Criticism of bias study is silly

Source of funding-right or left-needn't negate evidence

Jan. 14, 2006

by David Kopel

You should never believe anything that Jason Salzman writes. Nor should you believe anything I write. Nor should you believe anything written by the Bell Policy Center or by the Independence Institute. And, especially, you should never believe anything written by the angry-left organization Media Matters.

At least that's the implication of the Media Matters article that Salzman cited in his column in this space last week.

Two weeks ago, I wrote about a new study of national media bias, which was produced by professors from UCLA and the University of Missouri. The professors received no outside funding for their study.

Last week, Salzman claimed that an article from Media Matters had "thoroughly discredited" the UCLA/Missouri research. A few readers wrote me to make similar assertions.

The Media Matters critique began by complaining that the UCLA/Missouri authors have previously received funding from conservative think tanks. Well, if you're supposed to disbelieve evidence because the messenger once received money from people with an ideological point of view, then you certainly shouldn't believe anything that Media Matters says. According to the May 3, 2004, New York Times,Media Matters started up with "more than $2 million in donations from wealthy liberals." Funders included "Susie Tompkins Buell, who is co-founder of the fashion company Esprit and is close to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York." MM also receives support from, the Tides Center, the Center for American Progress (run by President Clinton's former chief of staff John Podesta), and from George Soros' close ally, billionaire Peter Lewis.

If you're going to reject a social science study simply because its authors formerly got money from the right wing, then, logically, you should also reject a critique which is currently funded by the left wing.

Salzman (who is a public relations professional) receives income from people to advance various causes, and he used to work for Greenpeace; similarly, the Independence Institute (where I work) and the Bell Center receive money from individuals, businesses, and foundations that share our viewpoints. Yet I think that arguments and data from Independence, Bell, Salzman, and me ought to be considered on their merits, and not dismissed simply because we all get funding from people who agree with us.

Jason wrote that it "poisons public debate" when people make broad claims about media bias that are not supported by statistical evidence. I think that it is even more poisonous when people are encouraged to ignore research data because the data come from scholars who get (or used to get) funding from the "wrong" side of the political fence.

The MM critique did, to its credit, also attempt to address the merits of the UCLA/Missouri paper, although not very successfully. For example, MM expressed consternation that the American Civil Liberties Union (disclosure: I have been a card-carrying member since 1978) was scored at 49.8 percent, based on its citations by members of Congress. That put the ACLU almost at the exact center of the congressional political spectrum.

Apparently the MM author had not read the UCLA/Missouri study adequately, since the professors addressed precisely this point: during the debate over the McCain-Feingold political speech censorship bill, opponents of the bill frequently and approvingly cited the ACLU's stance on the bill - which of course was consistent with the ACLU's long-standing support for complete freedom of speech. Indeed, one-eighth of the congressional mentions in the time period studied came from conservative Republican Mitch McConnell, the lead opponent of the censorship bill. Several other points raised by MM were also already addressed in the study.

One day when I was in sixth grade, our science teacher made us watch a movie of surgery being performed. Many of us were grossed out as we saw the surgeon's knife slice and then peel back a layer of tissue which was marbled with fat. One girl ran out of the room and threw up. Although many students did not enjoy watching the film, it would have been unfair to accuse us - or the student who threw up - of being "surgery-phobic." As far as I know, none of my classmates had an irrational fear of medical surgery, even though many of us did not enjoy watching surgery on-screen.

Yet last Sunday, Denver Postcolumnist Diane Carman asserted that the aversion of some filmgoers to Brokeback Mountain"lays bare our homophobia." There are some people who have genuine phobias about homosexuals - just as some people have irrational fears of open spaces (agoraphobia) or of snow (chionophobia). A far larger number of people - while not suffering from phobias - simply don't enjoy movies (even a well-made movie like Brokeback) based in the snowy outdoors, or which feature two guys kissing and copulating. It poisons the public dialogue when people are accused of having a mental problem simply because they don't have the same tastes as a newspaper writer.

Dave Kopel is research director at the Independence Institute, an attorney and author of 10 books. He can be reached at .


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