Should Professors Who Donate Commentate?
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.