McCain-Feingoldism Hits Harvard
March 25, 2001
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The New York Times editorial page and news columns have been campaigning for years for the proposition that American politicians are corrupted by the influence of campaign contributions from corporations. Today, the Times takes this claim to a new extreme, arguing in a front-page news article that a Harvard professor and his research are somehow suspect because the professor's research center "receives most of its money from industry." The professor, John Graham, who studies the costs and benefits of government regulations, comes in for the scrutiny because he has been nominated for a job in the Bush administration.
The level of innuendo in this news report is high in comparison to the supporting evidence, which is scarce. The Times reports that "Sixty percent of the center's annual budget comes from private gifts and grants, most of them from industry trade organizations and large companies, including Monsanto, ExxonMobil, 3M, Alcoa, Pfizer, Dow Chemical and DuPont."
The Times article further says that "the center's reports have tended to reflect the view of industry, as in a study last summer, sponsored by AT&T Wireless Communication, that concluded that the hazards of talking on a cell phone while driving were relatively small."
Finally, the Times reports that "In the early 1990's, Dr. Graham solicited money from Philip Morris at a time when he was criticizing the E.P.A.'s conclusion that second-hand smoke was a carcinogen."
Smartertimes.com will take these arguments one at a time. First, the assertion that "Sixty percent of the center's annual budget comes from private gifts and grants." Well, this is how university research is funded. The article doesn't report where the other 40 percent of the funding comes from. There are three likely sources: government grants and contracts, endowment income and tuition income from students. If Dr. Graham receives any funding from government, that money could have just as much of a corrupting influence as the Times suggests that the funding he has received from industry has had. If the funding comes from Harvard's endowment, it could well come from investments in -- gasp! -- industry. And if the money is from student tuition, the students or their parents could well have earned the money by working in government or in industry. Or the students could hope to pay off their student loans by eventually working in government or industry. It's hard to see what perfectly pure method the Times would propose the professor use to fund his research. Perhaps it could be funded solely by contributions from Maryknoll Sisters, with the size of the contributions limited to $10 each and the identities of the individual donors immediately disclosed over the Internet. Or maybe Senators McCain and Feingold could fund the Harvard center, since, as faithful readers of the Times have doubtless long-since divined, those senators are pure as the driven snow.
Next, consider the sources of the apparently corrupting contributions. One of them is ExxonMobil. In addition to funding the work of this Harvard professor, ExxonMobil is also involved in funding the oh-so nefarious work of those well-known corporate sycophants, the news reporters of the New York Times. After all, the company is a regular advertiser in the newspaper. In fact, after reading about the supposedly suspect cell phone-auto-safety study "sponsored by AT&T Wireless Communication," readers of this morning's New York Times can flip one page of the newspaper over and find a nearly full- page advertisement in the Times from, you guessed it, "AT&T Wireless."
The Times doesn't bother to actually scrutinize the professor's study of cell phones and auto safety to find out if the methodology was somehow flawed or the results were wrong. The newspaper reports no evidence that the funding was conditional on the study's outcome, or that the study's outcome was conditional on the source of the funding. Instead the Times simply casts aspersions. It's as if someone at the Columbia Journalism Review decided to write an assessment of the environmental reporting of the New York Times, but, rather than arguing that there were mistakes in any of the news articles, simply pointed out derisively that the Times gets advertising from big polluters.
In reality, the same way that political contributors tend to give money to politicians whose views they sympathize with, contributors to universities tend to give to institutions whose research agendas they support. The New York Times Company and its foundation support the Columbia Journalism School. Jews support Jewish studies. Blacks endow professorships of African-American studies. Businessmen donate to business schools. Gun control supporters donate to the campaign of Senator Schumer. This is the natural course of things, and it's hard to see a reasonable alternative, other than forcing donors to give their own money to causes that they do not support. This is actually the solution the Times proposes to the campaign finance issue -- taxing the public to pay for advertising time of all government-approved candidates. Look next for the Times editorial page to suggest that Philip Morris be forced to support financially research and advertising that is contrary to its own corporate interests. Oh, wait -- that already happened, in the tobacco settlement. The next thing to look for, then, is a Times-backed law that forbids companies from funding university research and that imposes limits on the donations by individuals to universities. After all, the Times supports such limits on donations to politicians. Don't our nation's colleges and universities deserve the same protections from the harmful, corrupting influence of corporate cash that our government does?
Personality-Driven: A front-page article in today's New York Times about the tension between President Bush and Senator McCain is a typical example of the newspaper's emphasis on personality and politics at the expense of policy and substance. The Times reports at length on the clashes between the two politicians over an overhaul of campaign finance law and over a bill "to regulate health maintenance organizations." But the newspaper can't be bothered to mention President Bush's substantive concerns that the McCain approach to campaign finance would restrict free speech in violation of the First Amendment and that the McCain approach to heath care policy would be a license for tort lawyers to drive up your health insurance premiums. Instead of mentioning or explaining the policy differences that drive this dispute, the Times serves up gossip-column-grade applesauce about "campaign staffs acting like sore losers" and a bunch of anonymous analysis about the "Texas-Texas A&M football rivalry."
The same news article refers to Mr. Bush "aggressively promoting his campaign agenda of large tax cuts." The Bush tax cut is not "large" compared to the size of the projected surplus, nor compared to the size of the tax cut proposed by some House Republicans. It is large in the opinion of many Democrats and in the opinion of the Times editorial writers. But Smartertimes.com thought that the Times was, at least ostensibly, devoted to keeping out of its news coverage the opinion of the news department as to whether the Bush tax cut is "large" or "small" or "just right."
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