I knew the jig was up when I received a call from a producer of one of the tabloid television talk shows. Out of breath, and clearly on deadline, she blurted: "Dr. Gorelick, should adopted children be encouraged to locate their birth parents?"
Yeah, why not? I thought to myself.
But before I replied, it struck me that I should probably answer in suitably academic language. Obviously, she was looking for an expert. So, in my mind, I tried something like this on for size: "It is probably not possible for an adult to form a complete, integrated personality without knowing fundamental facts about his or her personal history." Ooh, I thought, that has a ring to it. They'll ask me to appear on the show, my university will get some recognition and my mom in California can see me on TV. I was already planning which tie to wear when a cloud of hesitation darkened my tele-reveries: I knew absolutely nothing about adoption.
I declined to comment.
The incident raises some interesting questions, not the least of which is why the producer called me in the first place. I was trained in sociology and criminology, and my research has been on the response of communities and news organizations to high-profile, violent crimes. Most of my calls from the media tend to come during the feeding frenzies that often follow public calamities. After the Oklahoma City bombing, and again after the school shootings in Littleton, Colo., I was interviewed several times about how the press and politicians sometimes create an atmosphere of what sociologists have termed "moral panic."
That was fine. I had standing to talk about that issue. But over time, I began to notice what might be called "expertise creep." One day, the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. called and asked what I thought about the meat industry's lawsuit against Oprah Winfrey for "food defamation." Then a cable network, the now-defunct NewsTalk Television, wanted to know how I viewed various proposals for handgun-control legislation. I even got a call about Linda Tripp's betrayal of Monica.
The only things these topics had in common was that I didn't know much about them. Nevertheless, I held forth.
The problem was that once I made my TV and radio debuts about 10 years ago--actually discussing my research, mind you--I could not resist the temptation to bloviate about everything from Bill Clinton's sex life to American foreign policy.
Did I sound like a fool when I did this? No. I read the newspaper. I'm pretty well informed.
Does my name have a "Dr." in front of it? Darn tootin'.
Did my family in Washington state and California get to see my new beard on TV? Sure. (They hated it.)
Did I offer anything unique to the public discourse on the matters I was addressing? Hardly.
I was simply having too much fun to relinquish my tiny corner of the electronic pulpit. So I fashioned myself as a general observer of society and culture, and convinced myself that often I did offer something meaningful to a discussion. Again and again, however, I found myself speaking about things that weren't within my range of expertise. Even worse, during a few of the interviews, I thought of the name of a real expert on the topic at hand. I imagined that person watching the TV in amazement and wondering what the heck I was doing there.
So last year I took the pledge: I was not going to allow anyone, no matter how urgent the deadline or how compelling the topic, to deputize me as an expert on anything I don't know about. It was hard at first, given the endless array of vexing questions confronting society. Should the terminally ill be able to choose to end their lives? Which is the more decisive factor in socialization, nature or environment? Whose position on military readiness is right, George Bush's or Al Gore's? Beats me. I have some educated hunches, but torture me on the rack and I still wouldn't agree to spout off about them.
What fuels this insatiable demand for experts? I'm no expert, but the proliferation of 24-hour radio and cable news stations certainly seems to be a factor. Facing a virtually bottomless news hole every day, producers simply can't find enough talking heads. Take a reasonably intelligent person, put him or her in a room with another person holding a contrary view, and you've satiated the programming beast for another few minutes. Rarely, if ever, do we ask who anointed these gurus and pronounced their opinions to be suitably authoritative.
To strike a blow against bloviating, I suggest the following guidelines to anyone who has ever longed to share a studio with Ted or Geraldo or Maury. You know who you are.
* Don't talk about anything you don't know about. Sounds easy, right? But it's amazing how seductive it is to have a reporter hanging on your every word. Particularly beware that moment during the phone interview when you first hear the clicking of the reporter's keyboard. You will barely be able to contain yourself as you hear your words being turned into quotations.
* Let's say that you are a genuine expert on something and decide to be interviewed. Beware the next challenge: Don't be forced into meeting the media's need for glib answers and instant solutions. Take the murders in Littleton. Our desire to know how and why it happened was a quintessentially human need. But what if the ultimate answer is that there are no easy explanations for a complex problem like school violence? And what if you are an expert on the topic whose research leads to complex, subtle and maybe even inconclusive findings? No matter how well-intentioned a reporter may be, the format in which she or he works rarely allows any of that subtlety to emerge. It's a tall order to describe research findings accurately in such circumstances, but it's mandatory to try.
* Remember that--regardless of how much of an expert you are--you are not obligated to be an accomplice in the tabloidization of America. Some TV talk shows, by virtue of the superficial and exploitative manner in which they supposedly "educate," are so outside the pale of intelligent discourse that they have forfeited the right to benefit from serious expertise. They are our version of the old circus freak shows, where no human problem, misery or defect is too painful to be exploited for its entertainment value.
Reporters love to interview people with impressive titles and degrees. Recently, just for fun, I checked dissertation abstracts for the research topics of some of the doctors whom I have recently seen cited as experts. Where do their doctorates come from? In one session of Web surfing, I discovered that one of the country's most visible and widely cited self-help gurus--Barbara De Angelis, former commentator/host for programs on CNN and CBS, author and star of numerous infomercials--received her PhD from Columbia Pacific University in Novato, Calif., according to Health Communications Inc., publisher of "Chicken Soup for the Couple's Soul," to which De Angelis contributed. Columbia Pacific is not accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges. It has been called a "diploma mill" by California state authorities, has been operating without required state approval since June 1997, and in December 1999 was ordered to close permanently by Marin County Superior Court. The university has fought the state's efforts and is still operating.
Like anyone who has been through graduate school, I know that a PhD does not automatically confer upon its recipient some magical wisdom. It is certainly not like the Doctor of Thinkology certificate that the Wizard of Oz granted to the Scarecrow, instantly transforming him into a wind-up expert. All of us know of instances in which a doctorate has represented a narrowing of perspectives or a descent into esoterica. Nonetheless, the public takes these credentials seriously, and the media and academe must do a better job of vetting those experts whose advice is cited so widely.
There are some groups successfully resisting the tendency to report quick-and-dirty answers to tough problems. Consider the exemplary work done by the Casey Journalism Center for Children and Families, at the University of Maryland at College Park. Its efforts have helped legions of reporters to more fully understand and appreciate the complexity of various social problems. The center offers seminars on children's health and training for reporters who cover the juvenile justice system. Other disciplines should follow suit and place public education higher on their agenda.
Expertise is hardly a magic elixir for all our social ills. You don't have to be a full-blown postmodernist to know that the idea of objectively expert knowledge is fraught with problems. Whose reality, serving whose interests, is to be accorded the status of authority? Not always an easy question.
But for heaven's sake, most of the time the choices are not quite so gut-wrenching. When a reporter wants to interview a sociologist about children's behavior, and you are a sociologist who studies the stress levels of airplane pilots and can't even control your own kids, why not keep your lips zipped?
I have kept my pledge and have been on the wagon ever since--although at times, I found myself wishing there were 12-step meetings I could attend: "Hi, I'm Steven, and I like to be quoted."
My clenched-jaw refusal last year to opine on the rights of adopted children was the first of many small victories in my battle against my bloviational urges. Meanwhile, I have actually learned something about adoption by reading Elizabeth Bartholet's "Family Bonds: Adoption and the Politics of Parenting." In fact, I'd like to see her on TV sometime discussing the issue. She really knows her stuff.
Steven Gorelick is special assistant to the president at the City University of New York's Graduate School and University Center. A version of this article appeared in the July 21 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education.