It’s likely to be more Blank than Tripping Point, but trendmeister Malcolm Gladwell got a Grade-A blowtorching over at AlterNet the other day. The liberal website’s flaming starts out this way:

Is Malcolm Gladwell America’s Most Successful Propagandist and Corporate Shill?

Propaganda works best when it is not perceived as propaganda, but works more subtly. The master of this nuanced approach is Malcolm Gladwell.
June 6, 2012  |   ”I’m necessarily parasitic in a way. I have done well as a parasite. But I’m still a parasite.” –  Malcolm Gladwell

In the vast ecosystem of corporate shills, which one is the most effective? Propaganda works best when it is not perceived as propaganda: nuance, obfuscation, distraction, suggestion, the subtle introduction of doubt—these are more effective in the long run than shotgun blasts of lies. The master of this approach is Malcolm Gladwell.

Malcolm Gladwell is the New Yorker’s leading essayist and bestselling author. Time magazine named Gladwell one of the world’s 100 most influential people. His books sell copies in the millions, and he is in hot demand as one of the nation’s top public intellectual and pop gurus. Gladwell plays his role as a disinterested public intellectual like few others, right down to the frizzy hairdo and smock-y getups. His political aloofness, high-brow contrarianism and constant challenges to “popular wisdom” are all part of his shtick.

But beneath Malcolm Gladwell’s cleverly-crafted ambiguity, beneath the branded facade, one finds, with surprising ease, a common huckster on the take. I say “surprising ease” because it’s all out there on the public record.

The piece goes on to claim that Gladwell is one of the “pro-business news media moles” cranked out by the National Journalism Center, “a corporate-funded program created to counter the media’s alleged ‘anti-business bias’ by molding college kids into corporate-friendly journalist-operatives and helping them infiltrate top-tier news media organizations.” Very grassy knoll. (Other alums include Ann Coulter and John Fund.)

Gladwell went on to “[shill] for Big Tobacco, Pharma and defended Enron-style financial fraud, all while earning hundreds of thousands of dollars as a corporate speaker, sometimes from the same companies and industries that he covers as a journalist.”

The AlterNet piece says Gladwell was highly prized by the tobacco industry for his supportive use of industry studies and presentation of tobacco lobbyists as independent experts:

Indeed, documents and communications later released to the public as part of the tobacco settlement showed that the tobacco industry considered Malcolm Gladwell an important friend. For example, an internal Phillip-Morris document from the mid- to late ’90s listed Gladwell as a “third party” media asset—someone who could be counted on to rally public support for tobacco industry causes.

For those not familiar with public relations industry lingo, “third party” refers to a PR technique in which a corporation’s marketing message is delivered to the public through seemingly independent journalists, academics, non-profits, think tanks and other respected “third parties” in order to bolster the credibility of “the message” and to conceal the ties between the message and the messenger. In other words, Gladwell was seen as a secret tobacco-industry propagandist.

There’s plenty more where that came from, as Gladwell also stands accused of being an industry stooge for pharmaceutical companies from which he received lucrative speaking fees. Ditto for the financial sector. And a special circle in hell for Gladwell’s dishonest, misleading defense of the characters at Enron.

At the end of this very long thrashing, the reader encounters this:



It’s exhaustive, compelling stuff painstakingly assembled by Yasha Levine, an investigative journalist and founding editor of The eXiled, which is radically anti-corporate. That goes double for its readers. Sample comment on the Gladwell tune-up:

I find it frustrating that an essay like the above even needs writing. I thought it obvious that Malcolm Gladwell is and always has been a corporate shill in fake-contrarian getup. But then, I thought it obvious that Obama was the same, that most every Democrat is the same, that every “progressive” is the same and that surely every “liberal” is the same. And I thought it obvious that NPR and PBS are the very same.

Apparently, a lot of people don’t see those things.

And that’s what’s maddening.

Also frustrating: Levine gives no indication of whether he tried to interview Gladwell for his piece, which probably means he didn’t. I can’t find any response from Gladwell on his blog or his Twitter feed (dormant since 2010).

So the last word goes to Levine:


Malcolm Gladwell says that he got into journalism by accident, that his real dream was to work for an ad agency. “I decided I wanted to be in advertising. I applied to eighteen advertising agencies in the city of Toronto and received eighteen rejection letters, which I taped in a row on my wall,” he wrote in his What the Dog Saw. If true, then Gladwell didn’t fail at all.  Rather, he has achieved his dream of becoming an ad man beyond all expectation. His position as a public intellectual and respectedNew Yorker makes him infinitely more effective and useful as an ad man than he would ever be if he were sitting and writing ad copy in the office of some big-name advertising conglomerate.

Yep, Gladwell has come a long way from his youthful days at the National Journalism Center, but, on the other hand, he hasn’t really moved at all. As Philip Morris put it, the National Journalism Center “was developed to train budding journalists in free market political and economic principles . . . to get across our side of the story.” Their investment in Malcolm Gladwell has paid off beyond their wildest dreams.


John R. Carroll, who also writes at Campaign Outsider and It's Good to Live in a Two-Daily Town, is an NPR media analyst and mass communication professor at Boston University.
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