Identifying Experts’ Political Affiliations and Funding Sources in the Media

Liberal Pittsburgh political blogger “Davyoe” complains that the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review misleadingly portrayed me as a “politically neutral” expert when they interviewed me about the recent individual mandate decision a few days ago. The type of issue he raises is commonly brought up these days:

While his description above seems politically neutral (he’s just described as “an associate professor at George Mason University School of Law”) parts of Somin’s bio was conveniently omitted by the Scaife-employed [reporter] Craig Smith.

Somin is also an Adjunct Scholar at the Scaife-funded Cato Institute – and from that page we also learn that Somin blogs at the conservative/libertarian Volokh Conspiracy.

However brilliant Professor Somin may be, politically neutral he isn’t. Smith should have pointed out Somin’s connections to the political right.

Also omitted, of course, are the millions of dollars Smith’s boss Richard Mellon Scaife has shuffled of to Cato, where Somin’s a scholar.

The implication is that the media must disclose any connections, however indirect, that an expert has with politically motivated funders of any kind. Being an adjunct scholar at Cato is an unpaid position that doesn’t give Cato any control over my research (or me over theirs) – much less giving any such control to individual Cato donors. If that is going to be the standard for what reporters must mention, it should be applied consistently across the board.

For example, most major universities get funding from liberal foundations such as the Ford Foundation and the MacArthur Foundation, and often also from individual liberal donors such as George Soros. Many of the liberal legal scholars who are quoted in the media in support of the individual mandate are affiliated with the American Constitution Society, which also gets some of its funding from Soros (full disclosure: I’ve spoken at several ACS events myself). Some of them also blog at liberal legal blogs, such as Balkinization.

Even more significantly, virtually every university (including mine) gets large amounts of money from the federal government, which is the defendant in the individual mandate cases and has a huge stake in the outcome. By Davyoe’s standards, that would have to be mentioned any time an academic expert is quoted in support of the individual mandate or any other expansion of federal power. I suppose it would also have to be mentioned that many academics are employed by state universities controlled by one of the twenty-eight states that have filed suits against the mandate, including George Mason University, which is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia. The state and federal governments have a lot more leverage over me (and other academics) than Richard Mellon Scaife does. Even most private universities are heavily dependent on federal funds – much more than on any private donor.

There are, however, some good reasons for not mentioning these things every time an expert is quoted. First, virtually any article that quoted any academic expert on anything would then be cluttered with a long list of donors and affiliations. The net result is that reporters will usually shy away from quoting experts because doing so would require too much space. Second, in most cases the experts in question are not advocating their positions because of those affiliations, but rather the reverse. I’m not a libertarian because I’m affiliated with Cato and say what they pay me to say. Rather, I’m affiliated with Cato because I’m a libertarian and had been one for many years before I ever did any projects for them. If I was a liberal constitutional law scholar, I could easily avail myself of the much greater research funding available on the left. Similar reasoning applies to liberal legal scholars affiliated with ACS and other left of center organizations.

The situation may be different when an expert is directly employed by an organization with a stake in the outcome of a legal or policy dispute and is hired for the purpose of advocating that organization’s viewpoint (e.g. – a spokesman for the Department of Justice who comments on the individual mandate case, or one who speaks for the plaintiffs). In that case, there is stronger reason for supposing that what he says is dictated by his affiliation with his employer. Presumably, he or she would be fired for expressing a contrary opinion.

In fairness, the Tribune-Review didn’t mention a connection I have to the individual mandate cases that is much more important than those Davyoe focused on: I have written amicus briefs in several of the mandate cases on behalf of the Washington Legal Foundation and others. It’s arguable that this should have been noted. At the same time, many liberal legal scholars have written amicus briefs on the other side, yet this is rarely if ever mentioned when they are quoted on the mandate cases in the media. Perhaps the point I made above with respect to my Cato affiliation also applies here. The amicus briefs were pro bono projects that I accepted because I already believed that the mandate is unconstitutional. I didn’t come to that conclusion because I was asked to write those briefs. The reverse was true. Presumably, the same applies to the many liberal legal scholars who wrote amicus briefs on the other side. Still, it’s reasonable to argue that when the media quotes legal scholars about a case, it’s relevant to disclose any amicus briefs they may have written or signed in it.

On the other hand, it’s much more tenuous to claim that the media should disclose any indirect affiliations with any donors whose political views place them on one side of the dispute in question. By that standard, there are no experts who qualify as “politically neutral.” Virtually every expert employed by a research institute, think tank, or university has indirect connections to government or private donors with a political agenda.

Obviously, there is another sense in which most experts are not neutral. With rare exceptions, they tend to have strongly held views on the subjects they study, views that are often influenced by their general ideological outlook. These factors can sometimes blind the expert to the merits of opposing arguments. That’s a real problem. But it’s very different from the assumption that experts’ views are dictated by various indirect affiliations to donors.

UPDATE: Davyoe responds to this post here. Interestingly, he admits that his view really does requires the media to mention all experts’ connections to politically motivated, funders, however indirect. For the reasons I describe in the post, I think this is both unrealistic and unnecessary. Any story that quoted an expert would then be weighed down with long lists of all the donors (including government agencies) who have ever given money to any organization he has ever been affiliated with. The practical result would be to either make the stories unreadable or (more likely) to deter reporters from quoting experts in the first place.

Davyoe also tries to catch me in a supposed contradiction for disclosing that I have spoken at ACS events myself. But I didn’t disclose that because I thought it was essential to identifying my supposed biases. I did so in order to make clear that I’m not trying to suggest that liberal scholars’ affiliation with ACS somehow puts them beyond the pale or renders them unworthy of citation as experts. If a reporter quotes one of these scholars without mentioning their ACS ties, I don’t think the reporter will have done anything wrong.