60 Minutes Helps Andrew Sullivan’s Whitewashing

The blogger gets some prime time help with rewriting history

On Sunday, 60 Minutes featured a long interview with Andrew Sullivan, describing him as “an influential and controversial voice for more than 30 years.” But, strangely, in describing one of the major issues that makes Sullivan controversial, it allowed him to spin the truth. Sullivan, of course, is notorious as the editor who published an excerpt of Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve in The New Republic in 1994, giving that foray into scientific racism the imprimatur of a major liberal magazine. 

Consider this exchange between Sullivan and interviewer Scott Pelley:

Scott Pelley: You have written that the book has "held up," that the book was "brilliant."

Andrew Sullivan: The data is still there. We don't know. And I think it's been unfairly presented. The book is agnostic about the mix of genes and environment in terms of intelligence. And that goes for everyone. We don't know.  

On July 25, conservative writer David French tweeted, “We live with the legacy of the bigoted structures racists created. Our obligation to seek justice does not depend on our personal fault. And there is nothing ‘conservative’ about denying the consequences of centuries of racist harm.” Bell Curve co-author Charles Murray responded, “Doesn't it make a difference to @davidafrench's argument that two of the core problems typically ascribed to centuries of American racism—elevated black violent crime and depressed mean cognitive ability—are found wherever sub-Saharan African populations live?” 

Based on Murray’s tweet, which is perfectly in line with everything he’s ever written on race and IQ, is it fair to describe Murray as “agnostic” on the issue of environment versus genetics? Or is it more accurate to say Murray is a proponent of biological racism, believing that a propensity to violent crime and “depressed mean cognitive ability” is intrinsic to “sub-Saharan African populations”? In other words, Sullivan is clearly obfuscating what Murray believes. 

The interview goes on:

Scott Pelley: Why was this an important debate to have?

Andrew Sullivan: That's a very good point, Scott. I'm not sure we should, to be honest with you. The debate was gonna happen, regardless. And I thought it would be helpful to have it put out in – in all its form; both the case for and then all the cases against. I thought that was a responsible way to respond to the emergence of this book and this piece. And I may have made the wrong call but I did it – I did it in good faith and I did it because I think it is always better to air this stuff than to suppress it, however feelings may be harmed. But I think if I were presented with that thing today, I wouldn't. I'll be perfectly honest with you, I wouldn't. I think the harm outweighs the good.

There are two points to make here. First of all, the idea “the debate was gonna happen, regardless” ignores the fact that the book’s marketing strategy was designed to make sure that none of the authors’ scientific claims could be evaluated by experts before it went to press. By publishing an excerpt in a mass market magazine and by commissioning responses mainly from journalists rather than sociologists or other experts, Sullivan aided and abetted in this marketing scheme. 

As the Wall Street Journal reported in 1994, the book had been “swept forward by a strategy that provided book galleys to likely supporters while withholding them from likely critics.” The article noted that the American Enterprise Institute might have been trying “to fix the fight when it released review copies selectively, contrary to usual publishing protocols.” Citing this Journal article, Eric Alterman, in his 2003 book What Liberal Media?, added that “Murray and AEI also hand-picked a group of pundits to be flown to Washington at the think tank’s expense for a weekend of briefings by Murray and discussion of the book’s arguments. The strategy paid off when the book was released and the publicity machine put into action, long before the scientific establishment could garner a look and form any coherent judgment.” 

In other words, the book was primed at the start to become a controversial best-seller, unencumbered by a critical reception from the scientific community. Sullivan’s decision to excerpt the book in The New Republic (a magazine not equipped to do a scientific critique) was part of this manipulative media campaign.

Secondly, Sullivan presents himself as having deep regrets. Ponder again these words: “But I think if I were presented with that thing today, I wouldn't. I'll be perfectly honest with you, I wouldn't. I think the harm outweighs the good.” This remorseful tone is belied by the fact that just this year, on May 28, Sullivan ran a long, admiring interview with Murray on his substack, where they took up the issue of IQ once again. 

Sullivan’s 60 Minutes profile should be seen as the latest link in a long chain of whitewashing. First, Sullivan whitewashed The Bell Curve, presenting it in 1994 as a provocative scientific thesis deserving of debate and discussion, even as his involvement in publicizing the ideas therein shielded it from scrutiny by the most competent critics. Since then, Sullivan has spent decades, up to and including the 60 Minutes interview, insisting that The Bell Curve isn’t racist. Now 60 Minutes airs an interview where Sullivan presents the most palatable possible public face without being challenged or otherwise held to account.. Andrew Sullivan and Charles Murray live in a world where ideas exist to be marketed rather than critically examined, and 60 Minutes has shown itself to be a vehicle for the cynical manipulation of the media’s power to sell those ideas just as if they were any other junk.

(Edited by Emily M. Keeler)

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