Crisis of the Public Intellectual

A few days ago a friend of mine who works at MSNBC asked if I'd come on to talk about Haley Barbour. I declined because Kenyatta had a final that evening and my son had math homework, as well as a bedtime. But as I mentioned to my friend, I also, generally, try to avoid cable news--both as a participant and as a viewer.  I'm not opposed to doing media--I've been on the NewsHour twice and found it thoroughly fulfilling. One of the high points of my life as writer was being interviewed by Terry Gross. Moreover, I'm not totally opposed to cable news. Not that anyone is pining for my approval but, as I've said before, I think Rachel Maddow frequently commits laudable acts of journalism. 


The outlines of the problem are becoming clear--I'm a snob. More seriously, it's my impression that much of cable news is rigged. Complicated questions are forced into small spaces of time, and guests frequently dissemble in order to score debate points and avoid being intellectually honest. Finally, many of the guests don't seem to be actual experts in the field of which they're addressing, so much as they're "strategists" or "analysts." I strongly suspect that part of the reason this is the case is talking on TV is, itself, a craft and one that requires a skill-set very different than what is required of academics.  I'm sure many academics themselves share the disdain for the format that I've outlined. Finally, the handful of scholars who regularly appear on the talk shows, generally aren't of the sort that hold my interests. 

With that said, it's very difficult to inveigh against these shows when you refuse to participate. The discomfiting facts is that cable news reaches a ton of people, many of whom--presuming they're interested--could use the information. 

The problem is aptly exhibited in the video above on the Secession Ball, which Kevin Levin links to, in which Chris Matthews hosts a debate between Thomas Hiter from the Sons of Confederate Veterans and columnist Eugene Robinson. During the course of the conversation, Robinson repeatedly charges that the "The Civil War was about slavery" and then claims that the firing on Fort Sumter qualifies as terrorism. The panel ends with Matthews asking Hiter whether he would have been on John Brown side in the 19th Century.

There are many problems here. I have tremendous respect for the journalism of Eugene Robinson, but I don't really understand why he would be the go-to guy for understanding secession. A fair-minded viewer would likely have been unswayed by Robinson simply repeating "The Civil War was about slavery," without offering up evidence that this was the case. Moreover, the charge that firing on Fort Sumter was a terrorist act strikes me as only true in the sense that terrorism, in our present political discourse, has come to mean "things we do not like." But the core of the problem is Matthews's John Brown question, which carries with it the implication that people have intrinsic qualities and are not the product of a historical process. I obviously have no sympathy for neo-Confederates, but I'm unconvinced that this kind of discourse--indeed the format itself--does anything more than verify the notion that this really is just another "liberal vs. conservative" debate with no real objective truth.

Much of what we're discussing is how academia has, to some extent by its own actions, been cleaved away from public life. I hesitate to speak on television about the Civil War, because there are people who've made this the work of their life--actual experts--who should be speaking. But I also recoil at the notion of a host looking at me and saying, "John Brown--good guy or bad, guy? Go." I imagine those experts feel the same way.

As in all things, I don't write this to offer a definitive answer. My sense is that the reluctance among people like me--and people smarter than me--to engage, is as problematic as the form itself.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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