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Should Professors Who Donate Commentate?

October 16, 2012 Leave a comment

The Hill’s Bob Cusack has an interesting story today that raises worthwhile questions about professorial presidential donations and those same academics serving as sources in news coverage.  A “months’-long” investigation found at least six professors who donated to President Obama’s campaign in either 2008 or 2012 have been quoted in articles about the 2012 race or the Obama administration’s performance in office more generally.  The article also quoted some instances of those sources saying things that could be fairly read as being positive for President Obama.  The investigation found no comparable evidence with respect to Governor Romney’s campaign.

Cusack’s piece raises a good question about the credibility of sources that I’ll praise below, but I want to push the implications of the story a bit too.

The Hill’s article highlights a broader, important question for reporters covering presidential politics and for people who consume news: how can we determine if a source is credible?  Plenty of academic research shows that source credibility is an important determinant of individual attitudes about important matters. (I checked the author of the linked study’s, Jamie Druckman, FEC records and found no evidence of giving to presidential candidates.)  So, how do reporters decide whether a source is credible? And do donations to a candidate mean that an expert source’s credibility is in question?  I’m not convinced that they do.  Stipulating that, it is good for reporters to consider these questions and to write stories about what they learn about their sources, especially those they turn to when they need fair-minded arbiters of the verifiable truth for a story.

Indeed, it would be hard to argue that professors giving money to a candidate don’t prefer that candidate in a presidential election.  So, as Gregory Korte said to me in a Twitter conversation about the article, “Fair or not, contribs (candidate contributions) cast doubt on credibility.”  I think this is a fair point. But, reporters shouldn’t turn off the skeptical meter just because they learn an “expert” source has given to a candidate.  The next step is to try to figure out whether the analysis they give, or have given in the past, is correct, or at least reasonable, given the known evidence. The story seems to imply that giving to a candidate leads to biased answers to reporters’ questions about the campaign.

Reporters-in-training in our School of Journalism and Mass Communication are taught that experts, such as faculty, are invaluable resources for reporters covering a wide variety of subjects.  I know that this information sinks in, as I have been a source for dozens of campus newspaper reports and a fair number of local and national news stories over the years (samples here).  I am most comfortable answering questions about my own research, but those calls are, sadly, very few and far between. Next, I am almost always comfortable commenting generally about areas in which I publish or about which I teach. Here, I think that I am an expert.  Sometimes, the questions I get essentially ask me to be a pundit about some manner of public policy and its likelihood of working.  While I took a graduate comprehensive exam in public policy nine years ago, I don’t think I am an expert as most of my research is not about the policy-making process or the outcomes of policy decisions.  Usually, I smartly politely decline to talk about those issues and pass along a name of someone who knows more than me, but sometimes, I stupidly opine, giving it my best educated guess (which is not very valuable). In these cases, as Gregory Korte pointed out (in general, not about me) to me on Twitter, academics are basically “serving as pundits;” I’d go as far to say that there is pretty limited value to what academics say in print or, less often, on the air when commenting about matters outside their direct expertise.

But, even a cursory look at The Monkey Cage, Brendan Nyhan, or The Mischiefs of Faction shows that when academics are talking about their areas of expertise, they are very valuable sources, for reporters and the news audience.   Scholars can be very helpful to reporters, as Brendan Nyhan and John Sides are in the linked article. I even developed a course at UNL to help political reporters learn how to incorporate academic research into their reporting, which is probably why I want to caution journalists about overreacting to news an expert source has given money to a presidential candidate.

For example, one professor who is prominently featured in Cusack’s story is Emory’s Alan Abramowitz, a well-known political scientist.  He is an expert on elections, political parties, and public opinion, having written seven books and over 50 articles published in peer-reviewed journals or academic edited volumes. Abramowitz also regularly contributes to U of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato’s “crystal ball,”  which handicaps elections.  Fox News has called Sabato “America’s favorite political scientist.”  A regular forecaster (ex: he predicted Bush to win in 2004, Obama to win in 2008), Abramowitz even faced criticism when he updated his favored forecasting formula after concluding that his model “consistently overstated the winning candidate’s margin of victory.”

In short, Abramowitz’s model correctly predicts who will win the popular vote on Election Day. What is more, while all forecasts of which I am aware underestimated the Republican’s dominant 2010 midterm performance in the House of Representatives, Abramowitz was among the closest to the mark.

Next, while Professor Abramowitz gave $250 to the Obama campaign in 2008, his 2012 forecast for Obama is hardly the most positive made by those who regularly forecast elections. Further, a quick and totally unsystematic reading of his mentions in recent media coverage fails to provide, at least to me, evidence that he is not a credible source. To the contrary, he is a highly credible source who also seems willing to talk to reporters.  News of a $250 donation ought not be damning.

On a personal note, before I left my position at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln for my job at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I did plenty of interviews about Bob Kerrey’s (D) senate run in the Cornhusker State.  While I have a picture of Kerrey and I from an Election Night party in 2000 on a shelf in my home office, I have consistently said that I think he will lose to GOP-nominee state senator Deb Fischer. Lose by a lot.

Now, this is not to say that professors are not largely lefties.  They are.  And it is not to say that some might couch their personal opinions under the title “Dr.” or “Professor.” They might. This is to say that reporters and readers, but especially reporters, should take the time to try and find a way to judge the expertise of their academic sources before using evidence of a political donation to write them off.  Have they published in the area about which the reporter is seeking a quotation?  Do they have a record of being unfair to one or more sides of the political aisle?  Are the experts referring to published evidence when making their claims? Are other experts who publish in that same area chomping at the bit to refute your source’s arguments as the ramblings of a crazed-partisan?  Google News, Google Scholar, and a few phone calls would be all most reporters would need in most instances to be able to make a reasonable judgment in most cases.

Reporters, as noted in Cusack’s story, could also just ask their sources if they donate to political campaigns.  This is not something journalists do for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that it could make the source feel uncomfortable, wrecking the interview and perhaps the source’s willingness to answer the phone the next time a reporter’s call comes.  But most academics enjoy mixing it up and defending their professional analyses and asking them why they should be believed even though they gave money to a candidate, or have posters of FDR, Truman, and Ike in their offices is reasonable to do so long as the reporters listen to the answer.

It is worth pointing out that Cusack had his work cut out for him in this story.  Since giving of under $250 does not need to be reported, the study surely underestimates the number of liberal professors who gave to Obama and have been quoted in stories about him.  It likely misses some of the same for those who support Romney.   Cusack is constrained by the limited evidence – about six professors – where the most prominent donator is a leading, accurate, expert in the areas in which he is quoted.

Some of this boils down to the fact that American politics is designed to be contentious and it is fun to argue about this stuff. Not to mention that there are plenty of folks for whom the use of the term “professorial” is a put down. Perhaps systematic evidence will someday emerge that people who study politics professionally are different animals than those in other professions when it comes to the ability of checking personal opinions at the door when the time comes to conduct professional analysis, but it is still worth noting that rare is the day that a physician is asked “Romney or Obama?” before the patient decides to listen to advice about a medical procedure.  That might not be such a fair comparison, but rarer still is the day a physician is asked “Romney or Obama?” when telling a patient whether her life or health would be at risk if she did not seek an abortion.

Categories: Uncategorized

Not News, Not Journalism, Not Anything of Value

October 3, 2012 1 comment

There are lots of things to say about The Daily Caller’s release and reporting and Hannity’s televised reveal of the (not-at-all) SHOCKING video of not-yet-President Obama giving a speech to a predominantly black audience in 2007 at Hampton University. After reading Carlson’s Daily Caller article in which he claims that Obama uses an “accent he almost never adopts in public” (except here and, according to Rush Limbaugh, here and here) and Hannity’s yelling at Juan Williams over Hannity’s apoplexy that Obama’s voice sounds different than usual in the video, one could introduce Carlson and Hannity to the concept of code-switching among many, many, other things.

While there are other important issues that this whole deal raises in terms of race in America and white privilege, for instance, I am not an expert in those areas; I want to stick to areas that I know well when posting in this space. I want to call attention how The Daily Caller’s decision to “release” the video, their reporting about the video, and Hannity’s show covering the release of the video are an affront to journalism.

Hannity and Carlson both read Obama’s mind to then directly contradict what Barack Obama said in his speech with what they asserted were “facts” about his “real” intent.  Hannity and Carlson used evidence not related to their argument to “prove” their argument.

Reporting the Olds and not the News

Most of this video has been online for years; a transcript of the prepared remarks was also available, though Obama deviated from the script. Carlson argued that the deviations were important, telling, and disgusting.  Of course, Tucker Carlson himself covered the speech (well, he reported on it; he was not there covering it) back in 2007. The “shout out” to Jeremiah Wright was named one of Obama’s top gaffes of the 2008 election by Politico.  What is new?  Only the items below; claims that were ignited by Carlson, stoked by Drudge, and fanned by Hannity.

Mind Reading and the Telling of Direct Lies

Carlson claims that the real reason Obama is giving the speech is to tell the audience, “They don’t like you because they are black. That is the theme of the speech from front to back, from beginning to end.”  It is really impressive of Carlson to read Barack Obama’s mind.  This is especially impressive because Carlson is able to read Obama’s mind despite what Obama actually said in the speech!

As ABC’s Jake Tapper reported (I noticed that NBC’s Today did so too this morning), Obama explicitly says to the same crowd in the same speech that race is not a factor in his anger at the government over the response to Hurricane Katrina.  Obama said that he thought the Bush administration’s “incompetence” was “colorblind” and was not about race.  That is an explicit rejection of the entire thesis of Carlson and Hannity’s absurd exercise – even though Carlson views Obama’s comments about New Orleans (including the direct claims that the government’s failures are not racially motivated) as “remarkable moment, and not just for its resemblance to Kanye West’s famous claim that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

Umm, no. If it is remarkable, it is because it makes no such claim at all. In fact, it directly rejects such claims (see Ta-Nehisi Coates’ fascinating essay ).

Leaving aside the wisdom of Carlson’s use of the word “whipping” when describing his view that then-Candidate Obama was trying to build “race hatred and fear,” in his speech – where is the fear? Obama does not tell the audience to fear the government, to fear whites, or to fear anything (except, perhaps – if you really want to stretch – complacency).  Carlson seems to want to argue that Obama is race-baiting and trying to make people afraid without evidence that he is doing so and despite actual words from the actual speech that explicitly state he is not doing so.

Obfuscation and Totally Unfair Comparisons

Journalism is about reporting the verifiable truth, not providing falsely equivalent facts for readers, viewers, and listeners to sift through.  Yet, Carlson’s reporting on the Hampton University speech is SHOCKING (sorry) with respect to how facts are used.  Candidate Obama complained that the Stafford Act provision requiring a 10 percent local match of federal dollars to rebuild, in this case, New Orleans, had not been waived even though it was waved after 9/11 and Hurricane Andrew.  That was a reasonable question to ask.

Carlson calls it “basic dishonesty” because the “federal government had sent at least $110 billion” to help with Katrina.  Carlson’s fact is true, but it has nothing at all to do with the fact about the Stafford Act that Obama presented to his audience.  Obama asked about the basic fairness of waiving the Stafford Act requirement for one hurricane (and 9/11) and not waving it for another.  That is unrelated to whether the federal government gave money to help with rebuilding efforts.

What is worse, Carlson goes on to say that a little while after Obama’s speech, (after Obama’s speech), the Bush administration sent another nearly $7 billion to locales affected by Katrina with “no strings attached.” Stafford waivers did come later as well, which Carlson noted in a lazy way, claiming that the waivers came at (here at the actual) times.

Is Carlson angry at Obama for not appreciating something that had not happened yet?  I think he is and I think that that is actual “basic dishonesty.”

Another unfair comparison is Carlson’s use of government aid in response to 9/11.  “Compare this,” Carlson writes (referring to the $110 billion in aid given to Katrina-affected areas) “to the mere $20 billion that the Bush administration pledged to New York after Sept. 11.”  First, this leaves aside other money pledged to the victims of 9/11 and their families, but more importantly, it implies that the cleanup and rebuilding of the horrific destruction of the Twin Towers is directly comparable to the cleanup and rebuilding costs for an entire city; indeed, an entire gulf region, after a devastating hurricane.  This is a ridiculous claim and a wholly unfair comparison.

Why is it Terrible to Remember History?

Carlson closes his Daily Caller post noting Obama’s veering off-script to conclude his speech by saying that “we won’t forget what happened 19 months ago, or 15 years ago, or 300 years ago.” Carlson writes, “Three hundred years ago. It’s a reference the audience understood.”

What is Carlson implying here?  That the audience understands Katrina happened 19 months from the time of the speech, the L.A. riots 15 years prior, and slavery 300 years before?  If so, that’s great, he is praising the audience for understanding history.  Of course, I suspect (but can’t know for sure) that Carlson is not implying this.  Carlson’s interview on Hannity suggests that Carlson rejects Obama’s references to race (though again, Obama did not make them in the way Carlson claimed) as destructive, mean-spirited, manipulative, and divisive.  I’m not so sure it is a bad idea to recall the effects of a devastating storm, riot, or national scar.  What is there to fear from recalling history and then engaging in a debate about what historical events are analogous to today, affect what is happening today, and might help us understand what to do tomorrow?  We certainly don’t have to agree about what role racism and slavery played in these and other matters to have productive conversations about them.

He Has Seen the Media and it isn’t Him

At one point last night, Sean Hannity said that he hoped “the media” would start to cover Obama’s speech from 5 years ago.  If only he had a radio show, a television show, a website, a friend named Tucker who worked for a media outlet at another website to talk with on television, and a web-muckracker named Matt to promote Hannity’s multi-platform megaphone…

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