Presidential races

Professors donate to Obama, opine about election in news articles

At least a half-dozen professors who gave political donations to President Obama have been quoted in news articles opining about his administration and the 2012 race for the White House.

The findings of The Hill’s months-long investigation come as Republicans have been crying foul, alleging a media bias for Obama and against Mitt Romney. 

{mosads}The Hill cross-checked academics who have been quoted in news articles with Obama’s donor list and eliminated those who worked in prior Democratic administrations. The half-dozen professors detailed in this article do not mention their political affiliations in their bios online. A similar search for Romney donors did not yield any results.

The scholars say they didn’t tell reporters that they had donated to Obama, but would have had they been asked. It is not common practice for journalists to inquire about such political donations, however. 

Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute says journalists should ask about political contributions: “Reporters are trying to get an independent viewpoint. Increasingly, the audience is demanding to know how [reporters] get information. The audience would like to know this information.”

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She added that the onus is on the reporter to ask the question.

McBride said she is not stunned by The Hill’s findings, remarking that the academic world has a liberal bent: “I’m surprised you didn’t find more.”

The Hill reviewed hundreds of donors who work for universities and dozens of articles in which political science professors provided their input. But the probe is not comprehensive, and does not include presidential fundraising data that will be released later this week.

Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University who is billed as a “widely known expert on national politics,” contributed $250 to Obama on two separate occasions in 2008.

This month, Abramowitz told Bloomberg News that the recent drop in the nation’s unemployment rate is “good news for Obama” and blunts Romney’s political momentum.

Abramowitz has attracted media attention for an election-forecasting model he developed. In July he said that “we’re heading for a very close election and Obama is a slight favorite.”

He told The Hill on Monday that his forecasting model has nothing to do with his preference for president, and noted he has not donated to Obama in 2012.

“If you look at what I’m saying [in news articles], it’s not biased,” Abramowitz said.

In 2008, Abramowitz was widely quoted in the press discussing Obama’s bid for the presidency. Many news organizations have published Abramowitz’s analyses, including the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, National Journal and The Hill. 

Garrison Nelson, a professor at the University of Vermont, donated $250 to Obama earlier this year. Nelson was quoted in June 2011 about Obama’s emphasis on his support for the auto industry bailout.

“This is to hit Romney where he lives,” Nelson said.

Four years ago, he commented on Obama’s favorable poll numbers in Vermont against then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.): “It’s the Obama phenomenon. Obama has really taken hold here. We’re caught in the wave of support he’s getting.” 

Asked for comment on Monday, Nelson sarcastically said, “Big deal.” 

He added, “I’ve been doing this since 1976. I’ve given 5,000 interviews,” saying readers should be able to tell from his comments that he is a Democrat. 

Abramowitz argued that making a political donation is no different than voting. Less than 1 percent of people in the U.S. make political donations of
more than $200, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Peter Ricchiuti of Tulane University donated $3,000 to Obama in 2012 and $1,000 to his campaign four years ago. He has also given to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.), the Democratic National Committee and Rep. Bill Cassidy (R-La.). 

In 2011, he told ABC News that Obama’s job creation initiatives were “all good ideas,” but questioned whether they would be passed. Ricchiuti told the Mississippi Daily Journal in January 2009 that fears that the incoming Obama administration would usher in a new socialist state were unfounded. 

“I think he’s a free-market guy,” Ricchiuti said at the time.

Ricchiuti told The Hill that his comments to reporters are nonpartisan, and claimed he regularly cites economic data to make his points.

Timothy Jost, a professor at Washington and Lee University, has been identified in news articles as “an expert on healthcare” and a supporter of Obama’s healthcare reform law. However, most articles do not mention he is an Obama donor; he has given thousands of dollars to the president and Democratic campaign committees.

Jost has been critical of Romney’s plan to eradicate the president’s healthcare law, telling the Boston Globe last year that it is “unconstitutional.” 

Asked by Politico who won the first presidential debate earlier this month, Jost portrayed Romney as a flip-flopper: “The ‘etch-a-sketch’ strategy seems fully underway.” That comment was posted to Politico’s “The Arena” Web page. 

Jost told The Hill he has disclosed conflicts where relevant, such as when he commented on the legal challenge to Obama’s healthcare law after he worked on an amicus brief on the case.

“I am contributing to the Obama campaign because I cannot bear the thought of 30 million Americans remaining uninsured. I do not see, however, why I would be expected to state this every time a reporter called me to ask for comment on something. Nobody does this, nor should they,” Jost stated.

University of Michigan’s Robert Axelrod donated to Obama in 2008 and 2011. In a 2010 Washington Post article titled, “Obama Steps Up Confrontation,” Axelrod says confrontation with the opposing party is initially necessary in order to ultimately strike a bipartisan deal. The article reported that he is not related to David Axelrod, who is a senior adviser to Obama. 

In May 2011, Axelrod was made available to reporters to discuss the implications of Osama bin Laden’s death. He did not comment for this article. 

David Yellen, who is dean and professor of law at Loyola University in Chicago, donated to Obama in 2008 and 2011. In 2004, he gave to both Howard Dean and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). Yellen told The Washington Times in 2010 that the scandal involving former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) was not a significant problem for the White House. 

“Any problem would be political rather than legal, and whether it’s a political problem I think is still premature,” Yellen said then. “It’s probably uncomfortable but not a big deal, given the context of things.” 

Yellen said he is “a small donor” and that his donation does not affect his objectivity. Asked if reporters should inquire about the political donations of the academics they are interviewing, Yellen responded, “It couldn’t hurt.” 

—Peter Sullivan, Anna Harvey, Alex Karmazin, Brian Tam and David Kaner contributed to this article.

Tags Bill Clinton Harry Reid Hillary Clinton John Kerry Mary Landrieu

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