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Bait-and-Switch Media By: Thomas Sowell
Townhall.com | Wednesday, April 28, 2004


Readers sometimes ask why I am seldom seen or heard on television or radio. Mainly it is because I turn down 90 percent of the invitations I get. A recent radio interview shows why.

 I was invited on as a guest to talk about my new book, Affirmative Action Around the World. But when I phoned in for the interview while the program was on the air, I discovered that another guest was already waiting in ambush, talking about a wholly different topic, minimum wage laws.

 When I asked the hostess whether I was on the program to discuss minimum wage laws and she said that I was, I knew that this was the old bait-and-switch game that I had encountered many times over the years.

 It goes like this: An author is invited on the program to talk about his book but, when he gets there, he finds that the interview is actually about something else. Most guests, being polite, will just go along and the program gets an interview on something they want to talk about, with someone who might never have bothered to be interviewed by them otherwise.

 Having another guest on, talking about a different topic, makes this game work even better. In this case, the other guest talked on and on until finally I asked if she were going to be allowed to filibuster.

 I had no objection to discussing minimum wage laws, a subject on which I had written many times. But that was not why I was there.

 So I hung up the phone.

 Apparently the people who run the program became angry that I would not play along with their game. They phoned me. They phoned the Hoover Institution, where I work, demanding to speak to the director. But the Hoover Institution includes people who know what the media are like, so this ploy didn't get very far.

 Not all media interviewers are like this. That same day I was interviewed on "Hannity & Colmes," where there was no ambush guest and the subject discussed was what they said they wanted to discuss, my book Affirmative Action Around the World. There are good people as well as the other kind in every field.

 There just happen to be a lot of the other kind in the media. Sometimes media interviewers have an ideological agenda. In that case, they create the impression that "both sides" are being heard, but one guest is allowed to interrupt and filibuster, so that the other point of view cannot be presented coherently.

 At other times, the host or hostess has simply not read the book that the interview is supposedly about -- and that may have nothing to do with ideology.

 A few years ago, a conservative TV interviewer told me, while we were waiting to go on the air and a microphone was being attached to my jacket, that he had not read the book that I had come to discuss but that he would interview me about something in the news that day.

 I immediately removed the microphone that had just been put on me, gave him a few well chosen words, and walked out.

 Why don't more people do that?

 One reason is that many people are dying to be on television. They may be politicians running for office or people who just want the publicity for all sorts of other reasons. They will put up with anything, spill their most intimate secrets, or do whatever it takes to get their face on the tube.

 Media people have learned to take advantage of all this. But, even when the media interviewer is being straight, he or she may not be well informed about anything -- except how to look confidently well informed.

 My first inkling of how fundamentally ill-informed some of even the big names on television are came back in 1981, when I was interviewed on "Meet the Press." Back in those days, the interviews were done by a panel of reporters.

 Their questions and comments revealed incredible ignorance. The reporters in turn were incredulous when I said that Social Security was financially unsound. Now, 23 years later, everybody knows that.

 This column is a much better way for me to express myself in my own words, without games and without spin.


Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.


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