April 21, 2006 by Marc Lamont Hill
Yesterday, I ran across an article on public intellectuals by Jennifer Jacobson in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education. Unlike many pieces of it’s kind, which often playa-hate on the public intellectual vocation, this piece was extremely balanced and offered an interesting perspective:
During the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the late 1990s, Cass R. Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago, appeared on television regularly to argue that impeaching President Bill Clinton was wrong.
Then he got sick of it. He was bored with the cameras, sitting in the studio had lost its novelty, and, to top it off, his earpiece kept falling out. So after CNN asked him to appear yet again, he said he would agree only on one condition: that his dog join him on the air.
The network agreed. During the commercial break, the phones were ringing off the hook, Mr. Sunstein recalls. Viewers wanted to know where they could buy a dog like Perry, Mr. Sunstein’s Rhodesian Ridgeback. “He was a big TV star,” says Mr. Sunstein. The experience, he says, was “the highlight of my television career.”
Few scholars, of course, ever have a television career. Most professors never get calls from producers asking them to talk about their areas of expertise for an audience of millions. But academics like Mr. Sunstein; Diane Ravitch, an education professor at New York University; Michael Eric Dyson, a professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania; and Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist at the University of Washington, have made it onto producers’ Palm Pilots because they have written popular books and well-read opinion columns, can look good on camera, and offer great quotes.
While university administrators applaud professors who engage in public debate, they do acknowledge that by going on television, academics risk appearing less scholarly to their colleagues. Fellow faculty members may criticize them for oversimplifying complex ideas, yet those colleagues may also envy their success in the popular culture.
Public intellectuals dispute the idea that television appearances sully their scholarly reputations. After all, it is their scholarship, they say, that prompted them to write opinion columns that caught the eye of television producers in the first place. More importantly, they say, they have a professional responsibility to share information with the public and policy makers, not just their peers in academe.
Regardless of professors’ personal sense of public service, television shows keep coming back to them for one reason: their ability, rare among academics, to speak in sound bites rather than paragraphs. “You’re not giving a lecture on Foucault for a bunch of French theorists,” Mr. Dyson says. “You’ve got five minutes to hit it or quit it.”
Minute by Minute
Professorial pundits tend to have a clear idea of where they can “hit it.” Many of them have been appearing on television for more than 20 years and recognize the best formats for sharing their views.
“I only go on shows that are news shows, not Maury Povich,” says Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics, at Penn. That way, Mr. Caplan says, he can stick to his core issues. These include organ donation and in vitro fertilization, which he has been writing about since the 1980s.
A show like Dr. Phil, which has invited Mr. Caplan a couple of times, seems to be more focused on advice and self-help, he says. So he has said no. And “that lady that’s always hectoring people,” he says, referring to Laura C. Schlessinger, “I wouldn’t do that either.”
Instead, he prefers to appear on 60 Minutes or shows on CNN. Although he has only a few minutes to speak, Mr. Caplan says he has learned to use television to spread messages. “On any single appearance, I can’t say everything I want,” he admits. But if a show has him on several times, he can repeat his message and build on it with each appearance.
Mr. Caplan has plenty of opportunities to do just that. In a busy week, he fields five or six television interviews. Other weeks he might do only one. He does not like to take the time to travel for such appearances, so he films them in local studios.
He makes sure to bring his own compact with face powder and a custom-made earpiece. The earpiece he bought for $30 from a hearing-aid company, which sent him a plaster-of-paris kit to mold to his ear. He wanted his own because earpieces often fall out, and they are dirty. He uses the compact, which his wife picked out for him, “to powder my nose if it’s shiny.”
On television-free days, Diane Ravitch doesn’t wear much makeup — no eyeliner, eye shadow, or mascara. Some days, she says, she does not even apply lipstick.
She is not a fan of getting made up for television; in fact, she says “that’s the worst part.” There is, however, an upside to it, Ms. Ravitch says: The skillfully applied products make her look 20 years younger — for three minutes.
She realizes that is not a lot of time to share her views with the public. But it is a chance to reach a national audience, she says. Besides, most Americans get their news from television. “So if you can say something that’s educational and valuable for them to hear,” she says, “that’s more than they’ll hear for the rest of the day.”
The most fun she had on television was on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, she says, where she appeared after she wrote The Language Police: How Pressure Groups Restrict What Students Learn. (The book, published in 2003, is about how both the left and the right restrict phrasing and content in textbooks and standardized exams.) Ms. Ravitch admits she was nervous before going on. It was “a little bit intimidating,” she says. “I thought ‘Oh, gosh. I’m so much older than the people in the studio audience.’” Mr. Stewart, though, put her at ease. “He said ‘Don’t worry about being funny,’” she recalls. “‘That’s my job.’”
When Mr. Sunstein appeared with his dog on Greta Van Susteren’s Burden of Proof in December 1998, he was not trying to be funny. He just wanted a change. He persuaded the network to allow him to do a show on the “associated legal issues” when an airline loses your dog at the airport. Mr. Sunstein recalls that Ms. Van Susteren also brought her German shepherd.
While that experience went off without a hitch, Mr. Sunstein says his lowlight was when he appeared on The NewsHour With Jim Lehrer to discuss the controversy over the 2000 presidential election. The earpiece malfunctioned so that every word he said was repeated in his ear. It “was a real challenge to see if I could talk,” he says.
Plus, the earpiece kept falling out. Upon learning that Mr. Caplan wears one specially designed to fit his ear, Mr. Sunstein seems intrigued. “That’s very clever,” he says. “I should do that.”
Risk and Reward
Presidents and provosts commend professors for going on camera. “I think it’s wonderful that Penn has a way to get out the message that our work matters in the world,” says Rebecca W. Bushnell, the university’s dean of arts and sciences.
Mark A. Emmert, president of the University of Washington, agrees. When someone like Pepper Schwartz talks about academic research in a popularized format, “it gives people a little window into what we do and how it relates to their lives,” he says. “It demystifies some of the academy. That’s incredibly useful.”
But he does acknowledge that faculty members who engage in these public conversations risk being taken less seriously. They may, he says, experience “the Carl Sagan effect.” Mr. Emmert is referring to the famous Cornell University professor and Pulitzer Prize-winner who faced criticism from some of his colleagues for becoming the face and voice of astronomy and ultimately a celebrity.
“It’s important for university leaders to make it clear to the university community that we value that engagement by our faculty,” he says. “While faculty do have different roles to play, the role of the popularizer of scholarship is very important.”
Not everyone in academe shares that view. Judith A. Howard, a professor of sociology and a social sciences dean at the University of Washington, contends that Ms. Schwartz’s career has suffered in some ways because of her television appearances, mainly in terms of the esteem in which her work is held.
“I don’t mean to suggest she hasn’t had a very successful career,” Ms. Howard says of her colleague, who focuses on gender, family, and human sexuality issues. But “there’s a way in which some academics don’t respect people who have that kind of relationship with the media.”
She contends, however, that that attitude is beginning to change. For instance, she notes that Ms. Schwartz received a major award last year from the American Sociological Association for contributing to the public’s understanding of sociology.
Ms. Schwartz says she was touched by the honor, especially since her areas of study, unlike race and class, are not traditionally rewarded in the discipline. But she does admit that television appearances can make a professor seem less scholarly. “Sometimes you’re talking about a topic that’s hardly about world peace,” she says. “I do that because it’s fun. I don’t pretend that it’s world peace.”
She cites her appearance on the Today show a couple of months ago as a prime example. She was there to give “some perspective” on whether it was a good idea for women to get back together with their ex-boyfriends, she says.
It is unlikely her colleagues caught the segment. Gary Hamilton, a sociology professor, says he has never watched Ms. Schwartz on television. He is not even sure when she is appearing on various shows, he says: “It’s not announced in the department.” Mr. Hamilton used to have the office right across the hall from Ms. Schwartz’s and a front-row seat to watch the camera crews come and go. “I used to chuckle about that,” he says, “but I was never jealous.”
Douglas Baird, a law professor at the University of Chicago with Mr. Sunstein, does not envy his better-known colleagues, either. “If I were as smart as Cass,” he says, “I’d be jealous.”
Besides, in an intense academic environment like Chicago, he contends, “you’re only as good as your latest academic article.” Mr. Sunstein is not shirking his responsibilities as a professor, since he continues to teach large classes and publish books, Mr. Baird says. “It’s a little hard to say he shouldn’t be on television, too.”
But some public intellectuals say their colleagues do resent their status as pundits.
“‘I can’t believe they go back to you again and again,’” Mr. Caplan says some will complain. Or a colleague will tell him that another professor says he is “hogging the media.”
Most of the criticism is not about substance, he says. “It’s about appearance: ‘I don’t like the fact that you’re on a lot.’”
Wonbo Woo, a producer at ABC’s World News Tonight, says that he and his colleagues look for professors who can play the role of outside observer and succinctly fill in the gaps inherent in TV. A long television piece on his show runs about two and a half minutes, he says: “That’s not a lot of time to tell a story.”
Mr. Sunstein does a great job, Mr. Woo says. The constitutional law scholar is one of roughly 500 academic contacts Mr. Woo keeps in his PDA. The producer says he often calls Mr. Sunstein because he is “ideologically balanced” and “not easy to dismiss.” The professor, he says, has a very thoughtful approach to talking about the law to an audience that does not necessarily understand it.
Besides his ability to simplify his subject, Mr. Woo also appreciates that Mr. Sunstein readily suggests other academics the producer should contact if he thinks they may be more knowledgeable about a certain topic. Ms. Schwartz says she does the same thing. She often recommends colleagues “to get all the best information presented” and because she is sometimes overwhelmed with requests.
For junior professors, Mr. Caplan says, there can be downsides to accepting such invitations. Inexperienced young professors can say things that alienate senior professors or the board of trustees. And they can also be seen as less scholarly just because they have been on television a few times. “You have to weigh those things,” he says. “My attitude is … I’ll put my CV up against anyone.”
Larry J. Sabato agrees. The professor of politics at the University of Virginia says it is perfectly OK for academics to be public intellectuals as long as they are also private ones. “You do your teaching, publish your books, you perform your public service,” he says. “That comes first.”
Now that he has taught at the university for nearly 30 years, Mr. Sabato says, he does not encounter jealous colleagues. But he did early on. “You’ve got a lot of assistant professors,” he says. “Everyone’s coming up for tenure. They’re doing their books. They’re wondering why is this guy going on and not me.”
But that is up to the producers, Mr. Sabato says: “I don’t call them. They call me.”
The producers call Michael Eric Dyson every week. The professor of religious studies and humanities, known for his books on African-American perspectives, like his recently published Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster, says his colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania frequently comment on his appearances. And a lot of them are proud of him. But some professors, he says, take issue with the fact that such appearances “bleed” beyond the sanctified borders of academe. The critics seem to believe, he says, that if more than five people outside of your discipline read your work then you are not scholarly enough. Never mind that he has written 13 books in as many years.
Mr. Dyson has been going on television for nearly two decades and is typically asked to comment on race, class, and culture. He rattles off some highlights from his television CV: “The Today show, Nightline, Rap City on BET. I’ve been on so many. The O’Reilly Factor, Hannity and Colmes, the Tavis Smiley show.” It is quite a list. But he says he is not going to say yes to every request when he is working on a book 15 hours a day: “I’m not a media whore.”
April 20, 2006 by Marc Lamont Hill
Last night, I sat through a mini-marathon session of MTV’s latest hit show “Yo Momma.” Essentially, the show draws on the Black vernacular tradition of “the dozens,” in which two or more people engage in a rhetorical duel based on insults.
In its modern form, the dozens (also known as “snappin” “bustin” or “jawnin”) is reduced to short quips that often begin with “Yo’ momma so…”. A classic example is “Yo momma so poor, I saw her walking down the street with one shoe. I asked her if she lost a shoe and she said, ‘Hell naw. I FOUND ONE!!’”
The show is highly problematic to me for several reasons.
First, the show is simply not that funny. Most of the participants are amateur comedians who lack timing and strong comedic sensibilities. As such, many more jokes miss their mark than hit.
Although the jokes extend beyond “mommas,” the primary focus of the show is still on insulting women. The matter-of-fact use of the word “Bitch” by contestants, most of whom are male, is a perfect example of the show’s sexist and patriarchal ethos.
The thing that troubles me the most (surprise!) is the level of unmediated access to Black culture that the show provides White America. Like most forms of Black culture, the dozens began as an inside practice with complex rules and rituals. Although the focus was often on the participants’ mothers, the jokes were always dripping with irony, given the pedastal on which Black mothers have been historically positioned.
To be clear, I do not mean to romanticize Black culture and suggest that the dozens weren’t also informed by sexism, homophobia, and various forms of self-hate. Still, we strip the cultural practice of any redemptive complexity by refashioning, commodifying, and distributing it within the global marketplace. Additionally, we give outsiders license to participate in the practice without fully understanding the rules and limitations. For example, a racially ambiguous female contestant said to a very dark-skinned Black contestant, “You so BLACK and your teeth so yellow that when you smile you look like a Pittsburgh Steelers helmet”.
Ignorant? Yes. Funny? Perhaps. But not from her.
If she had made the same comment in the middle of Compton or North Philadelphia, the woman may have been in serious physical danger. (Un)Fortunately, on MTV everyone and everything is fair game.
April 19, 2006 by Marc Lamont Hill
On the heels of announcing that he was “the decider” and that Donald Rumsfield would remain Secretary of Defense despite the advice of Democrats and Republicans, President Bush began a major reorganization of his staff. Just a day after appointing Rob Portman to head the Office of Management and Budget, Bush accepted press secretary Scott McClellan’s resignation and relocated Karl Rove from his policy role to more political matters (I’m not sure that Rove recognizes the difference anyway).
These moves, initiated by new White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, are clearly designed to halt the steady decline of Bush’s approval ratings and help the GOP hang on to its control of Congress.
It will be interesting to see if and how the Democrats respond.
April 19, 2006 by Marc Lamont Hill
Last night, Allen Iverson and Chris Webber embarassed the 76ers franchise by showing up 90 minutes late to the Sixers-Nets game on Fan Appreciation Night. In addition to disrespecting fans and teammates, the not-so-dynamic duo further aliented Maurice Cheeks, whose position as coach is untenable at best.
The incident, combined with Sixers dreadful season, have prompted me to reprint my “Trade Allen Iverson” blog that I originally posted right before the February trade deadline. (Note: I no longer believe in Samuel Dalembert and hope that he is traded to the Lakers for Jack Nicholson, 50 dollars cash, and a bag of basketballs to be named later). Here it goes:
The NBA trade deadline is quickly approaching and most fans are waiting to see what their favorite teams will do to make their teams better. I, on the other hand, have a different request for my Philadelphia 76ers: PLEASE TRADE ALLEN IVERSON. I know that it won’t make us better in the short term and it’ll kill ticket sales. Still, it must be done while he still has value. The fact is that in spite of his brilliance, A.I. simply doesn’t have a skill set that is compatible with a championship team this side of San Antonio or Miami. Pound for pound, A.I. is arguably the best guard ever. Unfortunately, there is no middleweight division in the NBA. As such, Iverson is a defensive liability and a world-class ball hog. I’m not saying that he’s selfish, as that would be far too simplistic an explanation. The fact is, anyone that small who scores 30+ points per game needs to have the ball far too much to get his shot off. This makes it impossible to keep everyone involved. Could Isaiah Thomas have scored 30 a night if he wanted? Probably. But it would’ve been at the expense of Lambeer, Dumars, and others. My suggestion: trade Allen for young players now! This way, the Sixers can build around its young guys like Iguadala (who got robbed at the All-Star game), Korver, Green, and Dalembert. Who knows, maybe he’ll get sent somewhere that can use him better, like a team that has a dominant center. Ask Kobe how helpful that is.
April 18, 2006 by Marc Lamont Hill
The Duke rape scandal became even more complicated today, as two players were arrested early this morning on charges of raping and kidnapping. The district attorney said he hopes to charge a third person soon. The indictments, unsealed Tuesday, did not indicate what possible evidence or arguments led the grand jury Monday to indict Reade Seligmann, 20, and Collin Finnerty, 19. District Attorney Mike Nifong would not discuss the evidence.
Undoubtedly, the arrests will vindicate many of the accuser’s advocates, who have been placed on the defensive after last week’s DNA tests failed to implicate any of the players. Immediately after the results were released, the national media intensified its assault on the young woman’s claims and character. Certainly, today’s arrests will do nothing to quiet their Tawanna Brawley-esque allegations of race baiting, opportunism, and witch hunting.
As I said before, I truly believe the young woman’s story and hope that the truth is brought to surface as soon as possible. But, like many Black people, a part of me NEEDS to believe that the story is true. Although most Black people won’t admit it, many of us are thinking “She better not be lying or it’s gonna take years to live this down.”
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