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“Fake News” and the Post-Trump Media


Joshua Cohen

Courtesy of Joshua Cohen

Joshua Cohen

Courtesy of Joshua Cohen

In his 1997 essay “The Arc of the Moral Universe,” philosopher Joshua Cohen, Ph.D. ’79, asked whether the injustice of American slavery contributed to its demise. To anyone but a philosopher, his answer might sound underwhelming: it did, but its influence was limited. “If there is an arc, King is right about its length,” he wrote, riffing on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s now-famous idea, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Two decades and one Donald Trump election later, Cohen’s view hasn’t changed. “Right makes might,” he says, but “It is just not the only thing that does. Not by a long shot.” 

Cohen has edited the Boston Review, a magazine of literature and political ideas, since 1991, alongside appointments at MIT, Stanford, Berkeley, and Apple University, Apple’s corporate training arm. He left MIT for the Bay Area a decade ago, but the magazine’s office and core staff, including Cohen’s co-editor Deborah Chasman ’85 and managing editor Adam McGee Ph.D. ’14, remain in Cambridge, at MIT’s campus. The Review aims to link academic debates to a wider public discourse, counting among its contributors leading intellectuals like government and education professor Danielle Allen, Walmsley University Professor Cass Sunstein, Boskey professor of law Lani Guinier, and others. Each issue headlines with a beefy “Forum” section, where heavy-hitters answer ambitious questions like “What is education for?” (answered by Allen, and then engaging others’ perspectives). “What are foundations for?” “Ferguson won’t change anything. What will?” Once a distinctly literary publication, the Review’s arts and culture contents now lie deeper in, including a fiction section edited by Junot Díaz, RI ’04. The Review’s website underwent a gut renovation this fall, at the peak of the election cycle, shedding what Cohen called its “dull as dishwater” look. Its new bold-faced, blue-and-yellow design resembles a new-media startup more than a bookish bimonthly magazine; Cohen hopes it will enliven the readership for a Trumpian era. In the wake of the election, he reports, the Review has benefited from a spike in public support for independent media.

Cohen recently talked to Harvard Magazine about “fake news,” the Review’s response to President-elect Trump, and the spread of ideas. The interview has been edited for clarity and concision.


Harvard Magazine: How does one become involved in writing for the public while also being an academic philosopher, and negotiate those roles, if there’s anything to negotiate? 

Joshua Cohen: I decided early on in my career that I always wanted to have one foot squarely in the academy and another foot in some kind of public engagement. I was very influenced by [Noam] Chomsky in this respect. So I did a few things between the time that I started teaching in 1979 and becoming editor of the Review in 1991. I was involved in some projects having to do with nuclear weapons in the early 1980s, with U.S. policy in Latin America, and in each of these cases the focus was on public engagement. In ’91 the Boston Review was without an editor, and the editor and publisher was looking for someone to take it over. I thought it was an interesting extension of the kind of stuff I’ve been doing and that it could provide a place for serious engagement of ideas. A left-center-of-gravity magazine of ideas was how I thought of it.

HM: Who do you see as the audience for the Review?

JC: The audience is defined by the kind of magazine it is; the audience is people who are prepared to read longish, kind of demanding essays on topics of large public importance. The potential audience is anybody who reads a range of magazines from the New York Review or Dissent or Atlantic or Harper’s or on the right the National Review.

HM: All the appeals from publications since the presidential election have stressed the importance of supporting authoritative media sources post-Trump. The email I got from the Boston Review had the subject, “An Antidote to Fake News.” But the people who are reading the Boston Review aren’t people who would otherwise be reading fake news. I wonder if anything can be done or should be done to spread those ideas beyond a small group of intellectuals. 

JC: I think that’s a very important issue. I think there are lots of ways that ideas spread beyond small groups of intellectuals, even if they start out with a smaller audience. Just to take a recent example, Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. It’s an intellectually demanding book, it’s long, it’s complex in its argument and analysis, but it’s been influential far beyond its readership. When you’re doing the kind of stuff that we do [at the Boston Review], it’s like throwing a stone in a pond and creating a set of ripples. Whether those ripples go forward or not depends on whether other people find the ideas sufficiently compelling. I think there’s a place for publishing ideas that are longer-form, complex, and not written for everyone. They live a life beyond the immediate audience.

The area that I work in, political philosophy from a classical liberal point of view, is incredibly influential beyond the circle of readers of [Friedrich Hayek’s] The Constitution of Liberty. Or [John] Rawls’s [Conant University Professor, emeritus] A Theory of Justice had influence, probably more in other countries than in the United States, far beyond the circle of people who read things. People read them, digest them, present them to other people, or they end up published in the Boston Review. I don’t exactly know what the mechanisms are for the transmission of important ideas. The ripples in the pond metaphor is a very imperfect one, but the basic point is that you have influence well beyond your readership.

HM: It’s interesting to think about the broader landscape of the media and the roles of different types of publications. The daily papers like The New York Times reach huge audiences and inform people about what’s going on day-to-day, but usually don’t get into the underlying philosophical problems. But certainly the ideas still spread. The mechanism is a mystery, other than to people who study it. 

JC: If you take somebody like David Leonhardt, who writes about economic issues for the Times, he reads literature that’s written by people writing about labor markets. He doesn’t produce that literature, but he’s just great at understanding it and re-explaining it and pointing to directions that you might take ideas. In another vein, the people at Vox—Matt Yglesias [’03] was a Harvard philosophy major who worked with Tim Scanlon [Alford professor of natural religion moral philosophy, and civil polity, emeritus]. Those people read academic articles, or stuff that’s in between, like the Boston Review. I think there are lots of channels for influence.

HM: Back to the matter of “fake news” and the so-called post-fact era, we need to think more deeply about what we mean by the kinds of facts that matter. When a respected newspaper publishes the results of social-science research as if it’s definitive or has wider implications than it does, for example, that degrades discourse too. On the other hand, the media have become so concerned with how to get people to care about facts, they perhaps lose sight of how much rhetoric, art, and ideology are always going to motivate people. An interview in Vox last week featured a Trump voter who receives Obamacare, who never believed that Trump would take away her healthcare because he had said throughout his campaign, “I’m going to cover everyone.” What can be done to reach people beyond fact-checking, because fact-checking isn’t going to cut it? Might that be work that doesn’t belong to the media, but to other segments of society?

JC: First of all, I think this discussion about fake news is largely a bunch of bullshit. It’s become this category, nobody knows exactly what it means, and it’s become applied to everything from stuff that’s intentionally deceptive to stuff where people are trying to get the answer right but they get something wrong. Despite the fact that we put out that one Boston Review mailing that said “An Antidote to Fake News,” I never use the term “fake news.” 

Second, a concern about fact is different from a preoccupation with fact-checking. You can legitimately get things right and you can get things wrong. The New York Times published a bunch of stuff that was false in the run-up to the Iraq War. Judith Miller was writing for them and publishing stuff that was crap. It was wrong. I don’t think fact-checking is the answer to everything, but I think skepticism about facts is intellectually and politically dangerous. 

I think there are real concerns about responding to falsehoods, but it’s not some new category in the way that it’s being discussed. But I don’t have much patience for skepticism around facts. I completely agree with you that trying to figure out how to explain a phenomenon, like why Trump won—you don’t get a good answer to that question just by knowing a bunch of facts. Nietzsche's slogan, “there are no facts, only interpretations”—I think that’s a dangerous idea. At the same time, when it comes to understanding political world, the idea that it’s all a matter of getting the facts straight is ridiculous. That’s why while we fact-check our own articles, we don’t publish fact-checking of stuff that other people write. There’s a kind of laziness that sets in: “If you only had the facts right, you would agree with me.” Well, there’s no serious area of intellectual inquiry in which that’s true. No physicist thinks that you just need to get the facts right.

Public Reason on the Left

HM: The Boston Review isn’t pretending to be neutral on the election of Donald Trump. You had said in a video to readers that his election was a “disaster.” Did you have to make a decision about the position or tone you were going to take editorially, or was it immediately obvious?

JC: It’s a good question. I would begin by addressing it not with reference to Trump in particular, but more broadly. This is an issue we’ve faced over the course of time that I’ve been a co-editor. We do have these two identities. One is that we’re a magazine of ideas devoted to promoting more serious forms of debate about important ideas—a kind of commitment to public reason. The other is that we have a set of more substantive political convictions that are identifiably on the left. We have strong egalitarian convictions on socioeconomic issues, we have a cultural libertarian point of view, and convictions about democracy and the success of democracy depending on serious debate between and among ideas. Putting those two identities together is a challenge for us. How do you provide a forum for serious debate and engagement across different points of view, and also have your own point of view? That’s always an issue that we navigate.

When it came to Trump’s election, I think we felt that it was pretty clear that this election represents a serious challenge, both to our substantive convictions—the egalitarian, cultural libertarian, and convictions about deliberation and democracy—and also to the ideas of providing a forum for open-ended public debate. From both of those points of view, the Trump election looked like a really bad thing. It wasn’t that hard to come to the conclusion that we really needed to pursue more vigorously than ever the mission that we have of upholding a set of norms about democratic debate. 

HM: What does it mean to be culturally libertarian? Is it related to the notion of a “marketplace of ideas”?

JC: It’s partly a John Stuart Millian view about the value of robust and wide-open debate. When Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes used that phrase about the “marketplace of ideas,” that was his paraphrase of Mill’s On Liberty, which he read in preparation for writing that opinion in the Abrams case in [1919]. I don’t use the phrase, but that’s part of it. But also, I think, when I say culturally libertarian, what I mean is about issues of gender, gender identity, and so on. There’s a kind of anti-traditionalist point of view that we have. I think of it as culturally libertarian, although the term “libertarian” in some circles doesn’t have a very good name.

HM: Right now, as institutions make decisions about how to position themselves in relation to the Trump administration, what should universities be doing? Some protesters have criticized Harvard officials for not taking positions on Trump's appointments or platform. 

JC: I think that they should not take official institutional positions on appointments or platform, except when a decision is a clear offense against a core democratic or rule of law principle.

At the same time, institutions can spend more time making clear their own core principles: including commitments to open inquiry, inclusiveness, and international collaboration. They do not have to do this in an explicitly oppositional spirit: the point is to clarify and make firm public statements around basic principles. 

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