Heritage Immigration Scandal Proof That…Both Sides Do It?

You may heard that the conservative Heritage Foundation released a dubious study about the effects of an immigration reform. The report alleged a cost of $6.3 trillion, and was quickly challenged and debunked by critics on the right and the left.

And, to top it all off, the report’s co-author, a guy named Jason Richwine, had written a dissertation about immigrants and their low IQs. As Dylan Matthews of the Washington Post‘s WonkBlog (5/8/13) wrote, the paper argued:

No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach IQ parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-IQ children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.

Bill Keller

Bill Keller

This controversy led Bill Keller of the New York Times to write a column (5/13/13)  about Heritage, sure–but also about the big lessons of this scandal. And the first lesson? Think tanks on “both sides” are up to no good.

To his credit, Keller points out that the other Heritage author, Robert Rector, has a record worth examining:

This is the same researcher who, according to my colleague Jason DeParle, once published a report claiming tens of thousands of poor people had Jacuzzis and swimming pools–extrapolating from a government survey that had found four. Before you laugh, you should know that Rector’s views on the deadbeat poor had considerable influence on the shape of Bill Clinton’s welfare reform, and that his earlier version of the costs-of-amnesty study helped kill immigration reform last time around. He is an ideological force in Washington.

This is a good point–one that FAIR made about Rector over a decade ago (Extra!, 1/99). His ubiquity in media discussions of poverty would suggest that the problem isn’t so much about him, but about journalists who feel the need to quote him when writing about the lives of poor people (perhaps for the sake of “balance”).

Keller thinks there are three lessons to take away from the Heritage story–and it’s the first one that is troubling.

He writes:

This is an unusually stark sign of the transformation of Washington’s think tank culture into a more partisan archipelago of propaganda factories. In recent years, according to James McGann, director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, think tanks on both the right and the left have set up explicit lobbying arms, anointed leaders known not for academic credibility but for partisan ferocity, and picked their fights at least in part to help drive their fundraising. Last year the right-wing billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch exercised their megadonors’ droit du seigneur over the libertarian Cato Institute, ousting the longtime president. The announcement in December that Sen. Jim DeMint, a Tea Party darling, would become Heritage’s new president was not the beginning of a transformation, but its logical culmination. DeMint was enthusiastically front and center last week in the unveiling of the Heritage immigration report, even as scholars in his employ were telling friends they found the study embarrassing. I’m told the 2007 attack on immigration reform was gangbusters as a fundraising message. Some speculate that this time around the issue might also make a nice platform for DeMint’s possible presidential ambitions.

So what is Keller describing here? All of this is  happening at institutions on the right.

That’s not to say that there is no room to critique liberal institutions for spending too much time defending the Obama White House. But are there similar examples of left-liberal think tanks sacrificing “academic credibility for partisan ferocity”? Maybe. But Keller doesn’t name any.

Perhaps the real lesson is that the “partisan archipelago of propaganda factories” exists mainly on the right.



About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.