How do you get rich? Writing last month in the preferred mode of his late career—the hastily written commencement address—David Brooks let his readers in on one weird trick that will help them enter the upper crust of the upper crust. If you want to make bank, Brooks wrote, forget tech. The real money is in medicine, law, and private equity. A shocker, I know.
But while Brooks wrote those words, he was engaged in a different, more quotidian scheme to enlarge his bank account—he had taken on a side hustle. In addition to the New York Times column he has penned for the last 17 years (and the book deals and speaking engagements that flow from it), Brooks had been leading Weave, a project affiliated with the Aspen Institute that aimed at “repairing our country’s social fabric.” Its website helpfully informs the curious that “weaving is a way of life and state of mind, not a set of actions.” Weavers, it notes, are caring people seeking to build connection with others. It is a quasi–think tank, with just enough of Brooksian psychobabble to make it also seem like a bit of a cult.
Brooks had used his Times column to promote Weave on numerous occasions, with few batting an eye. After all, using a column to promote an outside project is a well-established move in the long-in-the-tooth newspaper columnist’s repertoire. Secondary work is one of the most appealing benefits of high-profile columning.
This arrangement suddenly looked more suspect late last month, after Brooks wrote a column about the joys of Facebook Groups. “Facebook Groups has 1.8 billion users, and more than half of them are in five or more groups,” he wrote. “Clearly people have come to really value the communities they are building online.” The general thrust here is familiar to anyone who has read (or hate-read) Brooks’s column: Big business is good, technology is a tool for transcending what divides us (whatever that might be!), Facebook is unfairly maligned. The problem? The column was published on Facebook’s website—where it was timed to coincide with the publication of a Facebook-funded study about Groups—not the Times’.
It was then revealed by BuzzFeed News that Brooks was taking a salary from the Aspen Institute for his work on Weave; that some of that money came from Facebook (and other large donors); and, most crucially, that Brooks never disclosed any of this to the Times’ readers. Brooks had, while taking money from Aspen, written several columns including mentions of Facebook, Instagram, and Mark Zuckerberg without ever disclosing that his second job was funded in part by Facebook.
Brooks’s Times column is regularly embarrassing, but in a different sort of way. This is a man who has suggested that poor people don’t understand sandwiches and whose career was built on insights that boil down to one-half of America liking fast cars that go vroom while the other half enjoys lattes and employing undocumented immigrants. (A 2004 report from Sasha Issenberg found a number of instances of Brooks making things up and passing them off as facts. Brooks claimed he was joking, then threatened Issenberg’s career.)
But despite the most recent scandal’s new media element, this is a very old problem. Conservative columnists and big business have formed a profitable symbiosis for generations. The columnist writes columns extolling the value of corporations, and the corporations shower the columnist and/or his organization with money. There isn’t a conservative magazine or think tank out there that isn’t funded by big business, the deal being that the magazine or think tank has to praise the virtues of unfettered market capitalism, low taxes for the wealthy, and so on. The conservative media project in large part has, for decades, been about laundering the naked pursuit of corporate profits via Big Ideas, something Brooks excels at.
Brooks’s blog post for Facebook is only a particularly cynical example of the genre. Maybe Brooks really does believe that Facebook Groups are the future (lol), but it doesn’t really matter. What matters most is his willingness to participate in a naked transaction. One of the most important narratives in media in recent years has been Facebook’s profoundly destructive effect on America. In Brooks’s guest blog for the company, he makes a radical claim: What if, in spite of all that evidence, Facebook was actually good?
At the end of the day, all the Big Ideas boil down to one: that megacorporations are beneficial for everyone, even if only a handful of people are actually seeing any benefit. As Brooks shows, lots of conservative commentators participate in this grift, including those at The New York Times.