Winging It

Hype makes right at the center for the new west.

Burgess wasn't about to let a couple of academics from New Jersey have the last word. He and three other center researchers headed out to the Plains to harvest the peasant knowledge, returning with a glowing report about the region's "innovative" new jobs, its growing per-capita wealth and its "New Economy" (which would, of course, require new "social and economic indicators" to be properly assessed).

The center's report was a smash. Editorials across the Corn Belt lauded its wisdom and insightfulness ("Pooh to you, Popper!" sneered one headline in the Topeka Capitol-Journal). Yet all the center's talk of "possibility thinking" and "bootstraps action" tended to disguise the report's reliance on anecdotal evidence rather than hard data to support its upbeat conclusions.

Lost in much of the coverage was the fact that many of the new jobs the center was talking about were low-paying, or that many of the most distressed counties were, as the Poppers had claimed, losing population at an alarming clip. The only media skeptic was Chicago Tribune writer Jon Margolis, who denounced the Center for the New West as "a practitioner of pseudo-science and one of the frauds of American public life"--a review that was somehow omitted from the center's thick packet of newspaper coverage of its report.

The hoopla over the Great Plains study pales, though, in comparison to that generated by the Lone Eagle project. No other "study" has triggered such an avalanche of attention for the center and its president. It's a stunning example of how a vague, poorly researched idea can, through cunning promotion and the cooperation of unskeptical reporters, be transformed into a media phenomenon of absurd dimensions.

The project had its genesis in the center's Great Plains research. Burgess and company kept bumping into stockbrokers, health-care consultants and other white-collar types in unlikely places such as Superior, Nebraska--highly skilled people who had chosen a rural lifestyle but used computers and other technology to serve distant markets. Burgess began calling such people "Lone Eagles" and decided this new breed of bird was worth studying.

Before long, Burgess's columns were larded with seemingly authoritative statistics about Lone Eagles. As he saw it, nearly 40 percent of all jobs now require "knowledge workers"--people who work with their heads rather than their hands, who can take their skills with them and live as they choose. Within that group, there are "about 9 million workers in the Lone Eagle category," he announced, and most of them are settling in rural areas, "often in the West." Furthermore, the "typical Lone Eagle carries work orders for $50,000 to $150,000--and many have much higher annual revenues."

The bottom line: It makes sense for rural communities to do whatever they can to lure these rare birds. Get ten of them to nest in your town and you've pumped a million dollars into the local economy. "A Lone Eagles recruitment strategy can become the centerpiece of a community's economic development portfolio," burbled one center handout on the subject.

Burgess and senior fellow Colleen Boggs Murphy went on to study the subtler characteristics of Lone Eagles and came up with an official-sounding list of different types: Golden Eagles (upscale, "some old, some young and many in between"); Bald Eagles (migrant retirees); Country Hawks (seeking a rural nest); Trustfunders ("rich Trustfunders are found in Aspen and Jackson Hole"); Piggybackers (live off spouses' incomes); Hummingbirds (celebrities who want mountain retreats, not really Lone Eagles at all); and so on.

It all made for a smooth package, and the media guzzled it down like a bunch of drunks locked inside a brewery. The button-down business press, the cheerleading regional newspapers, the lifestyles mavens, the slick newsweeklies--the slicks most of all--they all pounced on it. In the fall of 1993, less than a year after the center first began pushing the Lone Eagle idea, Time magazine ran a cover story on "Boom Time in the Rockies," declaring in bold type that the region "has become a magnet for lone-eagle telecommuters." The story quoted Burgess at length on the matter.

With Time on the bandwagon, small towns, public officials and untold numbers of restless office workers bought into the idea, too. Live anywhere! Commute by phone! Goodbye, city life! Suddenly, rural economic development councils were seeking the center's advice and setting up task forces to go scouting for Lone Eagles. The state of Nebraska announced plans for a Lone Eagle Award, in recognition of the elusive bird's vital contribution to rural life.

Throughout it all, few people bothered to ask if this massive social movement was as far-reaching as Burgess claimed it was, or whether it made sense for strapped rural counties to spend public money to "recruit" Lone Eagles. The awful truth was that there was no thorough, credible study of the phenomenon, just the center's press releases and newsletters and the resulting media coverage--a mishmash of misleading numbers, inspiring anecdotes and sheer fantasy.

Knowledge workers? According to figures compiled by the U.S. Department of Labor, the majority of jobs in America still require little, if any, postsecondary education. Even taking into account all managerial and professional positions, the number of knowledge workers is closer to twenty than forty percent--unless one's idea of a knowledge worker is someone with the know-how to flip burgers or change oil.

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