What Is Accuracy in Academia?
VTR Date: January 18, 1986
Guest: Irvine, Reid
READ FULL TRANSCRIPT
THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Reed Irvine
Title: ”Accuracy in Academia”
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. My guest is Reed Irvine who long ago founded Accuracy in Media to attack what the considers a left-leaning bias in journalism and whose new organization, Accuracy in Academia, is designed to do the same for the college and university classroom. As its then president said in September 1985, one of the reasons Accuracy in Academia was formed was to measure to what extent if any the liberal bias in the media originates in the classrooms of American universities and colleges. Here on The Open Mind in 1984 Reed Irvine himself expressed much the same point of view. That there is an ideological twist to many college courses and campuses. That that ideology rather consistently is leftish. And that media people lean left because they are taught to do so in college. In Mr. Irvine’s own words there’s a popular saying, “go to Harvard and turn left.” As he said, I think it would be rather difficult to argue, that the major universities in this country do not tend to be totally dominated by people of a liberal left persuasion in the schools of the liberal arts. Our guests say he in particular, Mr. Irvine says, it’s different in medical and engineering and business schools. But the humanities, the liberal arts, seem always to him to lean left and to breed left-leaning journalists. Take the liberal out of the liberal arts and there may be more accuracy in academia and then perhaps in the media themselves. Which is a rather forthright formulation whether you agree with it or not. Thanks for joining me again, Mr. Irvine. I need to start off by going back in a sense to a question that was raised when you were on the Editor’s Desk and that had to do with whether your quest for accuracy won’t be more appropriately applied to high schools than to colleges where there is so much of an emphasis upon the expression of differing opinions.
Irvine: Richard, I don’t quarrel with opinions. And this is the same policy that we have followed in Accuracy in Media which we’ve been doing now for over 15 years. My position is that everyone is entitled to his opinion but even in an opinion piece if it is based on factual information, that there’s factual information that is supposedly involved, then you have a right to question whether or not those facts are accurate. And should do so. I think a lot of the disagreement, a lot of the bitterness perhaps, arises in our society because people overlook that point and fail to try to resolve the differences about the facts that are involved in matters. I think that a lot of us could come closer on our opinions to spend more time examining the facts on which those opinions are based.
Heffner: And yet the criticism of Accuracy in Academia to some extent focuses on the fact, as many people charge, that what you call facts really have to do with opinions. Can we disentangle that?
Irvine: Well, there’s been a lot on inaccuracy in media in reporting on accuracy and academia. It’s been quite astonishing the number of articles and editorials and columns that have been written about it. And what has struck me particularly in considering the editorials is that of all the people that I know of that have written editorials in this country about this subject, and I’d say most of them critical of it, only one editorial writer bothered to call up and ascertain what the facts were. And that was the lady that did the editorial for The New York Times. And her editorial was one of the less objectionable of the ones that I had seen because she did take that precaution.
Heffner: But it wasn’t supported, was it?
Irvine: It was not supported. She has her opinion and she thinks it’s like Secretary Bennett, the Secretary of Education who says he thinks it’s a bad idea. Now I wrote him a letter. He was interviewed in the Washington Times just last…oh recently…and he said in there that when asked that, he said it was a silly idea because we were hiring stoolies to go into the college classrooms. So I wrote to Mr. Bennett and I said you know that’s simply not true. We haven’t hired anybody to go into college classrooms. And as a matter of fact we’re not hiring stoolies or having stoolies. We’re asking students who have complaints to take them up with us if they are so inclined. So I said now that you know the facts, Bill, perhaps you’ll revise your opinion. I had a letter back from him just the other day in which he said well, I’m sorry that I made that mistake, but I still think it’s a bad idea.
Heffner: And indeed even in terms of students a person even as conservative as Midge Decter has taken out after…and she is a supporter of Accuracy in Media…
Irvine: She sure is and Midge and I were on a radio program together recently and she is still a strong supporter and I didn’t get from the discussion we had on the radio program here in new York City the same kind of, well, strong criticism that she had lodged in what she wrote in her newsletter and then in the Op-Ed piece in the New York Times. In fact, Midge said on that program that she is really more radical than I am in both her evaluation of the terrible situation on the college campuses and I think she’s somewhat more radical in her solution to the problem. I asked her on the program what her solution was and it goes farther than I would go I assure you.
Heffner: Well, you know you key me to say what we need to do next is bring the two of you here. You’ve appeared together on radio. We’ll get you here on The Open Mind.
Irvine: Well, Midge made it very clear in going on the program that she did not want to get into a debate situation with me because she agrees so strongly with me on almost everything.
Heffner: Yet she writes, “We wish that the organizers of Accuracy in Academia would bethink themselves and shut down the operation before it goes any further.”
Irvine: Well, I know she said that. She didn’t say that the other day. Maybe she still thinks it. But we’re not…I’m not quarreling with midge I think, and she’s not quarreling with me. She still remains on the National Advisory Board of Accuracy in Media and I urge all of these people, Secretary Bennett and the others, who I think have been somewhat misled by this wave of negative media attention we’ve had. Things like the CBS program, for example, they came down. And they did interview us. And the put the program on the air and they said the opposite about what they were told about certain key points. Giving a very negative impression when if they had reported accurately it could have been a very positive impression. That kind of thing influences even close friends of mine. And I told some of them, I said, heavens if all I knew about Accuracy in Academia was what I saw in the press and on television, I’d be opposed to it too. And unfortunately the publicity has been so overwhelming that I simply haven’t had the time to answer it all. To knock down every one of the lies that has been told which is too bad because I’m seeing that those lies influence intelligent people such as Midge and others I think.
Heffner: Well, let’s look at some of the charges that are made. You say what you’re talking about is factual material. And none of us want to…no one of us wants to foster things that we know and can agree on as untrue. But then as I read your material I see that you will suggest that someone is being inaccurate on a campus in terms of his convictions about nuclear war.
Irvine: No, Richard, I didn’t say that. If our first report on this particular professor, Professor Mark Reeder, examined some of the specific things that he included in a book that he had compiled that he was assigning his students to read in a course that was supposed to be dealing with political ideologies. And the criticism, the main criticism of this professor was A) being assigned to teach a course to freshmen at Arizona State University on political ideologies that is described in the college catalogue as Democracy, Marxism, Conservatism, Liberalism, etc, he was spending a large amount of his time talking about his inordinate fear of everything nuclear. Not nuclear war. Everything. Nuclear power. Peaceful uses of nuclear energy. And we criticized him not for his views but for not sticking to the subject of the course. And therefore, practicing what we said came very close to being consumer fraud.
Heffner: Yeah. But you say inordinate fear of nuclear energy, nuclear war, nuclear weapons, etc. it is…and I’ve heard you say that before and I’ve seen the word inordinate or a parallel word. Inordinate is a judgment.
Heffner: Now perhaps someone who is just as much concerned as you are with accuracy and inaccuracy would still say that fear of nuclear conflict even of nuclear energy it is not possible for it to be inordinate. That’s a judgment.
Irvine: Well, there’s a big difference, Richard, between nuclear war. Of course we would all fear nuclear war. It would be a horrible thing for mankind. Nuclear energy, again you can have in the view of people who are knowledgeable about this subject, people who think that nuclear energy, nuclear power plants, are a menace to mankind and that they should all be shut down and eliminated, you can have that opinion. But there we have to come down then, let’s examine the facts. Now what we did in our newsletter was examine some of the facts that this professor was putting before his students on the basis of the assigned reading that he was giving.
Heffner: Yes, but…
Irvine: And we pointed out that these facts were inaccurate you see. That his…what he had in here…a piece about low-level radiation that simply contradicts the known facts about low-level radiation.
Heffner: Well, if we moved from him to someone who has a home near Indian Point, and there is a very high level of fear of nuclear energy, for you to say that my fear is inordinate is fair enough. You say that it is. I say that it isn’t. Now at what point are we dealing with an accuracy?
Irvine: Well, what if you had a fear of going into the tenth floor of a building or you are and you felt that you suffered from acrophobia. Most people, normal people, would say that this was an inordinate fear. That not much happens to people who go up to the tenth floor of a building. But there are people who have that fear. Who have that phobia. People can have phobias about nuclear power. And many of them do.
Heffner: But suppose you say that mine is a phobia and I say to you, Reed Irvine, I respect your judgment that it’s a phobia. To me it is not. And to many others. Both those who are psychiatrically qualified to judge whether something is a phobia and others. That’s an opinion. And I wondered whether when you get to the university and to the college whether one isn’t dealing in so many areas with opinion, interpretation, attitude, that inaccuracy in academia is a tough road to follow.
Irvine: But come back to the point that I’ve tried to emphasize. And that is that in criticizing the professor’s teaching about matters nuclear we focused on factual matters in the reading material that he assigned. And said this is simply wrong. And we can prove it’s wrong. So we didn’t say that his fear is wrong. We said giving the students factual material that is incorrect. Now see this comes back to the point that I made earlier. If we disagree about matters of opinion, is nuclear power dangerous or is it not. I agree this is an opinion. But I said let’s study the facts. If we can study the facts, agree on what the facts are, maybe we can arrive at a common opinion. Now one of the interesting things about journalists we know from a study that’s being made by Robert Lichter and Stanley Rothman is that most journalists today, and even including science writers, people that write about nuclear matters, have a much greater fear of nuclear energy, nuclear power, than do the experts in this field. The people who know the most about it.
Heffner: That’s either because they’re smarter or dumber.
Irvine: Well, let’s say they know fewer facts about it. I think that’s safe to say. Now what Lichter and Rothman are doing is studying to see whether or not all the kinds of people that journalists rely upon for their information, are they relying upon knowledgeable experts who know what the scientific facts are, or are they relying on charlatans or people who don’t know what the facts are? I think that it’s pretty clear that they’re relying on the charlatans. Now that was shown in the study that was made of…well there’s Dr. Robert L. Du Pont who is a psychiatrist, incidentally, who did a study for the Media Institute in Washington on how the media had treated nuclear energy over a period of some 12 or 13 years. And Dr. Du Pont interestingly enough called his study Nuclear Phobia because what he found was that in the media that they had been reporting or giving information that contributed to the (inaudible)…that was inaccurate.
Heffner: But Mr. Irvine you know the fact certainly is, and I don’t think you’d challenge the accuracy of it, I could bring in a whole slew of psychiatrists who would testify otherwise and say that perhaps within a year by the end of the century whenever those who felt much more comfortable with the presence of nuclear energy would be those judged to have been slightly cuckoo in the judgments that we should be making today. So that you know today we’re taping this on, what is it the 18th of January? Today in some areas The Open Mind was broadcast where the subject was “History as an Act of Faith”. And the guest was a very distinguished historian who spoke about the ways in which he had moved from one position to another. Indeed, I had read a paper he had written called My Life with Lincoln in which he indicated that when he began teaching 40-55 years ago, his attitudes toward Lincoln as his attitudes toward Franklin Roosevelt far differ from those attitudes today. Now facts…I’m not so sure the facts probably haven’t changed. History hasn’t changed. But historians do and interpretations do. And aren’t you…
Heffner: …in danger of treading upon that ground?
Irvine: I’m well aware of the fact that in many areas facts are not all that conclusive. Doesn’t mean that you can’t argue about them. You can’t present them. You can’t say that this professor is presenting a certain set of facts and that there are facts which may give a different impression of this. Not necessarily saying that these facts are conclusive one way or the other, but let’s say that the students are not being given all the information that they are entitled to have. There are many areas of that kind. There are areas in which I wouldn’t presume to know enough about it to intervene. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t a lot of areas in which the facts are very clear. For example, President John Silber of Boston University was discussing academia on a television program a few months ago, and he cited the case of a professor, I think at his university, who talked about cruise missiles being stationed in NATO countries that traveled at supersonic speeds, would travel at supersonic speeds, and hit Moscow. Now this is nonsense. Cruise missiles do not travel at supersonic speeds. And from bases in Western Europe they don’t have enough range to reach Moscow. Facts are facts. Now if this professor is talking about our policy, military arms and so on, he’s simply wrong. He ought to…and it’s quite proper that he be corrected. He’s apparently basin some opinions on inaccurate information.
Heffner: I think we would agree. I don’t think there’s any question about that but that inaccuracies are dangerous. They’re disastrous. If you build your thoughts, your political conclusions, the way you vote, upon inaccurate information, we’re all in trouble. But so much of this, and I go back to this inordinate fear of nuclear energy, there the modifier inordinate once again becomes a matter of opinion. And you say, sure, there are areas of opinion where this gets a little bit dicey. Have you no concern that as Accuracy in Academia grows, that the situation may in a number of campuses become dicier? As opinions become the basis for attacks?
Irvine: Well, to the extent that I have influence over it, I’ll try to prevent that. I’ve been working in this area for 16 years plus with Accuracy in Media and I suppose that when I started there were people who had the same fear. I think that we’ve been able to demonstrate that we’ve handled the situation quite responsibly. We’ve avoided treading in areas that we felt were questionable. That we didn’t have the information. We couldn’t say, you know, this is the fact. And you got it wrong. For example I used to, back in the ‘70s, I used to be asked why don’t you do something about the Washington Post and Watergate. They’re saying things that aren’t true. My answer to it: I don’t know where the truth lies in this matter. I mean we don’t know yet. We’ll stay out of it until we see what the facts are. Fortunately we did because the facts that some of those people wanted me to challenge were proven in court and in the investigation to be correct. So you have to be responsible and handle it in that way. Now on the other hand one of the things that I’m getting from the critics, they say, well colleges are open to all points of view and all opinions and they should be. And…
Heffner: Do you not agree with that?
Irvine: I don’t’ agree with it in the sense that they’re not. That there are wide areas of opinion that are being effectively excluded from many of our colleges today. And as Sidney Hook said recently, I think it was in Commentary Magazine, he said, there is no freedom of speech at Berkeley on the campus of Berkeley the University of California. And he said especially from those who are defending American foreign policy.
Heffner: But isn’t that the point that Midge Decter makes that the problem is not of excluding of your efforts to diminish the expression of opinion, but the need for expression of other opinions? So that we don’t want to exclude, we want to include. Wouldn’t that satisfy you?
Irvine: No. this is what I think one of the things that Accuracy in Academia will do and is already doing. As a matter of fact last…just recently I was invited to speak at Northwestern University. First time member that I’ve been invited. I’ve been doing Accuracy in Media for 16 years, never been invited to speak at Northwestern University. I addressed some a…
Heffner: You never gored their ox.
Irvine: Yeah, well, no. I was sponsored by two conservative organizations but there were a lot of people who disagreed with me that were present. In fact, they tried to stop me from speaking. Which shows you how open many of these people are to other ideas and other information. Fortunately they had a lot of police there and the individual who tried to disrupt the meeting was escorted out. But this is what, fortunately, the students those, including those, who disagreed strongly with me had an opportunity to hear from me what the situation is. Now I was on television several months ago, last fall, with Joe Duffy, the Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts. And we agreed on the air that he said that they would be happy to invite me to speak at the University of Massachusetts. And as a matter of fact he did extend an invitation after. And we had several dates. And right now it’s scheduled for February 6 or February 7. I haven’t heard from Chancellor Duffy lately. I don’t know whether it’s still on or not. But I did hear that there was a lot of opposition on the campus to permitting me to come on and discuss these matters. Now if we can possibly get onto the campus at the University of Massachusetts and have a discussion and if we are not disrupted and we don’t have eggs thrown at us and so on, we will have broadened the debate on that campus. And I think that’s a good thing.
Heffner: That aspect of it, broadening the debate seems to me to be unexceptionable. But there is another aspect. There is the aspect of shall I say fear. It is the fear that Midge Decter refers to here. The fear on her part and others and I think perhaps Bennett’s part, too, Secretary Bennett’s, that while there may be great respect for you and the way you would control this force we’re all a little bit suspicious of power, unbridled power, the power that will not come under your control, and once you start this process haven’t you begun something that may not be as easily contained as Accuracy in Media where you’re referring to something very different? You ability to pinpoint inaccuracies…(inaudible)…there, but not here.
Irvine: Well, as I said to some of those, I think it was on the Northwestern campus, who threw out the term, thought police. I said look, we’re not police. I have no power. No power of the state behind me. This is essentially a journalistic enterprise. The only thing that I can do and my associates can do in Accuracy in Academia is say what is going on. Hopefully accurately and factually and responsibly. What happens then is not in my power to say. If the administration of the university says…investigates as a result of some report that they see and finds that a professor is incompetent it’s within their power to get rid of that professor. If they find…if they were to find that the Arizona State University is, I think was demonstrated, this professor was not teaching the subject as outlined in the course catalogue or they ask him to stick to the subject. If they did something about it, fine. But I can’t force them to do that. That depends on what they decide to do.
Heffner: Let me turn it around a little. Just a bit. What do you see, and you’re an honest person, what do you see as the downside of the new organization? Just between the two of us.
Irvine: Well, I haven’t, I’ve seen a lot written about the downside…
Heffner: But what do you think…
Irvine: …but I don’t agree with it. I don’t think there is a downside.
Heffner: You don’t think there’s any downside?
Irvine: The…well, Secretary Bennett said in his letter, well his fear is that we will be perceived as bullies. That’s what he sees as the downside. It isn’t that he objects. As a matter of fact he and I had a meeting before we came…not a meeting…we encountered at a…got together at a reception and talked and I thought he was supportive of what we were planning to do. He said that he saw no problem with students complaining about their teachers just as John Silber of Boston University says. In fact he said that he was going around teaching at high schools and he had television cameras recording what he was saying. He said he was sure they were just waiting for him to make a slip. He had no problem with that. Professor Jeffrey hart at Dartmouth says that if Dan Rather or Reed Irvine wants to come in and record what I say in the classroom. I’ll show them where the electric outlets are.
Heffner: Yeah, but you’ve been a teacher and I’m a teacher. That isn’t really the nature of the teaching experience. That isn’t really the nature of the inquiry that goes on on the campus. And I wonder whether you don’t. You…in our relationship have always been very straight. I find it very hard to believe that you find nothing to say about a downside. No concerns whatsoever.
Irvine: Well, the only thing I…you know if things don’t go well, say I should lose control, I should be incapacitated…
Heffner: What could happen?
Irvine: …if someone else of perhaps a less responsible nature were to do it, of course, it’s just as though you take my automobile. Is there a downside to my automobile? As long as I’m driving it and driving it carefully, I’d say no, it’s a wonderful device. If someone gets at the wheel and drives it recklessly and plows through a crowd in a busy intersection, of course there’s a downside.
Heffner: How would you define recklessness? How will we recognize when we see it?
Irvine: Well, look if one of the things that we’ve been…has been pointed out…is we’re depending on students to find out what’s going on on campus. Now, students say a lot of things. You know even seasoned reporters make mistakes as we know. I know that from long experience. And this is especially likely to happen in oral, anything that’s oral. When I am criticizing something on television I almost always insist on getting a transcript because if somebody says, look, I heard this on television or I heard this on the radio, very frequently you’ll find when you see the transcript that it’s a little bit different. Now here’s…
Heffner: …(inaudible)…concerned that their students, you’re concerned to them just…(inaudible)…
Irvine: Of course. And this is why the people I have working on this, and I only have two young people working on it, I say look, in every case you have to check with the professor concerned. If the student says, the professor said such and such and did this, we’re not going to publish it unless you go and find out did the professor actually say that. Gets his or her reaction to it. And this is what we’ve been doing now. If they get away from that. And this is true in journalism. It’s true in anything. If you…you know it’s what good reporters are supposed to do. If there’s an accused, find out. Now let me give you an illustration of how journalists foul up on this.
Heffner: There’s one minute we have left.
Irvine: There was a student at Yale who decided he would infiltrate Accuracy in Academia. And he cut his hair and came down and spent a few hours on a Saturday afternoon in our office with the two young men that are running this organization. He went back and he wrote a piece for a Yale publication in which he said some things that were very inaccurate. Untruthful about what he had been told and what he had seen. This was published in a publication at Yale. It was picked up and reprinted by the New Republic and they did not check with us to see whether it was true. Now that is irresponsible. If we did that we would deservedly condemned. I say those who publish that story are deserving of condemnation.
Heffner: I read the story. I read the original one. And I must say I didn’t think there was anything that was that attacking about Accuracy in Academia.
Irvine: No, it wasn’t that bad. But one of the things…for example, he said that there was a black list. A list. All it was was an ad signed by several hundred people. Out of a publication.
Heffner: We ought to talk about that sometime. The list of names that you have from ads that are signed by academics.
Irvine: Just the ad itself? That’s all?
Heffner: Thanks for joining me today, Reed Irvine. We’ll talk about this again. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time… Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”