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Is Malcolm Gladwell America's Most Successful Propagandist and Corporate Shill?

Propaganda works best when it is not perceived as propaganda, but works more subtly. The master of this nuanced approach is Malcolm Gladwell.

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I contacted  The New Yorker asking if the magazine had a policy on undisclosed conflicts-of-interest for their writers. The publication would not comment on the record for this story.

Strangely enough,  Brandweek, the trade journal of the marketing industry, was much harsher in its criticism,  noting that Gladwell's pro-pharma article distinguished the  New Yorker as one of the few news outlets  not critical of industry’s role in skyrocketing drug prices—and they wondered, correctly, if Gladwell’s paid speaking gigs had anything to do with it:

One of the more sympathetic articles, published last October by The New Yorker, was penned by Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point. ... The piece did not mention, however, that Gladwell has been paid by pharmaceutical companies on numerous occasions in recent years to give speeches on his marketing theories.

The criticism was not very loud or sustained. But it was enough to make Gladwell uncomfortable, forcing him to publish an equivocating, message-confusing, rambling “disclosure statement” on his personal website that clocked in at over 6,000 words.

It was  published on December 2004, and it began:

As a writer I wear two hats. I am a staff writer for the New Yorker magazine, where I have been under contract more or less continuously since 1996. I also do public speaking, based on my second career as the author of two books--The Tipping Point and Blink.  Over the past four or five years, I have given talks to corporations, trade associations, conventions of one sort or another, colleges, think tanks, charitable groups, public lecture series and, on one occasion (arranged by my mother) my old high school. For some of those engagements, I have been paid. For those given to academic and charitable organizations, I generally have not...

Seems straightforward enough, right? Wrong: it took Gladwell 5,000 words before he finally addressed the reason he posted this Bible-length disclosure in the first place:

Have I given paid speeches to companies or industries mentioned or affected by that article? Yes I have. As I stated earlier,  I have given my Tipping Point talk to groups of doctors, hospitals, insurers, as well as Pharmacy Benefit Managers and groups funded by the National Institutes of Health. More specifically, I have on several occasions over the past four years given paid speeches on the Tipping Point to pharmaceutical companies. So did that create a bias in favor of the pharmaceutical industry?

Leave it to the master propagandist to pose an admission of guilt as a question.

Most news organization have specific rules and guidelines about speaking fees, and some—including the  Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and the  Washington Post—ban their journalists from taking fees for speeches. But the issue is far from settled, and regularly comes up in debates about journalistic ethics. Jonathan Salant, former president of the Society of Professional Journalists Washington chapter,  considers corporate speaking fees to be outright bribes. He's not the only one.

In a March 2012 article in the  Columbia Journalism ReviewPaul Starobin wondered if speaking fees are a “dark and an indelible stain on journalism" and noted that most journalists would not talk openly about the details of their corporate speaker side-gigs on the record and that some tried to prevent their names from being mentioned at all.

The reason for their secrecy should be obvious to anyone: If you are paid tens of thousands of dollars by a company or lobby group for merely speaking at one of their conferences, wouldn’t you be more favorably inclined to see things their way, and less eager to air their critics, than if you hadn’t been paid by them, and didn’t expect future payments as well?

 
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