Introductory Remarks by Norman Podhoretz
NORMAN PODHORETZ: My name is Norman Podhoretz and my job…[applause] Thank you. My job is to introduce the speaker, of whom it might be said in the old cliché, needs no introduction. However, that’s not true. Of course, everybody knows about the professorships Jim Wilson has held at Harvard and UCLA, and his presidency of the American Political Science Association, and the many books and articles he’s written, especially the seminal work he’s done in criminology. None of that needs an introduction.
But there are things about him that I would imagine many people, perhaps even most people in this room, do not know, and I want to tell you about those. I want to introduce aspects of Jim Wilson that are relatively obscure. I was, before coming up here I just learned that he’s doing a weekly column for the on-line magazine Slate, so I mentioned…got that out of the way, but that hadn’t been part of the plan.
There are three things about Jim Wilson that I wish to mention. One of them is that he is a scuba diver of heroic proportions. Not only does he dive into dangerous waters all over the globe, I imagine him sometimes even diving into dessert sands to see what could be found underneath those.
The second thing he does, it’s unusual, to say the least, for a professor of political science, is participate in cattle roundups in places like Utah. In fact, his excuse for not attending a lecture I’ll be giving under the auspices of this very organization is that he will be out there in Utah rounding up cattle. That’s a good excuse.
The third thing, perhaps of greater importance, that many people don’t know about Jim Wilson, is that he has almost single-handedly redeemed the social sciences in our age, by which I mean simply that he undertook some years ago to use the tools of social science to refute the premise, or the legacy, which has perhaps been the most damaging tradition to arise since the birth of the various social sciences, namely relativism. He used the tools of his own profession to demonstrate the universality of human nature in a book called The Moral Sense, a book I regard as great, and that is not, as those of you who know me will recognize, a word that I throw around promiscuously.
Very few of us are privileged to know anyone who has been responsible for the production of a great book. But all of this in this room are about to hear the words of one such person. So it is a pleasure, as they say, and a privilege, and an honor to introduce my old friend of what is it, about forty years now Jim? James Q. Wilson.
MR. WILSON: If you’ll all put on your boots and chaps and follow me… [laughter]. I’d like to discuss the state of the American print media today, and I want to do this mindful of the old political slogan that you never pick a fight with anyone who buys ink by the barrel. I recall a former very distinguished colleague of mine at the University of Chicago, who wrote frequently for the New York Times Sunday Magazine, receiving back a letter, a revised version of his manuscript, in which the editor had changed the wording so profoundly it changed the meaning. This colleague went to another distinguished colleague, not me, and said what should I do about this? And the other colleague said tell him to go to hell! And he said, if I tell the New York Times to go to hell, I go to hell! [laughter]
The problem I want to address is not one in which I wish, in which I wish to persuade you to adopt a set of views that may differ from what you read in the press. My purpose today is simply to clarify that there is a different set of views. And my purpose in particular is to remark on the fact that with respect to some views, not all by any means, not even most, the print media, national journalism today, gives you only one side. It prints slogans where it should be printing news. And I want to mention three of those slogans today, Global Warming, Gun Control, and Campaign Finance, to indicate that this is a problem for the media that I wish it would address.
Now in doing this I will make arguments about these three issues that suggest that there are at least two sides to it, a side that you assume when you read the slogan, and a side which in my view is more in accord with the facts. But again, I am not trying to persuade you to accept my version of the facts, because besides my version of the facts, there are two or three other versions of the facts that could equally be presented and would enjoy some degree of credibility.
Let me explain this by going through these three issues, and then speculate at the end as to why the media, which ordinarily treats many issues in a way that recognizes there are two sides, treats these issues as if there were only one side.
Global Warming. The press is in favor of things that will reduce global warming. What is global warming? Global warming is the result of the absorption in the atmosphere of certain gasses, particularly carbon dioxide, but many others as well, which, the theory goes, will trap the earth’s heat and cause the earth’s atmosphere and surface of the land to warm up in ways that create a substantial human problem.
No-one doubts that carbon dioxide has increased in the earth’s atmosphere profoundly over the last hundred years. Almost everything else, however, is in doubt. Do greenhouse gasses make the earth warmer? It’s hard to say because eighty percent of the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere followed, but did not precede the increase in the surface temperature that has been measured over the last hundred years. If it caused the increase in temperature, it’s an odd pattern of causality, where the cause follows the effect. [laughter]
Climates change in the world for reasons that geologists have made clear to us. There are ice ages and warm ages. A thousand years ago it was possible to grow trees in Greenland. Today there is only ice there. And these natural changes may be far more important than climactic changes that are the result of human activity.
Will the climate get warmer in the future? No-one knows. The International Panel on Climate Change, which is the leading authority most often sited on this matter, developed a model to predict climate changes beginning 1978, but between 1978 and 1998, the measured level of the earth’s temperature, both in the atmosphere and at the surface of the water has increased by much less than the IPCC predicted. Not because their prediction was the result of political bias, but because the climactic models in the computers we have to generate the data are very clumsy. They take patches of the water’s surface that are many miles square, and feed them into a computer, many of whose variables are only estimates of the relationship between climate change and atmospheric development.
If the climate will get warmer, and it may get warmer because of natural forces, or it may get warmer because of the increase in greenhouse gasses, or, in all likelihood, it may get warmer because both of them, who will be hurt, and how badly will they be hurt? That also is very hard to say. If carbon dioxide levels increase, this may encourage the growth of crops. We may be growing bananas in Canada, and orange trees in Siberia. [laughter] This will be nice for the Canadians and the Russians, it might be bad for the people in Bangladesh. It might be good for me in Malibu. If the water level rises by enough I will have oceanfront property! [laughter]
On the other hand, more CO2 also may reduce the level of rainfall. If it reduces the level of rainfall there will not be an abundance of crops. If there are more crops, they will absorb more CO2 from the atmosphere, perhaps returning us to an earlier equilibrium. If the crops do not grow because of the shortage of rainfall, then we must ask the ocean to absorb the CO2, and although the ocean is the great CO2 sink on the face of the earth, which absorbs a great deal of carbon dioxide, we do not know by how much more it can continue to absorb it.
The arctic ice is melting. We know that. You can travel in a submarine and discover it’s much easier to get to the surface of the North Pole today by cracking through ice, and once it was the case, you can even see rivers, during part of the year, during the North Pole. Is this the result of global warming, or is it the result of one of those broad geological changes in which a warm period has begun to replace a much colder period?
Greg Easterbrook in a recent article in the New Republic reported that during the Summer of 1999 there was a draught, and the New York Times ran four op-ed pieces blaming it on global warming. The Summer 1999 draught was followed by a serious flood in the Winter and Spring of the year 2000, and it ran a series of op-ed pieces blaming the floods on global warming. Global warming, therefore, is a hypothesis that cannot be disproved. If the air gets warmer, it’s global warming, and if it gets wetter and colder it’s global warming.
Now, if there is global warming that is the result of human activity, things can be done about it. None of these things are mentioned in the Kyoto protocol, which has already been rejected, in effect, by the Senate by a vote of ninety-five to nothing. We might shift to nuclear power, but nuclear power is a bad slogan, and nobody writes stories talking about the advantages of nuclear power, and nobody in the utility business seriously intends to build more large nuclear power plants, even though they would not generate carbon dioxide. In Sweden there is a great effort to close down the nuclear power plants they now have.
We might affix a small tax to carbon use. Any fuel that is dependent upon carbon-based products as a way of raising money to refund research and development. We might even negotiate with other countries the right to engage in emission trading, so that to generate more carbon dioxide in one place you reduce the level at which it is produced in another place, giving people a chance to be sensitive to the income and financial aspects of how you do these things. The Kyoto Protocol does not allow this. It imposes a forty percent reduction on America’s generation of carbon dioxide, and no reduction at all on the production of carbon dioxide in India, China, and other so-called Third World nations. This means that by the year 2015, China will be producing more carbon dioxide than the United States. Vice President Gore has announced that he plans to submit the Kyoto treaty to the Senate for ratification, where it is dead on arrival.
Nonetheless, global warming is a slogan. Global warming is something you’re supposed to be worried about. Asking questions about global warming is not something that is ordinarily reflected in the daily press.
Campaign Finance. The press, along with Senator John McCain have called for Campaign Finance Reform. Campaign Finance Reform is a slogan. Now there’s no doubt we spend a lot of money on politics. In 1996 we spent, I estimate, about 1.2 billion dollars, which is roughly fourteen dollars per vote cast. PACs gave 200 million, more or less. Soft money gave about 260 million. Issue ads probably generated something like 150 million dollars. Individuals contributed probably 400 million dollars, and the federal funds that are spent on the presidential race probably totaled something like 180 million dollars.
But what is the problem with spending fourteen dollars per vote cast? We spend a lot more than that trying to persuade people to buy automobiles and refrigerators, and take trips to Las Vegas. Fourteen dollars per vote in politics does not strike me as an exorbitant amount of money. Does the money spent, however, buy policies? Now if you read about the virtues of Campaign Finance Reform, you would probably not be aware that a number of political scientists over the last twenty years have tried to measure the effect of campaign receipts on the votes cast by legislators in the United States Congress. And they do this by the most sophisticated means that are at their command. They try to control for party and ideology and constituency characteristics and see what additional impact campaign spending has on the votes cast. And I think it’s a fair summary to say that by and large they have found no effect at all. Which is not to say that campaign money does not influence policies. It only is enough to say, however, that campaign finance is not the major, by far, determinant of what effects policies. No doubt there are people who have taken positions because somebody has given them money. No doubt this happens in every country in the world. But it is impossible to find a consistent record that how much money you spend determines what you get. And the reason for that is very simple. So many different forces give money, and the politicians are so active in extracting, some would say extorting money from groups that offer it, that they’re confronted with a wide variety of personal policy positions, which they can accept or reject more or less at will, knowing that at worst they will offend some of their fund givers, but please some of the other fund givers.
No doubt money does by access. That is indisputable. If you contribute a lot of money you’ll find it an easier task to talk to your representative or your senator than if you don’t give money. But what does access produce? That’s a complicated question to which no-one has a clear answer. My view is that it increases the amount of information that politicians get because they give access to such a wide variety of people on the basis, perhaps, of the money they’ve given. But we do not know that confronting a wide variety of opinions leads people to choose one opinion over another.
Another criticism of campaign finance is that it helps incumbents, and that is certainly true. That’s indisputable. Every fund-raising system we might put in place, like the one we have now, helps incumbents if it works at all in the direction of making it harder for challengers to raise money in order to run against incumbents. And if you look at the money spent by PACs and individuals, you discover that the overwhelming bulk goes to incumbents, only a fraction goes to challengers, and that would be true under any system that tries to equalize the amount of money spent, because the one thing you cannot equalize are the advantages incumbents have by the virtue of their personal contact with constituents, or their ability to deal, to meet with and to deal with individually persons who know them, and to enjoy the publicity that comes from office holding.
Fund raising affects the way politicians spend their time. That is also indisputable too. Politicians complain endlessly about how much time they must spend raising money. Now there are two responses to this. One is to make it easier for them to raise money so they don’t have to spend so much time at it, and the other is to point out that if they didn’t spend time raising money, does anyone seriously think they would sit down and read the City Journal cover to cover? [laughter] I think not.
There was a study done about fifteen years ago that measured the amount of time a group of members of the House of Representatives spent reading, and the average was forty-five minutes per week. [laughter]
Money may by negative attacks on candidates, that’s true. And that’s their constitutional privilege, nothing more needs to be said.
Money raising encourages extortion. Politicians shake down Political Action Committees. That is certainly true, but of course, it could be made less true if it were easier to raise money.
Now many of the problems that politicians face, and that political action committees and individuals face, could be made easier by making it easier to raise money, not by making it harder. Politics is a great vacuum into which money is driven by natural forces. There is no way to keep it out. The amount of time you spend raising that money is a function of your laws, not of the nature of politics.
Now to deal with the system you could have public financing of campaigns. Public financing of campaigns would do nothing to help challengers, since presumably the amount of money given to incumbents and challengers would be equal.
It might simplify the lot of people to have the taxpayers fund campaigns, but it still leaves two problems unsolved. It does not deal with primaries, and in most congressional races, the only real contest is in the primary election. Now there’s no formula that’s been devised that would give money to somebody who gets enough signatures to be on the ballet in the primary. In the primary there might be five or six candidates. It seems implausible that we will fund primary challengers, without producing ten, twenty, or thirty challengers for every seat.
In Europe, of course, this problem doesn’t exist, where public financing is quite common, because there the political parties pick the candidates. So public financing does not address the primary problem, it simply addresses the funding needs of the principal parties that have already selected their candidates by organizational arrangements.
The other problem it doesn’t solve is that it doesn’t limit ads. If you cannot give money to candidates because the government finances them, then you will take the money that you might want to use to influence politics and run issue ads that state your position.
Now, when John McCain and Russell Feingold submitted their original Campaign Finance Reform bill to Congress, it would have made it illegal to run an ad expressing your views about a candidate within sixty days of an election. Now think about this for a moment. John McCain is a great man, a war hero, an outstanding human being. He proposed a bill which would have produced a nine to nothing vote in the Supreme Court declaring it obviously inconsistent with the First Amendment. You cannot create a federal agency that will make it illegal to spend your money running ads advocating the election or defeat of a candidate for office. That was the bill, however, the press, by endorsing Campaign Finance Reform, implies is the right approach.
You could, of course, ban soft money. But banning soft money means reducing the amount of money political parties can have at their disposal for carrying out their work. Political parties, in my view, are an essential element of the American political process. An element that has been made profoundly weaker over the last several decades because of the rise of the primary election, because of restrictions on party activities, and because people are less confident today of their party affiliation than once was the case.
But despite these weakening influences, parties play an important role. They mediate between interest in candidates. They are entities that try to recruit people to run for office, that advice them on how to run for office, that provide them with legal and accounting aid while they’re running for office, that run ads on behalf of the candidates, that do all of the things we would like to have done if the election is not to be either a choice of personal followings, attachments to people whose names we happen to know, or not to be entirely the result of the expenditures of interest groups.
Yet the effort to cut off soft money means that we don’t want political parties. It seems to me that it ought to be easier, not harder, to give money to political parties, and easier, not harder, for political parties to spend that money advocating the election of their favorite candidates.
There is, of course, one alternative to all of these remedies, which has been endorsed by a few but has gathered virtually no votes in Congress, and that is to raise the limit on individual contributions to a relatively high level – instead of a thousand dollars, perhaps twenty-five or thirty thousand dollars, on the condition that all of these contributions are disclosed within twenty-four hours on the internet, leaving it to the press to decide who is getting their money all from some wealthy person or group, and exposing that fact in newspaper stories, leaving it indeed to individuals, often on the internet themselves to do these explorations and reach their own judgment.
This would make it easier for people to raise money. It would make it possible for Stewart Mott, today, to support the candidacy of Eugene McCarthy, which he could not do today. And whether you like Eugene McCarthy or do not like Eugene McCarthy, the notion that aspiring challengers ought to have the right to step forward if they can find the money to run in a race ought to commend itself to you, because the election process needs challengers. Two hundred, three hundred and fifty to…no, four hundred seats in the House of Representatives today are essentially uncontested. The race is really about thirty to forty seats, and only about half of those is it clear that they’re literally toss-ups. It would be nice to find a way to have more challengers, in order to produce a greater turnover in office.
I prefer challengers to term limits. Term limits are, in my view, a harsh and I think largely unproductive way to restrict politics by denying to people the opportunity to get enough experience in government to learn how to manage it. Having, making it easier for challengers to run, it seems to me, should be possible.
The present law makes it possible for wealthy people, Steve Forbes, or other individuals, to finance their own campaigns out of their own wealth. But it does not make it possible for them to finance the campaigns of other people out of their wealth. Now that’s an odd arrangement in a country. We claim to be a democratic nation, yet we give a special, privileged position to those people who have great wealth, much of it inherited, to run on their own, free of campaign finance rules, but make it next to impossible for other people, poorer by far, to run on their own behalf with the funds supplied by wealthy people.
Why does the press like the slogan Campaign Finance Reform? One rather hostile explanation for it, of course, is that if you get people out of issue advocacy, and if you curtail or end soft money, and if you keep contribution limits tight, then the only source of political information will be the press itself.
I doubt that the press really has that view, though it may have occurred to a few. I think instead, as I will say in a moment, the press dislikes money in politics, and therefore Campaign Finance Reform is a slogan that needs no further justification.
Finally let me turn to Gun Control, about which I’ve spoken to this audience once before, and I will try not to repeat myself. I happen to think that the presence of guns in our society does influence the homicide rate. The slogan that “Guns don’t kill, people kill,” is in my view a mistake. As I said once before in this room, we don’t have drive-by poisonings in Los Angeles, we don’t have drive-by stranglings, we have drive-by shootings, in which innocent children are killed because they happen to be on the steps of a house occupied by a rival gang member. And if there were fewer guns, I am confident there would be fewer homicides.
But the problem for guns is that though they equip the criminal, they also equip the victim. John Lott, whose name I think many of you know, has written a book entitled More Guns Less Crime. It has been savagely treated by the press. Savagely treated in particular by handgun control. He has been accused of foisting a conservative agenda on the country because he got money from the Olin Foundation, and part of the Olin Foundation makes Winchester Ammunition. That makes about as much sense as saying that a person who points out the reduction in highway fatalities cannot be believed because they got money from the Ford Foundation. There is no connection between what a foundation sources of money might be, and the research that the foundation supports.
Lott’s data suggest that people who have guns and find it easy to get guns live as a consequence in communities where the risk to a criminal of confronting and armed person reduces the rate of violent crime, reduces in particular the rate of homicide, assault, and rape. His data had been published, he has given the data to dozens of scholars at universities all over the country who wrote in saying I don’t accept your view, I’d like to see the numbers. They have crunched the numbers, and with trivial exceptions, have come up with the same result.
Now I am not, by saying this, pointing out that we ought to have all states pass laws that give every citizen the right to carry guns. But I am saying that the right to carry guns on the basis of the best statistical evidence we have today does reduce the rate of violent crime, because it deters people from attacking individuals, some unknown fraction of whom may be armed.
The number of such crimes prevented is a number that lies somewhere between a hundred and fifty thousand and two and a half million per year. We don’t know the number. The most conservative, pro-gun analysts of the Lott data come up with perhaps a hundred and fifty thousand. The more expansive enthusiasts of the Lott data come up with an answer of around two and a half million. The real answer is probably somewhere in between. But that is a lot of crimes being prevented.
Now in adopting a policy for guns in this country, the object ought to be to figure out a way to figure out a way of getting guns out of the hands of criminals, without at the same time taking guns out of people who use them to defend themselves. I think there are strategies by which this can be done, but those strategies are never mentioned when the slogan Gun Control is used. The slogan Gun Control means, presumably, what the members of the Million Mom March meant. That is to say, registering owners, licensing guns, imposing a one gun a month purchasing limit. Selling or distributing gun locks in order to childproof the guns, and closing of the gun show loophole.
Now, I’m not opposed to many of these proposals, I simply doubt they will have much to do with getting guns out of the hands of criminals. Closing the gun show loophole, that is to say, the opportunity to sell a gun at a gun show to another person, without having gone through the background check the Brady Law requires simply means that people will want to sell a gun to somebody else, they will not go to gun shows. They will sell them privately to anyone they happen to meet. I doubt that we can enforce a Brady Law on all private transactions, but the Supreme Court is free to see if that is possible and consistent with the Second Amendment.
We can have gun locks to childproof weapons. But the gun locks in fact will not childproof weapons. Smith and Wesson, which as recently received praise from national leaders for having distributed, at its own initiative, in order to avoid a law suit, gunlocks, issues a warning with the gun lock that comes when you buy a Smith and Wesson weapon, and the warning says, you may not install this gun lock unless the gun is unarmed. Now assume for the moment, I think reasonably, that Lott is right, that guns have a defensive value. Do you expect most people to unload their guns, put a lock on it, put the key somewhere else, if they have the gun in order to defend themselves should someone enter their home seeking to burgle it?
I think not. So that the distributed gun locks, in my view, can only have one purpose, that is to say to lock up the gun to prevent a child from accidentally killing themselves, and that is indisputably a good idea. But it’s a good idea that affects a remarkably small number of children. In 1996 there were one thousand one hundred and thirty-four accidental firearm deaths in the entire country. Of these, forty-two involved children under the age of ten, a hundred and thirty-six under the age of fifteen. This is sad, it would be nice to correct it, but twice as many people, children, died from drowning in the bathtub, and I have not heard a plan to put a bathtub lock in every home.
One percent of all of the accidental child deaths in the United States are caused by guns. So that though we would like very much to protect children, and gun locks might contribute to protecting children, we should in no way suspect that if we succeed in doing this we will have achieved a large social object.
Indeed, John Lott analyzed those states which have safe storage laws, laws that, as in California, require you to keep your lock, your gun under lock and key because if you fail to do so, and somebody has access to the gun, the gun might then be used to commit a crime. The states that have safe storage laws, controlling for all other factors that might distinguish among them, tend to have higher rates of violent crime than the states that do not have gun storage laws.
Does this mean that gun storage laws are useless? No, I simply think it means they’re irrelevant. The one-gun-a-month purchase limit probably makes a lot of sense. It reduces the chance that somebody will become a straw purchaser for people who are not authorized to buy guns on their own, by buying fifteen or twenty guns in a month and selling them to your buddies on the street corner. So the one gun a month rule probably makes a good deal of sense.
Licensing owners and registering guns may well be an effort that has no substantial cost, but New York City and Washington DC, which have some of the toughest licensing requirements in the country, cannot be distinguished from cities in states which have the weakest laws with respect to their crime and violent crime rate.
One other thing about gun locks that I meant to mention, it’s a personal reflection. I went to the Los Angeles Police Department with Roberta, my wife, and we were watching the police do various exercises. In one room they had a display of gunlocks. And it was presided over by a sergeant, a woman, who said these are the gunlocks that are now available. And I said well, unlock this gun. She couldn’t do it, because she had forgotten the combination. I said, well try that gun. She couldn’t do that one because she’d misplaced the key. Now this is not a criticism of Sergeant whoever-it-was, Mary Jones. It points out that it’s a difficulty.
When Paris Glen Denning, the mayor of…the Governor of Maryland signed a gunlock bill for the state, he then went on television to illustrate how the gunlocks were supposed to work, and he worked at them for two minutes and couldn’t unlock the gun.
Now there’s a solution to this. If you can design an electronic device that will recognize your hand, your finger print, so that when you hold the gun it automatically is abled, and when somebody else holds the gun it is automatically disabled, that would solve this problem. In time, gun manufacturers might be able to design such a device that people could afford to pay. But bear in mind there’s even a qualification to this. The device would have to come with an instruction manual that would teach you how to enable other people also to hold the gun.
Now think about it for a moment. You’re a police officer and you buy an electronically protected gun. You’re in a fight. You do not want it to be impossible for your partner in the police department to pick up your gun if you’re wounded and shoot it. So that you will then have a device that will enable you to transfer your partner’s handprints, or fingerprints to it. Or you’re alone in your home with your wife. Not my wife, she hates guns, but somebody’s wife [laughter] And you want to make sure that if somebody breaks into your house and you’re disabled, that your spouse can handle the gun. So you have to have a way of enabling your gun to recognize the spouses handprint or fingerprint.
Now the guns that will be sold will come with a manual telling you how to do this. And so, gang members, who buy guns, will then have an opportunity to make sure that anybody can use the guns. Still, the gun, the electronic gun lock will probably protect some number of children from accidental shootings, and that’s desirable. But we are not there yet, and therefore there’s not much point in talking more about a device that is not yet available.
As far as banning assault weapons and Saturday Night Specials, they are used in such a small faction of crimes that the consequences would be invisible. Assault weapons, as defined by the California legislature, have been used in less than one percent of all of the homicides committed last year. Saturday Night Specials, cheap handguns, have been used in less than three percent of all of the violent crimes. And if you ban Saturday Night Specials, you’re putting a price control mechanism on them that will make it harder for poor people to own them when they might use them for self-protection.
Again, I’m not trying to persuade you to accept my version of the gun control story, as opposed to gun control as advocated by the Million Mom March. I’m simply trying to persuade you that there are at least two sides of this story. And therefore, why does the press use the phrase Gun Control, as if everyone should stand up and salute? I find no obvious reason for it.
Look at television news stories about gun control between July 1, 1995 and June 30, 1997. There were 244 gun policy stories on television. Of these, 157 favored Gun Control without explaining what was meant by the phrase. Ten explained what was meant by it and opposed it. The remainder presented neutral profiles.
Now I think there are things that can be done about getting guns out of the hands of dangerous people, I have said it before in these meetings. I think searching probationers and parolees frequently, spontaneously, in order to insure that they’re not carrying weapons is a good idea. I think encouraging the federal government to finish what it started four years ago, an effort to develop a portable gun detector the police can use the way they now use a radar device to spot illegal, to spot weapons that are carried concealed on a person, giving them then grounds to stop and ask the question, pat them down, and see if the person is entitled to carry a gun, these are good ideas.
I think Project Exile, which was started in Richmond Virginia, which has now spread to many other communities, is a good idea. Project Exile is a policy whereby under federal statutes the prosecutor can get a five year sentence, in many cases without parole, imposed on a person who uses a gun, or displays a gun, or carries a gun in the commission of a crime, and that penalty will be in addition to the penalty ordinarily assessed for that crime.
In Richmond they report there is a sixty-five percent reduction in gun-related deaths owing to this, but I’m not sure whether that’s true or not, it wasn’t a careful evaluation, though an evaluation could be carried out.
What’s striking about Project Exile, it’s one of the few gun control programs that is jointly endorsed by President Clinton and Charlton Heston [laughter]. Now you would think the press would like to write about that. What could President Clinton and Charlton Heston possibly agree on, other than the fact that Moses was an important person? [laughter]
Indeed, the right wing of the gun control lobby is opposed to Project Exile for fear that people will have their guns taken away from them in a way that will threaten the Second Amendment.
Now I’ve gone through these three examples, and I will end in just a moment and take your questions and comments, to try to persuade you that some news stories are relegated the status of a slogan, when they should in fact be stories. Why are these stories treated as slogans, whereas other stories are treated as real stories? Now your first explanation, at least for many of you in this room, is, the press are liberal, and that’s the way liberals handle the news. Well no doubt, the national press is by an large liberal, especially in this city. But I don’t think that’s the whole explanation, because there are a lot of issues where liberals have distinctive views where the press nonetheless shows both sides of the matter. If a candidate makes a proposal with respect to social security, or changes in taxes, or free trade, or charter schools, most print media will set forth the arguments on both sides of it. Now they may take an editorial favoring one side, but since no-one except elected politicians ever reads the editorials in newspapers, [laughter], I am indifferent to what editorial position they take.
So it cannot simply be their political orientation, at least narrowly conceived. It has to involve other things. I think the two other things it involves are the following: guns, campaign money, global warming, appeal as disasters. If it bleeds, it leads. These things can be portrayed as evils threatening the society. And you report an evil the way you report an airplane crash. So that might be part of it.
It also, I think, and here I would focus the attention of the editors of the newspapers more sharply, is that these things represent in their minds obvious evils that ought to be corrected. Money in your own pocket is a good thing. Money in the hands of somebody else, a rich person, is suspect, but still acceptable. Money in the hands of politicians is bad news. Now that’s an odd view of money, since we all value money, holding your effort constant [phonetic], why reject money that goes to some people and not others? Unless you can show, of course, that the money corrupts the others.
Business is useful, when it supplies you with a computer or a CD player or a satellite dish, but it’s harmful because it pollutes the environment. And all that CO2 that comes out of smokestacks near factories that are building CD players and satellite dishes and computers are bad. And guns are bad, and gun lovers are dangerous. These, in my opinion, are the values that colleges teach. They are the values, progressive values, that are brought to the press by people who write for them, and as a consequence, these issues, unlike Social Security, or taxes, or free trade, or charter schools, or any one of a dozen other questions, do not become the subject of stories. They remain confined to the level of balance.
My remarks therefore, those of you in the press today, are, treat these stories as if they were stories. Don’t run articles about John Lott saying he’s sponsored by the Olin Foundation. Run stories that try to examine the merits of the argument. Don’t instantly reach for a quotation from handgun control, because handgun control will remind you that he had been financed by the Olin Foundation. With respect to Global Warming, recognize the important scientific ambiguities that exist here. Many serious scientists believe that CO2 is causing global warming and it will harm the country. Many equally serious scientists believe that CO2 levels are going up, but they’re not sure it’s causing global warming, and they’re not confident it’s going to hurt the country. Report both sides.
On campaign finance, recognize that money is not an inherent evil in politics. Money is a necessary ingredient in politics, especially in a country like ours where we have one million elective offices that have to be filled.
And recognize that money, the value of money, ought to be directed primarily at challengers if you wish to receive [unintelligible] in office.
Let me finish now and ask you if you have any comments or questions.
If you have a question, pause…I will hear it and then repeat it, so that it will go on the transcript. Yes sir.
MALE VOICE: This is David [inaudible] from the Philadelphia Inquirer. [inaudible] …press situation was hopeless but not serious. I’m going to ask you to confront something that actually bothers people in the media a great deal, just the fact that these [inaudible] seem to have no effect on the public at large. [inaudible] the object of hysteria [inaudible].
MR. WILSON: Right. Right, that’s a very good question, and it explains to me one thing. The press isn’t doing this in order to win readers. Because the readers, by and large, are not profoundly affected by any of these issues. Global warming, you can understand it. It’s a distant thing, scientists say it may happen, but it’s not like cancer in a baby. Campaign finance, well, the politicians in the public’s mind are always morally loose, perhaps corrupt – we’re not surprised they get money. Gun control, well, with 260 million guns in private possession, too many people own, half the American public owns guns, and they’re not going to be persuaded by newspapers about how to treat their guns.
So that your point, which is quite correct, is that the public isn’t affected. My point is that one has a journalistic obligation to treat these matters as stories, not as slogans. Not because I wish to change the direction in which the country is run, but because I think it’s the obligation of journalists.
MALE VOICE: [inaudible] from the [inaudible] of Greater New York. You mentioned [inaudible] school teachers. I’ve been struck by the shift, I think, in the integrity with which stories are reported over some period of time. I’m wondering, from your vantage point at the academy whether you believe that there is evidence that that, that those traditional values of…would you incorporate integrity [inaudible], may not be being transmitted.
MR. WILSON: Give me an example of what you mean, so I can focus on…
MALE VOICE: Well, an example of what I mean…it’s hard to come up with an example right off the top of my head, so I will…uh, there has been a shift, it seems to me, from acceptance of a left wing point of view…
MALE VOICE: …on the part of the media itself that comes from within, to a, a, an attempt to really influence policies by deliberately and selectively [inaudible] where they may not have been true [inaudible] say ten years ago.
MR. WILSON: Yes. If you’re talking about incorporating news analysis into news stories yes. You’re talking about the front page of the New York Times. [laughter] Um, yeah, it troubles me. I would prefer to see the editorial pages and the op-ed pages be the place where opinion’s expressed and the news pages be the place where the facts are related. I know it is not easy to drive a straight line between reporting the facts and interpreting the facts so the reader can understand what the facts are about. That’s a vague line. But though I cannot define twilight, I know the difference between night and day. The New York Times is night, and some alternative to it would be day. [laughter]
FEMALE VOICE: Jim, that was a very, very interesting and [inaudible] account within [inaudible]. What do you think the suggestion was [inaudible] hero, of America…
MR. WILSON: Mm hmm.
FEMALE VOICE: [inaudible] reporters [inaudible], and that they subsist mainly on [inaudible]?
MR. WILSON: Um, do I think the press is lazy and subsists on press releases? I don’t know enough about the press to answer that question. I’ve been interviewed by a variety of reporters, at least the few that could get through my defense mechanisms, and I have encountered some that are, they say I’d like to ask you a question about your book, and I say have you read the book and says no, and I hang up. And I have also been interviewed by reporters who ask very probing questions who go on for some length about the issues. So that reporters differ. I don’t know what the habit is. I would not personally like the job of reporting the news every day, with a deadline always to answer to. And I can believe that faced with that deadline, and faced with a natural desire to improve your lot in life, you will write stories quickly rather than deeply. But if that’s the case, it’s an inherent feature of the press. I can’t recall a time when front page stories would have involved more depth than they do now. Indeed, on the contrary, I think stories today often have more to them, in print, than they once did. And the problem is that some stories have in print, only slogans. And my problem is to get us over sloganizing.
MR. WILSON: Would people have used concealed weapons for illicit purposes, even though they were fundamentally decent people? Well, John Lott studied what has happened in Florida, which, one of the earliest states that had a must-carry law, a law that in effect denied to the police the right to challenge your ability to carry a concealed weapon, unless you were a felon, and discovered that there was no such effect. Now, we don’t know how many people in Florida actually carry a gun. Neither do the criminals, which is why it has a deterrent effect. Maybe it’s five percent of the people. Maybe things would be different if it were seventy percent of the people.
But on the present evidence from those states which have had must-carry laws for the longest time, we see no evidence that there has been an increase in accidental shootings, or an increase in the use of guns to settle ordinary quarrels.
Yes, in the back.
MALE VOICE: [inaudible] several other examples [inaudible]. I have two questions. The first is, do you see a pattern of increase [inaudible]… [inaudible] And the other thing is, how [inaudible]?
MR. WILSON: I believe there has been an increase, uh, my answer will reveal the question. I believe there has been an increase in sloganizing, simply because the federal government has a larger agenda today. When I was a young man, the federal government spent money on highways, and the GI Bill, and veterans awards, and ran the postal service more or less, but it didn’t do things that created large policy uncertainties that the public had to debate. When we debated what the federal government did, we were debating whether to go to war or not, or whether to raise taxes or not. We didn’t debate what the federal government should do about the full variety of human problems which society is now confronting.
Do I think the electronic media will make a difference in this? I think the electronic different media will make a large difference in this, because it will provide, as opinion magazines now provide, an alternative medium in which people can explore and develop their own ideas. And I think that as more and more people turn to the electronic medium, if they do turn to it, and so far they have, they will find a wider source of support for their own views.
The difficulty with the electronic media is that you search out views that you already know you’re going to agree with. You punch in into Yahoo or Lycos or Alta Vista phrases such as “Opponents of Gun Control” and you get the National Rifle Association. The advantage that the press has is that it’s supposed to supposed to report things for all people, and you pick or choose what you’re going to read. So that I think the print medium will always have a more important role than the electronic medium, because it is trying to inform all of the people, not simply provide a vehicle for people to pick out, exclusive of other ideas, their own ideas. So that though I think the electronic media’s important, I think there’s a real limitation, I think it faces a fundamental problem of ever doing what a newspaper or magazine can do.
MR. WILSON: What’s to prevent candidates from linking their future to media slogans? Nothing at all. They do it all the time. They’ve been doing it in this country since the beginning of time. Thomas Jefferson founded a newspaper, and put the editor on the payroll of the state department, so that he’d have a way of getting his arguments out. I…that’s what politicians do. And the reason presidential candidates tend to come to the center of public opinion while congressional candidates tend to stay farther apart, in my opinion, is that presidential candidates are attempting to get where they think the media has described the center of public opinion.
And I don’t think this is a big problem. I think that’s what democracy is about. And people still make choices, and the choices, I think, cannot be predicted in advance by what the media says.
FEMALE VOICE: To what degree do you think it’s possible for us to strive towards [inaudible]…
MR. WILSON: The Europeans are contemptuous of us because of our pretense of objectivity. Maybe we should throw in the cards and agree with them. I think the search for, not objectivity but for a reasonable presentation of the facts with reasonable attendance to the supporting evidence is crucial. And that’s why I think American newspapers are by and large better than European newspapers. Now there are some outstanding European newspapers, but if I were to be informed about matters I would rather read and American…a major national American newspaper than read a major national European newspaper. Because on most matters we try harder. And I think it’s desirable to try. Somebody once challenged me, saying your political science is nothing but politics with footnotes. And there’s an element of truth in that. Any scholar picks a subject, picks a way to approach it, picks the questions to be asked, decides how to evaluate the evidence. In this mechanism, your preferences are bound to play some role. The crucial question is how do you struggle with the evidence. How well do you examine the refineries? How well do you state the qualifications and exceptions. That, and not pure objectivity, is what the scholarly enterprise ought to be about, and I think to a considerable degree is what the journalistic enterprise ought to be about.