Julian Sanchez header image 2

photos by Lara Shipley

Curses, Foiled Again!

May 8th, 2012 · 12 Comments

I was naturally pleased to hear the New York Times had sent a reporter to cover the panel on “Freedom and the Panopticon”  I moderated at the PEN World Voices Festival this weekend—but my jaw dropped a little at this bizarre paragraph in the writeup by the Times’ Larry Rohter:

The panel’s moderator was Julian Sanchez, a research fellow at the Washington-based Cato Institute, a libertarian advocacy organization whose donors include some of the country’s biggest corporations. His opening remarks and subsequent questions focused on the emergence of “the surveillance state,” largely glossing over the role that corporations play in the creation and maintenance of schemes of surveillance, and so it fell to other participants, like Catherine Crump of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Scottish science fiction novelist Ken MacLeod and Ms. Adamesteanu, to bring corporations into the discussion.

So first, I have to ask: Which specific “country’s biggest corporations” are those, exactly? Was there some research behind that insinuation, or are we just sort of ad libbing here?  Because last I checked, corporate contributions were a little under 2% of Cato’s annual budget, as I could’ve told the reporter if he’d bothered to walk up after the panel and ask. Offhand, I don’t know whether we get any money from the companies most involved in collecting personal data—I try to ignore funding precisely to avoid any possible subconscious influence—but I’m betting the reporter didn’t bother to check. The authors on the panel, of course, are published by corporations, and need their books sold at Amazon and other large retail outlets, which probably makes them a good deal more financially dependent on corporate goodwill than I am, but this oddly didn’t provoke any speculative tangents about why they failed to go after Amazon by name.

Second, do we really need to start fabricating ulterior motives to explain why a researcher who specializes on national security spying, in an introduction that was primarily about literary metaphors, might focus on government surveillance when selecting examples? With a panel consisting of a lawyer who sues the government for a living, two novelists who lived in and wrote about communist surveillance states, and a science fiction writer whose latest book was centrally about government monitoring of the citizenry? Really? This is a big mystery that can only be unraveled by following the money? I guess I could have explicitly cashed out my remarks on the inadequacy of Orwell’s metaphor in the modern context  by preempting what Catherine had planned to say about the explosion of private data gathering—which I agreed with completely, for what it’s worth—but it was, you know, a panel.

I’ll link my prepared remarks when they’re up at PEN, at which point readers can judge for themselves, but I’m pretty confident that they wouldn’t have inspired any commentary if they’d been delivered verbatim by someone from the ACLU. This is just a reporter injecting a glaringly irrelevant aside for the purpose of taking a cheap potshot at a think tank he obviously doesn’t care for. Which I normally try to be a little more Zen about, but geez, is it really such a psychological impossibility for some people to type the words “Cato Institute,” in any context, for any reason, without ginning up some horseshit pretext to editorialize?

Tags: Journalism & the Media



12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Cisco // May 8, 2012 at 2:41 pm

    And the fun part is, the Brazilian government threatened to expel Rohter some 8 years ago when he wrote about then-president Lula’s drinking. So it’s not like he’s exactly unfamiliar with government overreach and all that.

    (Fun fact: back then, when you googled “déspota cachaceiro” [“drunk despot”], the president’s bio was the first result.)

  • 2 MS // May 8, 2012 at 2:57 pm

    Mr. Rother is the same journalist that published that the Brazilian Prsident Lula da Silva had a drinking problem. At that time his reporting was linked with an attempt to undermine the role of Brazil in a WTO sponsored meetting and Mr Rother was either a fool or co conspirator. He seems to have a tendency not to check his facts.

  • 3 Brian Moore // May 8, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    The other side is wrong and we have to stop them.

  • 4 Ron Warrick // May 8, 2012 at 5:50 pm

    Depends how you define corporate donors perhaps. If foundations are 15% of the budget, how closely are the foundations tied to corporate interests? Of the remaining 83% of donations, how many might be from officers of large corporations? Tobacco companies are particularly fond of Cato and would funnel money to it any way they can manage to.

    I happen to be a fan of Cato while not always in agreement with its tendency to promote policies that help corporate entities manipulate and exploit the vulnerability of the little guy.

  • 5 Watoosh // May 8, 2012 at 6:33 pm

    It’s things like these that really illustrate that there really is such a thing as “liberal media” (and I do mean it in a pejorative sense). It’s only peripherally concerned with actual politics on the left-right-axis, and it’s slightly less uninformed and insulated than conservative media, but goddamn is it still annoying sometimes.

    Can’t a man/woman represent a libertarian institution even for a second without being accused of having a Koch in their mouth?

  • 6 Julian Sanchez // May 8, 2012 at 6:53 pm

    You know, I don’t know, but at that point aren’t you basically talking about every institution that isn’t directly government funded? I’d bet most of the funding for the Center for American Progress also comes from individuals who are either employed by or make money from investments in corporations—either directly or via foundations those people fund. In which case it seems a little silly to call out any particular institution, unless there’s a specific large donor (like tobacco companies) that’s relevant. If 20% of Cato’s funding came from Google or its top executives, that at least might bear mentioning.

  • 7 MFarmer // May 8, 2012 at 8:06 pm

    It’s pleasing to see you become un-zenlike and give this hack a little hell in defense of Cato’s purpose.

  • 8 Will Wilkinson // May 9, 2012 at 1:40 am

    This is precisely the sort of thing that shows that Cato doesn’t actually have much of a reputation for intellecyual independence, even when it comes to issues on which it’s objectively great. Its not fair, and this guy’s clearly a hack, but there it is.

  • 9 Jesse Walker // May 10, 2012 at 11:10 pm

    Tobacco companies are particularly fond of Cato and would funnel money to it any way they can manage to.

    It is possible that my information is out of date, but my understanding was that the tobacco companies cut Cato off when it attacked the Master Settlement Agreement.

  • 10 Southern Beale // May 13, 2012 at 12:16 am

    Doesn’t Cato get substantial funding from foundations that are backed by corporate money and far right benefactors, i.e. Scaife Foundations, Claude R. Lambe Charitable Foundation, etc.? I think that might be what they were referring to.

  • 11 Julian Sanchez // May 15, 2012 at 3:41 pm

    Foundation money is maybe another 15% total of the annual budget. I don’t know how it breaks down, but again, if we’re going to count all money derived from people who either work for or invest in corporations as “corporate money,” then that will be true of basically every non-governmental think tank.

    And in this case, the insinuation is pretty clearly that “some of the country’s largest corporations” are those I deliberately omitted—the ones involved in building this panopticon. Otherwise why even mention it? So presumably defense/intelligence contractors, maybe Google/Facebook, and the big data aggregators. It’s possible we get some money from some of these, but I’d be surprised.

  • 12 Barry // May 18, 2012 at 10:54 pm

    Julian, are you the guy mentioned in here?