Conservatives Preach Diversity of Thought Without Practicing It

Ideological openness is even less present in right-leaning institutions than in their mainstream analogues, especially in media.

bubble full Ali Smiles Flickr.png
Flickr / Ali Smiles

So is diversity of thought important or isn't it?

For decades, conservatives have complained about liberal control of academia and the media, often with good reason. Diversity of thought is essential for any institution intent on informing an audience. Students and news consumers deserve better than any information bubble can deliver. Urging these center-left institutions to diversify and guard against bias remains valid. But conservative complaints grow more hypocritical by the day when one looks at the institutions they've built.

There is no longer a leftist monopoly in higher learning or media. The right has successfully built alternatives in both areas. Do these right-leaning entities strive for intellectual diversity? They do not. Fox News is more intellectually closed than CNN. Liberty University is more intellectually closed than New York University. It's easy to see how this happened. At the start, right-leaning institutions saw themselves as scrappy correctives in fields so overwhelmingly liberal that conservatives couldn't help but be exposed to analysis, opinions, and critiques different from their own. 


There's also a lucrative market for telling conservatives what they already believe. It's now theoretically possible to go from evangelical homeschooling to a conservative college where debating abortion is verboten to a job at a conservative think tank, reached via a talk-radio-filled commute. On Fridays you can attend a happy hour hosted by a right-of-center networking organization, start dating a fellow attendee, and marry, at which point you can split a subscription to Glenn Beck TV for evening infotainment. Thirty years later you can both move to a retirement community where Fox News plays 24/7. Epistemic closure is more possible than ever.

Conservative journalists increasingly work at conservative publications. Conservative academics increasingly work at right-leaning think tanks or ideologically friendly university departments. Rather than improving epistemically closed institutions, conservatives are building their own. And they're even less diverse than their allegedly defective mainstream analogues.

Dennis Prager reminded me of this subject. "There is no greater uniformity of thought than at our universities: Their much-ballyhooed commitment to diversity is about race and ethnicity, not about ideas," he wrote in his latest column. "So, too, the great majority of news-media people live in the same bubble, the left-wing herd that covers national and international news. Reading the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Le Monde, or listening to the BBC is essentially reading or listening to the same selection and presentation of the news. One reason that leftists talk to, read, and listen only to fellow leftists is that they are certain there is no other way to think rationally, compassionately, or morally. Therefore, there is no reason to debate conservatives, let alone expose oneself to their ideas."

Credit where it's due: Prager frequently invites people with whom he disagrees, myself included, on his talk-radio show, and his output there is far superior to most people in the medium. He also has a long history of engaging in interfaith dialogue and political debate. But his sweeping statements about academia and media aren't supported by the facts, and he ought to know better than to make them based on both personal experience and easily made observations.

Anyone can see that The New York Times and The Washington Post, whatever their faults, don't publish "only fellow leftists." David Brooks has been at the Times for years. Ross Douthat took over after a short stint by Bill Kristol. William Safire preceded them both. The Washington Post publishes George Will, Charles Krauthammer, and Jennifer Rubin, among other conservatives.The Los Angeles Times, one of the newspapers Prager criticizes for being part of a closed loop including only fellow leftists, has published Prager himself. It's one thing to argue these efforts are insufficient, or to observe that these are generally center-left publications, especially in their cultural coverage. It's quite another to write as if efforts to have diversity of though aren't happening. 

Prager's biography states that he is "widely sought after by television shows for his opinions," noting appearances "on Larry King Live, Hardball, Hannity & Colmes, CBS Evening News, The Today Show and many others." He writes that "there is no greater uniformity of thought than at our universities," but his biography also states:
Mr. Prager was a Fellow at Columbia University's School of International Affairs, where he did graduate work at the Middle East and Russian Institutes. He has taught Russian and Jewish history at Brooklyn College .... He holds an honorary doctorate of laws from Pepperdine University.
Prager is also a fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. I cannot find a list of all the American colleges where Prager has spoken or debated. Perhaps he could tell us if the number is dozens or scores. In any case, he cannot claim that academia and "mainstream media" are closed to people like him. 

None of this is to deny that there are more liberals than conservatives in academia and media. It is only to say that conservative complaints about how closed those worlds are is dated and exaggerated. Media organizations from CNN to Reuters to NPR actively solicit content from conservative contributors. Ombudsmen are increasingly frequent, in part to field complaints of ideological bias. Calling out ideological bias, when it exists, remains perfectly legitimate. But right-leaning institutions have made nothing like the same effort to ensure that they are ideologically diverse, a quality accorded very little value in their aspirations and business models. This would be less bothersome if conservatives hadn't insisted for so long that diversity of thought is vital if you're to run a quality institution of higher education or mass media.   

For a while, conservatives will keep getting away with complaining that liberals control academia and media. But that can't and shouldn't last forever. Folks on the right need to compete for spots in existing academic and media organizations, start alternative institutions of comparable quality and ambition, or else quit the interminable complaints that things are stacked against them. Specific complaints against inaccurate information will always remain legitimate. The sweeping generalizations about liberal universities and media outlets, and how hostile they are to diversity of thought, have already gotten old -- they are certainly prone to groupthink, but not nearly so much as the conservative institutions that have sprung up in reaction to them. And those new conservative institutions are growing big and influential in their own right.

So conservatives, is diversity of thought important or isn't it?
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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