When 'Academic Studies' are Needed in Support of Bush Administration/Republican Political Positions, the University of Missouri Professor Comes Through Time and Again...
By Tom Klammer on 3/27/2008, 9:12am PT  

Guest blogged by Tom Klammer...

"[T]he role of advocate is, no matter what kind of information comes out, to sort of disparage it, and, you know, they’re fighting for a result, not the truth. And they already think they know the truth..."

That’s what Professor Jeffrey Milyo told me near the end of a radio interview (MP3, 24 mins) I did with him in February. It was something of a parting shot he left for critics of a study he conducted for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on media cross-ownership, but it strikes me that he could have been describing himself.

Milyo is the University of Missouri professor featured in a BRAD BLOG article by Howard Beale earlier this month. The blog featured an enlightening exchange between Milyo and Senator Chuck Schumer during Milyo’s testimony before the U.S. Senate's Committee on Rules and Administration at a hearing to discuss whether photo ID voting laws lead to voter disenfranchisement. As Beale noted, Milyo’s study purported to show that restrictive photo ID voting laws had no adverse effect on voter turnout in 2006 elections in Indiana. Schumer apparently thought it might be instructive to know who commissioned and paid for the study. Milyo said he had received a grant, but hemmed and hawed and couldn’t seem to remember from whom it came.

As it turned out, Milyo's grant money for his study came from an organization created by Mark F. "Thor" Hearne, the former Bush/Cheney '04 national general counsel, and one of the Republican Party's top operatives behind pushing for such photo ID laws around the country. Hearne was, in fact, instrumental in creating the very Indiana law which Milyo's study claims to show, has caused no voter disenfranchisement in the state.

When I interviewed Milyo last February, it was about a different study he had done, this one about cross ownership of television stations and newspapers in the same markets. The findings of this Milyo study were just as dubious, just as friendly to the Bush Administration's political objectives, and just as fortuitously timed...

In late January, I received an email copy of a press release from the University of Missouri headlined "Cross Ownership has Positive Effect on Local Media Coverage, MU Researcher Finds".

The release named Milyo, an economics professor at the University of Missouri’s Truman School of Public Affairs and Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute in Washington D.C., as the author of the study. It stated:

The recent decision by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to loosen restrictions on cross ownership of newspapers and broadcast television stations in the same market has met with criticism from consumer advocates and members of Congress that a cross ownership would diminish the quality of local news coverage. However, the effect may be just the opposite, according to a University of Missouri study, which found that cross-owned television stations produce a greater percentage of local programming news content when compared to other network-affiliated stations in the same market.

Having spent a good deal of time covering media consolidation and cross ownership issues on my radio show, I found this all very interesting.

First was the timing. As the press release indicated, the FCC had just voted (in December of 2007) to loosen the cross-ownership restrictions.

Following a link to Milyo’s study, “The Effects of Cross Ownership on the Local Content and Political Slant of Local Television News,” [PDF] , I saw it was noted as “revised September 2007.” When I later asked Milyo why the press release was just coming out four months later, in January of 2008, he said he believed it was because the University was a “little slow” and that after the December, 2007 decision, it seemed like “a time to kind of give them a reminder that this might be a good thing to try to disseminate a little more widely.” He went on to add that an early version of the study had come out in the summer, and that he produced the revised report in the fall after feedback from a public comment period.

Besides the timing, I was struck by the conclusion headline. I had attended a Media Reform Conference in Memphis, sponsored by FreePress.net, in January 2006 and interviewed Democratic FCC Commissioner Michael Copps (MP3, 10 mins)about his concerns about the efforts of the current Republican FCC chair, Kevin Martin, to revive the failed rules changes calling for the relaxation of curbs against cross ownership and consolidation that were rammed through in 2003 by his predecessor, only to be overturned by Congress and the Federal courts.

"Now, reality check time is that we’re right back where we started, and the Commission has these rules to look at again, and one conceivable outcome would be that they would want to go down the road of consolidation again," Copps told me.

He was right. On December 21, 2007 the FCC voted 3 to 2 to relax cross-ownership restrictions. An outraged Michael Copps said “we claim the mantle of scientific research even as the experts say we’ve asked the wrong questions, used the wrong data, and reached the wrong conclusions.”

Wanting a critical take on the Milyo study, I contacted Josh Stearns at Free Press, the national non-profit media reform group, and he put me in touch with Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America, who furnished copies of critiques of FCC-commissioned studies submitted by The Consumer Federation of America, Consumers Union and Free Press.

One of the critiques included this heading: THE FCC’S RESEARCH AGENDA: ADMINISTRATIVE ABUSE, NEGLECT AND “JUNK SCIENCE” [PDF]

According to this critique:

Overwhelming evidence suggests that the Commission wanted to dramatically relax or eliminate the newspaper cross ownership rule, so it put together a series of studies it thought would support its preconceived notion. A paper written in June of 2006 by the FCC’s then-Chief Economist, Leslie Marx, leaves little in doubt as to the motivations of the agency. She wrote: "This document is an attempt to share some thoughts and ideas I have about how the FCC can approach relaxing newspaper-broadcast cross-ownership restrictions."

I recorded an interview with Cooper (MP3, 22 mins) who told me some of the problems he had with the Milyo study and then I called professor Milyo. His study looked at local news broadcasts, for just three nights, in the week prior to the 2006 election, for every cross-owned station and for other major network-affiliated stations in the same markets. Milyo conceded that this was a pretty atypical time sample, but said that one of the main tasks he was given was to look for differences in the political slant of the programming. He thought that just prior to the election would be a good time to look for a partisan slant one way or the other.

I then asked him how he defined "slant" for the purposes of the study. "I didn't want to rely on my subjective take on slanted or not," he said, "so I tried to come up with some measures that other researchers had used, and basically those are the amount of time in which a candidate from one party or the other is speaking on the air; the amount of time that a candidate from one party or another is talked about or covered at all on the air; the amount of time that issues that seem to be associated with one party or the other are talked about on the air, so those would be, broadly speaking, the kinds of proxies we're using, and they're by no means perfect…"

Not perfect? Hmm. Mark Cooper had told me that the study had defined the Iraq War as a Democratic issue, and even if George Bush was on the television talking about the war, that would be tallied up as a Democratic issue.

When I asked Milyo about that one, he said "I will admit it’s a bit more unusual" but defended it by saying there were multiple measures. He claimed that he came up with his criteria for categorizing the Iraq War as a Democratic issue by looking at local Republican and Democratic party and candidate websites. He said it was only Democratic websites that were talking about the Iraq War.

With that sort of criteria in use, Milyo went on to explain, all the proxies were consistent in not showing a difference in bias between the cross-owned stations and the non-cross-owned stations.

For the record, here are the "Partisan Issues" in full, as taken from his report, which Milyo used as the basis for his study to determine how "slanted" those three days of news just prior to the 2006 election were:

One has to wonder about a study that would define support of Bush‘s troop surge as being evidence of a Democratic slant in news coverage. Or discussion of immigration as yet another Democratic issue.

A web search shows other studies by Milyo on subjects from media, to healthcare, to campaign finance. Professor Milyo’s credentials appear, at least at first glance, to be quite impressive.

But in light of his recent Senate testimony, and a quick look at some of his studies, such as this one on media bias, or his study on the effect of Photo ID polling place restrictions, I can’t help wonder if his research isn’t ideology in search of a justification. Or, to phrase it another way, using Professor Milyo's own words from my interview with him last February, as quoted at the beginning of this piece, I can't help wonder if he is not an "advocate" himself, "fighting for a result, not the truth."

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Tom Klammer is the host of Tell Somebody on Kansas City's KKFI 90.1 FM, an independent, non-commercial, non-profit, 501(c)3, volunteer-based, community radio station.