When Abigail Thernstrom became a national media star in late 1997, her prominence as a scholarly foe of affirmative action was yet another triumph for the Manhattan Institute. Once again, its “Book Fellowship Program” had launched an author into the media stratosphere.
A senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, Thernstrom credits the think tank for its “unwavering commitment” to her book “America in Black and White,” co-written with husband Stephan Thernstrom. In addition, the authors thank five right-wing funders: “The John M. Olin Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Earhart Foundation and the Carthage Foundation have also generously funded our research.”
The Manhattan Institute was founded in 1978 by William Casey, who later became President Reagan’s CIA director. Since then, the Institute’s track record with authors has been notable. Funneling money from very conservative foundations, the Institute has sponsored many books by writers opposed to safety-net social programs and affirmative action. During the 1980s, the Institute’s authors included George Gilder (Wealth and Poverty), Linda Chavez (Out of the Barrio) and Charles Murray (Losing Ground).
Murray’s Losing Ground — a denunciation of social programs for the poor — catapulted him to media stardom in 1984. More than a dozen years later, the Philadelphia Inquirer (10/13/97) recalled that Losing Ground “provided much of the intellectual groundwork for welfare reform.” As Murray wrote in the book’s preface, the decision by Manhattan Institute officials to subsidize the book project was crucial: “Without them, the book would not have been written.”
Murray became a national figure only after joining the Manhattan Institute as a Bradley Fellow. In 1982, the think tank “offered the then-unknown Murray a position as a senior research fellow and the Institute’s full financial backing to complete Losing Ground,” authors Jean Stefancic and Richard Delgado recount (in “No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America’s Social Agenda”). “The Institute raised $125,000 to promote Murray’s book and pay him a $35,000 stipend, most coming from Scaife [Foundation], which gave $75,000, and Olin, $25,000. Upon publication, it sent 700 free copies to academics, journalists, and public officials worldwide, sponsored seminars on the book, and funded a nationwide speaking tour for Murray that was made possible by a $15,000 grant from the Liberty Fund.”
The largesse from right-wing funders yielded big results. By early 1985, Murray’s book had become a widely touted brief against spending tax dollars on low-income people. “This year’s budget-cutters’ bible seems to be Losing Ground,” noted a New York Times editorial (2/3/85). Among movers and shakers in the federal executive branch, the newspaper lamented, Losing Ground had quickly become holy writ: “In agency after agency, officials cite the Murray book as a philosophical base” for proposals to slash social expenditures.
Media outlets marveled at the sudden importance of Charles Murray’s work. Losing Ground “has been the subject of dozens of major editorials, columns, and reviews in publications such as the New York Times, Newsweek, the Dallas Morning News, and The New Republic< — even the Sunday Times of London,” wrote Chuck Lane in The New Republic (3/25/85). The book’s success “is a case study in how conservative intellectuals have come to dominate the policy debates of recent years.” That domination, Lane concluded, was being enhanced by the think tank behind “Losing Ground”. The Manhattan Institute’s canny innovation is to rely as little as possible on chance — and as much as possible on marketing. Of course, money helps, too.” Nearly a decade later, Losing Ground was still one of the central texts of the “welfare reform” debate. With the Wall Street Journal editorial pages showcasing anti-welfare commentary from Murray (e.g., 10/29/93), the echo effects were swift and loud. George Will’s syndicated column (Washington Post, 11/18/93) cited “what the social scientist Charles Murray calls an inner city culture of `Lord of the Flies writ large.'” Will contended that the nation’s “rising illegitimacy rate…may make America unrecognizable before political institutions recognize the necessity of measures as bold — as boldly traditional — as Murray recommends.” When Murray appeared on ABC’s This Week (11/28/93), host David Brinkley introduced him with lavish praise as “the author of a much-admired, much-discussed book called Losing Ground, which is a study of our social problems.” Minutes later, Murray was explaining his solution: “I want to get rid of the whole welfare system, period, lock, stock and barrel — if you don’t have any more welfare, you enlist a lot more people in the community to help take care of the children that are born. And the final thing that you can do, if all else fails, is orphanages.” By this time, Murray was no longer at the Manhattan Institute. He had left for the American Enterprise Institute in 1990, “when the [Manhattan] Institute refused to support his research on differences in intelligence between blacks and whites,” Stefancic and Delgado report in No Mercy, “taking with him his annual $100,000 foundation grant from the Bradley Foundation for salary, overhead, and other expenses.” But, as Stefancic and Delgado put it, the Manhattan Institute “appears to have forgiven him: Shortly after The Bell Curve was published [in late 1994], the Institute sponsored a luncheon to honor Murray and the book, in which he proposes a genetic explanation for the 15-point difference in IQ between blacks and whites that is the basis for his dismissing affirmative action policies as futile.” During the past 10 years, the Manhattan Institute has raised a great deal of money from right-wing sources for designated book projects, with the Bradley Foundation alone contributing more than $1 million. Abigail Thernstrom has been one of the grateful beneficiaries. “The Thernstroms wrote their book with a $100,000 advance paid by the Institute,” the Philadelphia Inquirer reported (10/13/97). “Similar fellowships are given to other authors who espouse views that support the Institute’s agenda.” The resulting book co-written with Stephan Thernstrom, “America and Black in White: One Nation, Indivisible”, has borne gratifying media fruit for its backers. Describing America in Black and White as “a benchmark new work” that “turns the accepted history of racial progress in America upside down,” Time (9/8/97) devoted three pages to the book. “Some of its points are compelling,” the magazine concluded, even though “the Thernstroms often construct tenuous arguments.” Some reviewers gave the book a chilly reception. In the Los Angeles Times (10/12/97), history professor Martin Duberman commented that it “provides an encyclopedic rationale for being all at once optimistic and inactive about racial divisions.” But even when spiced with criticisms, the coverage frequently had the flavor of the review in The New Republic (9/29/97), which claimed that the Thernstroms’ “tough-minded book serves the cause of racial justice.” The big media response, while mixed, had the effect of propelling the Thernstroms to center stage as credible researchers weighing in against affirmative action. Along with ongoing subsidies from a number of large conservative foundations, the Manhattan Institute has gained funding from such corporate sources as the Chase Manhattan Bank, Citicorp, Time Warner, Procter & Gamble and State Farm Insurance, as well as the Lilly Endowment and philanthropic arms of American Express, Bristol-Myers Squibb, CIGNA and Merrill Lynch. Boosted by major firms, the Manhattan Institute budget reached $5 million a year by the early 1990s. Dubbing it an “iconoclastic research group,” a New York Times news article on the last day of 1993 declared: “What distinguishes the Manhattan Institute is its work to translate its ideology into concrete proposals that appeal to a wide spectrum of political beliefs.” The impacts have been national: “Despite its focus on New York, the Manhattan Institute has had its greatest influence in other cities. Mayors in Philadelphia, Indianapolis, Jersey City and Phoenix have praised it and adopted some of its advice.” Many newspaper editors have also been extremely receptive. “For its size,” Stefancic and Delgado observe, “the Manhattan Institute publishes more op-ed pieces, including many on affirmative action, than any other think tank.”
For more information, read Stephen Steinberg’s accompanying piece, “Denying the Obvious: The Fallacies of America in Black and White.”
A longer version of this article appeared in the March/April 1998 issue of EXTRA!, the magazine of the media watch group FAIR.
Norman Solomon is executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy.