Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Cycles of knowledge production, consumption, and contestation

I work in two academic departments at once, one which we might call a "journalism school" and the other a "library school". Part of my job entails finding connections between these two, which I conceptualize as two different (but related) "positionalities" for viewing the overall circuit of knowledge production, consumption, and reproduction in society at different (but related) "moments" in the overall dialectical process. (Whew.) So when I find an interesting and accessible example of all this -- a situation in which the moments of journalism and librarianship overtly connect -- I want to talk about it.

Milwaukee-based newspaper columnist Joel McNally wrote a recent column which provided me with just such an example. The column concerns the evolving debate over the production, consumption, marketing, economic profitability, and economic externalities of "fast food" in American society. Investigative journalist Eric Schlosser has most recently reenergized this debate with his 2001 book _Fast Food Nation: The dark side of the all-American meal_, a work of "muckraking" reporting which evolved out of an earlier two-part article of his in _Rolling Stone_. Since then, a popular film and DVD _Super Size Me_ has taken up the same theme (including an interview with Schlosser on the DVD edition) and former president Bill Clinton has negotiated a deal with major soft drink distributors to stop placing sugared soda in schools. Now Schlosser and a co-author, Charles Wilson, have taken their message to a youth media audience with their new children's book _Chew on This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food_ -- a clear candidate for widespread dissemination in public and school libraries.

Controversey has followed this iteration of knowledge from journalism to bookseller to cinema to library. As McNally writes,

Front groups with names that imply they are promoting "freedom" or "liberty" are, in fact, attempting to demonize Schlosser to prevent him from getting his message to the book's target audience of middle school students and young teenagers, who are in the process of developing lifelong, unhealthful eating habits.

The instantly manufactured controversy upon publication of the book was foreshadowed by a story in the Wall Street Journal about an internal memo circulated within McDonald's management preparing them to deal aggressively with the publication of "Chew on This" and the release of an upcoming film based on "Fast Food Nation."


Some of the tactics reach ever further back to the red-baiting days of Wisconsin Sen. Joe McCarthy. A right-wing group that calls itself the Heartland Institute accuses Schlosser of "tricking young people into fearing the world's finest food supply in order to entice them into his web ... to lead them away from capitalism into his failed socialist ideology."


The most vicious attacks accuse Schlosser of being a racist who wants to deny choices to minorities. This is a reporter who has documented the industry's exploitation of minority communities and disregard for the lives of black and Latino workers. The motive behind the smear tactic is as transparent as the accusation he is subverting the young.

One of the efforts to refute Schlosser's arguments is the website "Best Food Nation", an industry umbrella group (sponsored by the American Meat Institute, the National Potato Council, the Snack Food Association, etc.) which claims to offer "the facts about the U.S. food supply, which is among the safest, most affordable and most abundant food supplies in the world":

Simply put, America is the Best Food Nation. From safe, abundant and affordable food choices to
jobs and economic growth for our communities, the people working in the U.S. food system provide innumerable benefits not only to Americans, but consumers across the globe. Unfortunately, critics
of our food system want consumers to think otherwise and are promoting their agendas using
information that is inaccurate, misleading and incomplete.


We have always invited public discussion on issues related to our food supply. But we feel those discussions should be based on facts, and invite you to explore the information contained within
this site and form your own opinion.

As one might expect in a debate like this which involves not simply personal life choices, but questions of science, medicine, and technology, both sides appeal to the "facts" and deride their opponents as "promoting their agendas." Of course, if Schlosser's "agenda" is to make a career as a reputable and influential journalist, and the food industry's "agenda" is to make the greatest profit producing and distributing food, we might very well factor this into the construction of "facts" on each side. As reported on the PR Watch website recently, tracking the "agendas" of the various interest groups (and front groups) mobilized in such a debate -- such as the "Heartland Institute," the "American Council on Science and Health," and the "Center for Individual Freedom" -- is in itself a full-time job for organizations like SourceWatch.

For example, McDonalds corporation is funding anti-Schlosser campaigns both on its own and together with other food industry partners. I say anti-Schlosser, and not pro-fast-food, because it seems that the tactics not only defend industry practices, but attempt to discredit Schlosser as a voice of authority. According to an article on the debate in the Wall Street Journal,

McDonald's Corp. has been trying to counter Mr. Schlosser's message with a public-relations campaign that plays up the chain's new healthy offerings and spotlights workers who have climbed through the Oak Brook, Ill., chain's corporate ranks.

The nation's largest fast-food chain is also funding TCS Daily, an arm of the Washington lobbying and public-relations firm DCI Group, that is making more pointed attacks against Mr. Schlosser and his work. Last week, TCS Daily launched a Web site called Fast Talk Nation that called his theories "rhetoric" and argued that he wants to decriminalize marijuana, based on excerpts from one of his other books, "Reefer Madness," about sex, drugs and cheap labor in the American black market.

Last Friday, TCS Daily abruptly closed the Fast Talk Nation site two days after its launch. James Glassman, who says he "hosts" the TCS Daily site, says he closed the Fast Talk Nation site because he wanted to pool his resources with the broader industry's Best Food Nation site.

But for me, this debate is interesting because it is being played out at so many different points along the circuit of social knowledge production -- in letters to the editor, in bookseller and film protests and boycotts, in corporate trade association and think tank press releases, and now, quite possibly, schools and libraries. McNally gets it right, I think, when he pinpoints the current focus of the campaign against Schlosser as schools and libraries which are both prone to local community pressure and dependent on local community support:

In a way, it doesn't even matter how patently absurd or easily discredited the attacks against Schlosser are. They will succeed if they somehow turn Schlosser, a talented journalist writing about important subjects, into a "controversial figure."

One of the goals, obviously, is to keep Schlosser (and his book) out of our schools. School administrators today are easily intimidated into censoring everything from books in the library to plays students are permitted to perform to the T-shirts kids wear.

Professionals from the positionalities of both journalism and librarianship need to be involved in debates like these -- indeed, they can hardly avoid them. Journalists can offer a perspective on the quality of Schlosser's reporting: Is it clear? Well-sourced? Is the evidence he uses credible? Are his methods transparent? And does he have a history of quality reporting for quality media outlets that can bolster his legitimacy? Similarly, librarians can offer a perspective on the quality of Schlosser's translation of this reporting for a youth audience: Is it unique? Have teachers and administrators been seeking such resources? Does it resonate with children? Is it transparent? Does it lead the classroom to open a debate, or to forclose it? Teaching our future journalism and library professionals to wade into such controversies bravely and competently is one of our greatest responsibilities at the university level, I think.

But when confronted by such a coordinated and, to my mind, non-transparent attack on the kind of knowledge claims that Schlosser is making across various media, across various institutions, and across the various moments of the knowledge production-consumption-reproduction cycle, it is not enough to view such controversies only from one's own vantage point. Journalists and librarians, teachers and professors, scientists and doctors, government officials and non-governmental activists alike -- in fact, anyone who makes their living (and draws their legitimacy) from the professional production of quality knowledge -- need to coordinate as well. We need to understand the points where power is applied in society in such debates over not only knowledge "facts," but methods of knowledge production themselves.

All this is not to say a teacher, a scientist, a politician should or will agree, in the end, with Schlosser -- or with any other sincere individual trying to push the boundaries of knowledge in society from his or her own professional position. But what it does say is that all knowledge professionals have a stake in how knowledge is produced, consumed, and contested across the whole cycle. In some parts of the cycle, corporate wealth carriers with it great power to influence debate (sometimes even shut down debate). In other parts of the cycle, grassroots experience, opinion and, yes, even ignorance can be mobilized in powerful ways. And sometimes sincere, transparent, peer-reviewed, non-profit knowledge production carries a powerful weight in and of itself. But if those involved at each different moment never take the time to consider the source and extent of their power in the cycle -- both as individual professionals and together as collaborative professions -- that cycle itself threatens to "short-circuit" through the path of least resistance.

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