A Conversation with the Council on Foreign Relations

by: Matt Stoller

Fri Dec 12, 2008 at 13:12

I'm sort of intrigued by how big important DC organizations engage with fraudulent conservative ideas, like climate change denialism, while somehow retaining their elite credibility among 'reality-based' Democrats.  There's a good example right now, a small example perhaps, of the Council on Foreign Relations publishing on their website under the title 'Essential Documents' a widely discredited report denying climate change by Senator James Inhofe.  The Council on Foreign Relations is full of establishment type opinion leaders, and the group sees itself as an important guide of the foreign policy debate, as is evidenced by the subtitle of this section on their website: "Vital primary sources underpinning the foreign policy debate".

So the choice of what to feature is significant.  Why should this document be considered 'Essential'?  What kinds of criteria are being used to make that judgment?  How is this foreign policy debate being 'underpinned' so 'vitally'?  After all, important foreign policy decisions rest on which primary sources are considered essential reader for the elite class.  The answer to these questions is not overtly clear, and former Acting Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy Joe Romm criticized CFR on precisely this point.  To their credit, a representative from CFR, Michael Moran, responded in the comments of Romm's post.  The substance of the response is fascinating.

Matt Stoller :: A Conversation with the Council on Foreign Relations
Well, sadly, this is an example of the well-meaning amateur journalistic ethos of the blogosphere at work. I'm the executive editor of the Council's website. We have many editorial franchises - we're quite uniquely objective in the think tank world. Among those franchises is somethign we call "Essential Documents," which are merely key public documents - treaties, speeches, laws, conventions. Inhofe's speech was included as an example of the genus, climate change denier. A better sense of institutional thinking on this can be found in our recent Task Force on the topic, or this multimedia crisis guide. http://www.cfr.org/ publication/ 17088/ crisis_guide.html

Of course, a professional journalist would have called us before pointing the finger, but I've stopped expecting such niceties.

After surfing around on the CFR website for a few minutes and finding no rhyme or reason to the documents posted on their 'Essential Documents: Vital primary sources underpinning the foreign policy debate', I realized that I should just do what Mr. Moran suggested, and act like a professional journalist.  Surely he could explain to me why CFR put this document up.  And so, I gave him a call.

I introduced myself, and immediately he was a bit defensive, since he's not happy with bloggers right now.  Moran talked about a climate change guide CFR was producing, and then defended the posting of the denialist document by saying, "In one small corner we needed to deal with the issue of those who deny climate change as a phenomenon and so as an example of such people this was an obvious place to go... It's a public document.  It implies no judgment on the validity of this but if it's a public government document, something that's been said in the halls of Congress, sunshine is good."

Ok, that's reasonable.  Still, significant climate change reports come out all the time (for examples, see GAO reports here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here), but the only climate change report CFR put out under 'Essential Documents' is this one, from Inhofe.  Why this one, and not other government documents?  I asked him why they don't put up GAO reports, and he said:

That page is not in and of itself indicative of anything.  It's like an archive.  It'd be like going to any newspaper site and this is a page that's labeled 'industry'.  Is the newspaper making a judgment if it doesn't include every single industry in the world?

As he realized I was taking down his words, he said,  "You're taking this down a wormhole and I'm not going there.  Goodbye."

I called him back and asked him why he hung up on me, and he told me that he had a problem with his phone cord and apologized.  Moran continued, "This is not an all inclusive subject-by-subject archive on anything that s important on everything."  He also added that it's part of a multi-media presentation on climate change, and only one of several dozen treaties and speeches CFR linked to as part of that multi-media presentation.

If you go to the Essential Documents section on climate change, you'll see that the Inhofe document is the ONLY document from that presentation listed as an essential primary source.  I don't know Moran, I respect his willingness to engage with people who are criticizing his organization's work, and my guess is that he didn't make the decision to put this document up.

Still, I'm no further ahead in understanding criteria for promoting denialist 'primary sources' and not, say, GAO reports, and I in fact did what responsible journalists do and asked him questions.

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it's an interesting story (0.00 / 0)
They do have some interesting documents up.


New Jersey politics at Blue Jersey.

Refund Time! (0.00 / 0)

"This is not an all inclusive subject-by-subject archive on anything that's important on everything."  

No, it's labelled essenial, as in:

1. absolutely necessary; indispensable: Discipline is essential in an army.

Wherever he went to college, no make that prep school, noooo... buy his dictionary, he should ask for his money back.  

"You know what they say -- those of us who fail history... doomed to repeat it in summer school." -- Buffy The Vampire Slayer, Season 6, Episode 3

kissing right wing butt (0.00 / 0)
is going to be a hard habit to break for a lot of DC insider elites. They've been at it so long, they don't ask if it's moral or logical anymore, it's just automatic pilot. I really believe the country is in a long term realignment and a lot of these groups are so fossilized they'll break before they change, right up until then everything will look good and they'll think they have as much power as ever.

excellent work (4.00 / 2)
Yet another blow to the credibility of these right wing stink tanks.  


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