive fashion to such a presumptively coherent international network. The politics of this attribution needed careful consideration.

The interviewer was worried: it had to be accepted that a regrouping of al-Qaida was happening and that there was a centrally coordinated campaign of terror. What sort of global response should be anticipated? I couldn't answer. I couldn't give a policy recommendation based on hypotheses. The interviewer suggested that I was maybe not right for this slot after all.

There seems to me to be a strong case for divorcing academic credibility from media visibility. In my view, academics can appear in the mass media only as journalists or propagandists. Otherwise, they risk selling out their expertise. To protect the integrity of study and research, experts should gradually start seeking alternative ways of reaching the widest audience. This is surely possible in an age of information.

Suman Gupta is author of The Replication of Violence : Thoughts on International Terrorism after 11 September 200 1, published by Pluto.

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