Economics for journalists? From the Fraser Institute? Biased?

Photo: flickr/Sharon Drummond

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The economy is a difficult subject for journalists to cover. Most have never studied economics in any depth. At Carleton University's Journalism School, an estimated six per cent of Bachelor of Journalism students take the Introduction to Economics course, the prerequisite for all other courses in economics. That means 94 per cent likely have no economics background.

So how can they cover Canadian politics, with its emphasis on the economy?

Fraser Institute to the rescue. 

About 160 working journalists have "honed their economic reporting skills" since the Fraser Institute launched its economics for journalists program in 2007. It's quite the success story.

Attendance in Vancouver the first few years was capped at 15, but recently the seminar expanded to 25 and is now offered in Toronto too. "The program attracts five applications for every available slot," the institute's 2013 annual report brags, "and participants inform us there would be many more but for their own organizations limiting the number submitted each year."

Interestingly, of the 160, only three have mentioned online they attended the program -- a National Post business reporter and a CBC Radio reporter on their LinkedIn accounts, and a freelance journalist in her online CV. And only one has found the program newsworthy. Jonathan Sas, former editor of The Mark News and now director of research at the Broadbent Institute, attended the 2012 seminar and wrote about it in The Tyee

The seminar strategy, as described by Sas, is to insert neoliberal doctrine into basic economic concepts and principles, normalizing them for attendees.

So the law of unintended consequences (which neoliberals use to claim anything government does will go wrong) and the tragedy of the commons (used by neoliberals to argue that everything should be privately owned) are presented as if they are common-sense economics. 

Sas notes the many fallacious claims made by seminar leaders: the minimum wage causes unemployment, too much government regulation caused the 2008 financial crisis, Canada's economic stimulus actions were a profound failure, and Keynesian economic policies failed everywhere. 

How many attendees will be aware of these biases in the course? 

The Fraser Institute has faithfully followed the grand scheme of propaganda dissemination laid out by Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek in his influential 1949 article, "The Intellectuals and Socialism." The problem Hayek addressed was how to turn society away from social democracy and the welfare state -- the road to slavery and serfdom as he saw it -- and toward a state governed by the market (i.e., capitalism). This would require altering the prevailing climate of ideas.

To undertake this major transformation of society, Hayek wrote, neoliberals would have to influence what he termed "professional second-hand dealers in ideas" who control the distribution of expert knowledge to the public. They are "journalists, teachers, ministers, lecturers, publicists, radio commentators, writers of fiction, cartoonists, and artists." They "may be masters of the technique of conveying ideas but are usually amateurs so far as the substance of what they convey is concerned," he wrote.

Nonetheless, they are the people who, more than any others, "decide what views and opinions are to reach us, which facts are important enough to be told to us, and in what form and from what angle they are to be presented." 

Influencing second-hand dealers in ideas, Hayek continued, would be accomplished through a network of "dealerships" or think tanks.

"Backed with funds from corporations and their owners, usually channelled through private foundations," Columbia University political scientist Timothy Mitchell writes, "think tanks repackaged neoliberal doctrines in forms that 'second-hand dealers' could retail among the general public. Doctrine was supported with evidence presented as 'research,'" which was then packaged into books, reports, studies, teaching materials, and news stories and distributed to news organizations and other second-hand dealers. 

Following Hayek's advice, the Fraser Institute marshals most of its resources for the task of influencing journalists, commentators and editors in the news media. But over the years it attempted to influence other second-hand dealers in ideas.

In the early 1980s the institute established the Centre for the Study of Economics and Religion (CSER) to beam neoliberal doctrine at the church and clergy and through them to their flocks. The centre's guiding principle was that "there is nothing immoral about the honest accumulation of wealth, the general practice of business, nor the idea of a free market functioning within a limited-government framework." Its mission was to resist the leftward tilt of the Church.

The Social Affairs Commission of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops had just issued a statement urging government to fight unemployment rather than inflation, pursue an economic-development strategy, maintain social programs and increase taxes on higher-income Canadians and investment. Clearly the bishops were misinformed and needed "better information about how the economy worked," the institute concluded. 

But the centre lasted only eight years, unable to overcome the skepticism provoked among many clergymen and theologians over the true purpose of CSER. They wondered whether the centre was "more a vehicle to promote the institute's strong free-enterprise philosophy than a genuine research and study organization." 

In its next -- and more successful -- effort to influence second-hand dealers, the institute commenced free teacher-training workshops on economic principles in 2000. These were devised as an inexpensive way to influence young people. They are funded largely by the Lotte and John Hecht Memorial Foundation, which has pumped millions of dollars into institute "educational" programs.

About 50 to 75 teachers participate in the one-day workshops held in cities across Canada. The institute estimates that 90 students each year are influenced by the participation of each teacher who uses the lesson plans and other course materials supplied by the workshop in his or her classroom. 

Then in 2007 the institute launched its journalism program "to educate journalists about economics and markets." This is not economics as taught by a reputable educational institution like Carleton University --law of unintended consequences, tragedy of the commons, et al.

Like the teacher-training workshops, this course is delivered by two professors from Wisconsin. Both are affiliated with the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a neoliberal think tank in suburban Milwaukee that backed Republican governor Scott Walker's assaults on public-sector unions and teachers.

The Bradley Foundation, the Milwaukee-based funder of the right has pumped $16.5 million into this think-tank. The professors bring with them neoliberal economic principles that support a property-rights, market-based approach to economic activity.

Many course segments are taken from the offerings of the Foundation for Teaching Economics, an American organization that was led until 2013 by anti-union business executive William Hume, head of a California agriculture conglomerate.

It's economic education designed not to educate journalists, but to make them more amenable to neoliberal propaganda. 

And the program expands the Fraser Institute's rolodex of journalists it can contact when it has new "research" to disseminate. 

Funny no journalist-participant thought to do this research.

 

Donald Gutstein is an adjunct professor in the School of Communication at Simon Fraser University and co-director of NewsWatch Canada. His book Harperism: How Stephen Harper and His Think Tank Colleagues Have Transformed Canada was published last fall.

Photo: flickr/Sharon Drummond

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