Veteran religion writers are offering harsh criticism of Fox News religion correspondent Lauren Green for making author Reza Aslan's Muslim background the focus of a recent interview about his new book on Jesus. They say that her suggestion that Aslan's faith might preclude his ability to cover the topic fairly was insulting and illogical, and seemed aimed more at playing to her audience's biases than informing them.
"Fox News knows the zeitgeist of its readership and understands what stokes the Fox audience's anger. Fox News is excellent at providing the tinder needed to make that blaze burn," Debra L. Mason, executive director of the Religion Newswriters Association, said in a statement to Media Matters. "I was not surprised so much by the interview because it seemed to fit the Fox formula perfectly. I would have been more surprised to see an interview that recognized what the vast majority of professional religion reporter specialists and the vast majority of scholars of religion believe: that one's personal faith generally has little bearing on the ability to be accurate in the study or reporting of religion."
She later added, "Reza Aslan as the author of a new book on Jesus should be judged on his credentials as a scholar, his experience with the topic, and on the soundness of his research, period."
That view was echoed by several religion writers and authors who reacted negatively to the recent interview in which Green repeatedly questioned why Aslan, as a Muslim, had authored the recently-released book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.
The first question Green asked during the FoxNews.com interview was, "You are a Muslim, so why did you write a book about the founder of Christianity?" She would repeatedly return to that question throughout the interview, and accused him of having "never disclosed" his faith during appearances on other programs.
When Aslan pointed out he is a "scholar of religions with a PhD in the subject" and studies the topic for a living, Green continued to question his background more than the book.
At one point, Aslan stated, "I'm not sure what my faith happens to do with my 20 years of academic study of the New Testament."
Aslan has a Ph. D. in the sociology of religion, a master's degree in theological studies from Harvard University, and a bachelor's degree in religion from Santa Clara University, as well as a master's of fine arts in fiction. He previously authored books on the history of Islam.
"If the accusation is that you have to be of a particular faith to write about it, I don't see the logic in that," said Abe Levy, a religion writer for the San Antonio Express-News. "Anyone can scrutinize a particular faith if they have studied it, you don't have to be of that particular faith. In my line of work, you want to have a deep respect for a particular religion, even if it is not your own, but you don't have to be of a particular faith to cover it."
Indeed, Green herself, a committed Christian, has repeatedly reported on Islam.
Several media outlets in Wichita, Kansas, say they have no problem running ads for a local women's clinic that performs abortions whose radio ads were rejected by Clear Channel Radio for their supposed "divisive" content.
At least four radio and print outlets in Wichita have run similar ads for the South Wind Women's Center with no report of complaints, according to those overseeing the outlets.
Sarah Anderson, communications director for the Trust Women Foundation, which runs the Wichita clinic, confirmed that two ads were removed from three local Clear Channel FM radio stations on July 2, one day after first being broadcast.
The ads, which can be heard HERE and HERE, employ innocuous content about the facility, including that it "was founded to reestablish full access to reproductive healthcare," provides "high-quality medical care" and features board-certified physicians with "over 50 years of experience and dedication."
According to Anderson, the foundation was informed that the ads had been pulled due to complaints to the station. Women, Action and The Media, a non-profit group that promotes women's rights and first reported the ads had been pulled, posted a statement reportedly issued by Wichita's Clear Channel General Manager Rob Burton this morning, which said: "As members of the Wichita community, KZSN has a responsibility to use our best judgment to ensure that advertising topics and content are as non-divisive as possible for our local audience."
But other media outlets in Wichita apparently believe that the center's ads are "non-divisive." Two music stations not owned by Clear Channel -- KFBZ, The Buzz 105.3; and KDGS, Power 93.5 - confirmed to Media Matters that they have agreed to run the ads.
Mark Yearout, sales manager for KFBZ and KDGS, stated: "They started in June on 105.3 and one will be on in August on 93.9, to my knowledge."
Both Yearout and KFBZ and KDGS General Manager Jackie Wise said the ads had drawn no complaints from listeners. "There has been none," Wise said.
Print ads for the clinic have also been published in the Liberty Press, a local lesbian and gay monthly newspaper, and the Wichita State University campus newspaper, The Sunflower, without complaints, according to staffers at both publications.
"We have been fine," said Liberty Press Editor Kristi Parker, who confirmed that the clinic's ad has been in the past two monthly issues and will be in the upcoming August issue. "I am kind of upset" at the Clear Channel stations, she later added. "I realize they have the right to do business with whomever they want, but it doesn't seem fair to single them out."
Detroit news reporters who've covered the city's fiscal problems for years say claims from conservative commentators that the recent bankruptcy is due to liberal agendas, federal policies, or even President Obama are wildly inaccurate.
Journalists, some with decades in the Motor City, contend such national coverage has missed the true cause of the financial debacle, which includes decades of population decline, mismanagement of city debt, and recent individual corruption.
By contrast, right-wing commentator and Detroit native Ted Nugent recently claimed that "Liberal democrats took hold of the greatest, most productive city on earth and turned it into a bloodsucker excuse-making hell," adding, "If allowed to continue, our President will do the same to the whole country. Heartbreaking and tragic."
Similar coverage from Fox News -- which misleadingly claimed other cities could fall into Detroit's bankruptcy path - and National Review's Rich Lowry, who tried to blame it on "a toxic combination of Great Society big spenders, race hustlers, crooks, public-sector unions, and ineffectual reformers," is misleading, local reporters say.
They contend that Detroit's problems are unique and driven by demography and decades-long trends, not ideology.
"I don't agree with that thesis," Jim Kiertzner, a reporter at ABC affiliate WXYZ-TV who has covered Detroit news since 1983, said about some of the conservative claims. "This was a city, like the auto industry, [where] in the heyday the money rolled in. When the decline started, nobody kept ahead of it and made the cuts necessary."
He added that the decline has "been in the making for decades. Detroit has been on a long steady decline."
Kiertzner and other reporters pointed to the population drop that began decades ago when wealthier families moved to the suburbs, reducing the population from 1.8 million in 1950 to 1.2 million in 1980 to only 701,000 in 2012.
Detroit-based journalists contend that drop reduced both job opportunities and city revenue, but with a rising maintenance cost because the city still had to pay for police, fire and other services. And with a 138-square mile area, one of the largest in the nation, the cost is vast.
"You have one of the largest areas that the police need to cover, the fire department, street lights, and keeping roads maintained and roads plowed," said Brett Snavely, a Detroit Free Press reporter covering the bankruptcy. "The cost of keeping this city maintained is fundamentally higher than in many cities."
With such rising costs and reduced revenue, the city of Detroit kept borrowing money and raising its debt, the reporters say. It also failed to pay into its pension fund properly, leading to the current situation in which city worker pensions are $3.5 billion in the red.
"The city didn't meet its obligations paying along the way, they gave the pensions IOU's, they are also looking at possible bad investments where they lost millions of dollars," says Kiertzner. "It wasn't just the employees, it is not a fair assessment to blame the unions."
Kathleen Gray, another Detroit Free Press reporter, added, "Its mismanagement, it's the downturn in the economy, it is not a single thing. We get a lot of [reader] feedback here that it is the liberal management of Detroit, but I don't agree with that assessment."
Charlie Langton, a reporter at WWJ News Radio and a 10-year Detroit journalist, said trying to link Detroit's situation to some outside influence is misleading.
"There is a combination of a couple of things, certainly mismanagement of the city's assets play a major role," he said. "For many years Detroit borrowed money to pay down its debt and Detroit lost a significant population."
Berman of the Detroit News said some of the problems were the result of the same sub-prime mortgage lending that hurt other cities, and even Wall Street banks continuing to lend Detroit money as its debt bloomed.
"The biggest mistake here is that no one tried to solve problems as they arose. They tried to paper over them, there was no problem solving, everything got pushed back," Berman said. "There was continued borrowing and there was no payback. They would shop the debt to Wall Street. You could blame Wall Street for not questioning that they were enablers, they gave them that credit. Why did Moody's write Detroit bonds?"
For Curt Guyette, news editor of the alternative weekly Metro Times, trying to blame liberal policies or some progressive approach is too narrow.
Rush Limbaugh's claim that it's acceptable for him to say "nigga" -- with the "a" at the end -- because some African-Americans have used that derivation of the racial slur drew strong criticism from several black journalists and commentators who called him "harsh" and a "bully."
"I just think this is not good," said Juan Williams, a regular Fox News commentator. "Obviously I think this whole level of conversation is pretty base and divisive. It's so harsh."
Gregory Lee Jr., president of the National Association of Black Journalists, said Limbaugh should know better.
"We don't use any other offensive words on the air, why is this okay?" said Lee, who is also South Florida Sun-Sentinel executive sports editor. "As a professional broadcaster, he should have a deeper understanding of why. He knows why, but he knows this will help pump money into his empire by saying things of this sort."
At issue is a comment Limbaugh made on his syndicated radio show July 16th, in which he reacted to a CNN interview with Rachel Jenteal, a friend of slain Florida teenager Trayvon Martin and witness in the murder trial of George Zimmerman. Jenteal had testified at the trial about her phone conversation with Martin the night he was shot and killed by Zimmerman.
In the CNN interview, Jenteal was asked if there was anything she wished she had said at the trial, she answered that she wished she had said, "nigga" in her court testimony.
After he played an audio clip of the CNN interview Limbaugh stated:
This was between 9 and 10 pm last night on CNN, who is in a quest to become the, again, most respected news organization in the country, perhaps even in the world. So, "nigga," with an "a" on the end, well I think I can now. Isn't that the point? 'Cause it's not racist. That's the point. I could be talking about a male, a Chinese male, a guy at the Laundromat. I could be talking about a man. That's what she said it means.
Jenteal herself weighed in on Limbaugh's views today on Huffington Post Live, saying she thought his comments sounded racist.
Chicago Tribune editorial writer and syndicated columnist Clarence Page said Limbaugh used the word simply to provoke a reaction.
"This is just Rush playing his usual classroom bully role, trying to be provocative for the case of being provocative," Page said. "He is feeding the lame brains out there who just want to get mad at somebody."
Page added, "Racial etiquette is like any other etiquette, there is a proper time and proper people to use certain language with and other times there is not. The N-word is like any other obscenity, you use one kind of language around a bunch of sailors smoking and drinking, you don't use it in church. What makes it provocative is that there is hardly a word in the English language that is more provocative than the N-word."
Eric Deggans, media writer for the Tampa Bay Times and a frequent CNN commentator, said Limbaugh's claim is nothing new.
"It's an old conservative argument, black people use the N-word so we can use the N-word, I think that is nonsense," Deggans said. "Why do you even feel the need to want to use the word? There's plenty of black people who disapprove of the use of the N-word in any shape or form. Some conservatives say, 'well, black people don't say anything when black people use the N word,' and that is totally wrong."
Deggans later noted, "The thing to me about Limbaugh is that he has gone from being somebody who has highlighted the hypocrisies of liberals in a funny way to becoming a punitive person, a person who is a scold, who gets on the radio and this whole thing about the N-word, there is nothing funny about it or entertaining about it, it is just awfulness and harshness."
Roland Martin, the former CNN commentator and veteran media voice, agreed.
"I have always made it clear that I do not believe that the N-word should be used," Martin said in a phone interview. "It is a word, a hateful word that has been used against black folks for a long time." He said that debating it makes no sense: "When was the last time you saw Jews in this country having a debate, 'hmmm should we use the K-word?' or Hispanics debating, 'should we use the W-word?"
The Daily Caller would "gladly run" future opinion pieces from contributor Jack Hunter despite revelations this week of his past neo-Confederate and pro-secessionist views, a spokesperson said.
Asked if Hunter -- who has written more than 50 opinion pieces for the website in the past -- would be welcomed to write for the site again in the future, Daily Caller spokeswoman Nicole Roeberg stated via email: "He is welcome to submit an opinion piece, just like anyone else. Each piece would be judged on its own merit. If it adheres to our standards, we would gladly run it."
She also stressed: "Any submission which violates Daily Caller standards won't be accepted. Though Hunter has written many good pieces for us in the past, comments like those being talked about this week would not have met our editorial standards and would have been rejected."
The conservative Washington Free Beacon reported this week that Hunter, a "close aide" to Sen. Rand Paul who also co-wrote the Kentucky Republican's 2011 book, "spent years working as a pro-secessionist radio pundit and neo-Confederate activist. Hunter was a chairman in the League of the South, which 'advocates the secession and subsequent independence of the Southern States from this forced union and the formation of a Southern republic.'"
The Free Beacon also quoted from Hunter's South Carolina radio commentaries, delivered under the pseudonym "The Southern Avenger," in which he expressed admiration for Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth, indignation that white Americans are treated to a "racial double standard," and opposition to Spanish-speaking immigrants. Hunter reportedly "told the Free Beacon that he no longer holds many of these views," including his pro-Lincoln assassin views, but "declined to say that he no longer supports secession."
In an interview, Roeberg pointed out that Hunter had written just one piece for the Daily Caller since last August and that none of the previous articles were related to his controversial views. "He was an opinion writer, we have hundreds and hundreds of opinion writers, [and] he was never paid," she said. "All of his pieces were opinion pieces and we don't pay our opinion writers."
She later added: "None of his pieces that he ever wrote for us had anything to do with any of those views, they were all kind of just standard political issues that weren't super controversial. We never would have approved anything like that."
Roeberg said she did not know if Daily Caller editors knew about Hunter's past controversial views, adding that the news outlet had no other comment on the new revelations.
Hunter's Daily Caller archive includes more than 50 pieces written between August 2011 and May 2013, including numerous editions of a slickly-produced, Daily Caller-branded video commentary series, "The Deal with Jack Hunter."
His most recent Daily Caller piece, from May 6, was headlined, "Rand Paul shatters left-right paradigm, can help grow GOP." In his written and video commentaries, Hunter also promoted the candidacy of Sen. Paul's father, Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX), whose 2012 presidential campaign he worked for as an "official campaign blogger."
In a February 2012 Daily Caller video, Hunter argued "that by firing Pat Buchanan, MSNBC, Media Matters and the Color of Change have undermined free speech." The Daily Caller noted that Hunter is "known by his radio moniker the 'Southern Avenger,'" and identified him as "a frequent guest on Fox Business" and the co-author of books by Sen. Paul and former Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC).
The latest revelations about Hunter's neo-Confederate past brought a rebuke from one of Daily Caller's most well-known columnists, Matt Lewis, who wrote a piece on July 9 describing Hunter's comments as a "damaging staffer admission" and his past views as "very bad baggage." Lewis wrote that Hunter's presence on Paul's staff reflects poorly on the senator's "credibility and honesty -- to Paul's fundamental character."
Lewis did not mention Hunter's previous Daily Caller work and did not respond to a request for an interview.
A series of articles about one women's month-long experience owning a gun that was spiked by Ms. magazine after it sparked criticism from pro-gun activists will now be posted by the Daily Beast.
Daily Beast Senior Editor Harry Siegel would not say exactly when the series by freelance writer and gun violence prevention advocate Heidi Yewman would be posted, but confirmed it would run "presumably some time pretty soon," adding, "I think it's a good thing to run."
Ms. posted the first article in the series on June 12, which detailed Yewman's experience easily getting a concealed weapons permit and buying a gun without knowing how to use it. Three subsequent articles were set to run each following week detailing her experiences carrying and then disposing of the gun, but were canceled by the online outlet of the famed feminist magazine after the first due to outrage from pro-gun activists, Yewman said in an interview Monday.
"They ran the first one and they got a huge response, over 70,000 hits and over 2,000 comments immediately," recalled Yewman, who serves on the board of The Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and is author of the 2009 book, Beyond the Bullet. "So it was overwhelming to them. They moderate their comments so it became an overwhelming situation for them and a lot of the comments were real negative, how I'm an idiot, how I'm stupid."
Yewman said she was contacted by Michele Kort, a Ms. editor, via email on June 17 and told the magazine was not getting the response it had expected and was cancelling further installments in the series.
"She emailed me and let me know they weren't going to run it because it was too overwhelming ... they weren't trying to attract guns rights guys and that's who they were seeing was commenting," Yewman said, noting many of the online comments were abusive. "I think that there were a lot more people looking at their site than the gun guys. I disagree with their editorial policy, but they get to do what they want to do."
Joe Nocera of The New York Times published excerpts of Kort's email in a blog post on June 21 that criticized Ms., stating, "Ms. published something the N.R.A.-types didn't like; they responded by bullying Ms. online, and Ms. folded."
UPDATE: After the publication of this post, Ms. issued a statement denying that they had "allow[ed] ourselves to be bullied by pro-gun commenters" and saying they had offered to post the remaining pieces but had not heard back from Yewman. In an interview with Media Matters, Yewman said that she was "disappointed" that it had taken Ms. so long to come to that conclusion and said she has "an exclusive" with the Daily Beast to run the rest of the series.
The conservative Columbus Dispatch has long been a force in local and state politics in Ohio. But in recent years, the newspaper's parent company has become a virtual media monopoly in Ohio's largest city and state capital, controlling not only the daily newspaper, but two radio stations, a television outlet and a long list of other weekly, monthly, and regional news sources.
"It's a one-newspaper town," said Dominick Cappa, editor of Columbus Business First, one of the few local publications not owned by the Dispatch. "They have the TV station, a radio station. Are they powerful? Hell yeah they're powerful because they have those outlets."
And the Dispatch's owners have used that media muscle to promote conservative causes and candidates, in particular the state's Republican governor, John Kasich. Publisher John F. Wolfe, CEO of parent company Dispatch Printing, and his wife, Ann, have spent more than $100,000 seeking to elect Republicans in state and out, with three dollars out of every ten going to Kasich's coffers.
The Dispatch's news reporting is the pride of Ohio; in recent years the paper has repeatedly been named the best newspaper of its size by the Associated Press Society, and its reporters typically clean up at that organization's annual awards presentation. In 2012, John Wolfe himself was given a special recognition award for "exemplary service to print journalism."
But critics say that the recent expansion of Dispatch Printing has created a near-monopoly in central Ohio, and point to the way the paper's editorial board has shielded Kasich to sound a note of alarm.
The increasing influence of the Wolfes comes during a period in which several right-wing moguls have been seeking to use mainstream media outlets to influence the political debate.
In December Media Matters profiled financier Douglas Manchester, a major Republican Party contributor who purchased the San Diego Union-Tribune and used it to cheerlead for right-wing politics and his own business interests. More recently, David and Charles Koch, major funders of the conservative movement, have reportedly considered buying the Tribune Company's eight regional newspapers -- which include the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune -- as part of their plan to shift the country to the right by investing in the media. Manchester has also considered buying the Tribune Company.
The Kochs also financially support the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a non-profit organization whose websites and affiliates provide free statehouse reporting from a conservative perspective to local newspapers and other media across the country.
The Wolfes' stranglehold on central Ohio's media grew substantially last September when the Dispatch Printing Company took over Columbus Media Enterprises from American Community Newspapers. That purchase added 12 specialty magazines to its arsenal, including Columbus Monthly and Columbus CEO, and Columbus Bride; Suburban News Publications, a string of 22 community weeklies that were subsequently merged with the company's 22-paper ThisWeek Community News group of weeklies; and The Other Paper, a feisty alternative weekly that had been known as a Dispatch watchdog.
Dispatch Printing already owned a variety of specialty publications including Columbus Alive, Columbus Crave, Columbus Parent, and Capital Style, along with two radio stations, the local CBS television affiliate (WBNS-TV), Ohio News Network Radio, which provides regular newscasts and sportscasts to 73 radio stations statewide, and Consumer News Services, a marketing company that distributes insert fliers via direct delivery bags.
Columbus has three other network television affiliates: WCMH, the NBC affiliate owned by Media General; WSYX, the ABC affiliate, and WTTE, the Fox affiliate, both owned by Sinclair Broadcasting.
But critics say that those outlets amount to little more than window dressing. "There is no competition," said Gerald Kosicki, a 26-year professor of communications at nearby Ohio State University. "You do only now have one voice. That is a concern to people."
Climate change deniers should not be given a place in business coverage at a time when industries from agriculture to insurance are making real financial decisions dealing with its impact, according to some of the nation's top business journalists.
Last month Media Matters reported that more than half of the climate change segments on CNBC this year cast doubt on man-made climate change. That network's coverage drew criticism from top business journalists who said such coverage does not serve their viewers.
"It doesn't seem to me at this point to be a point of serious controversy within the corporate establishment," said Paul Barrett a Bloomberg BusinessWeek reporter (Bloomberg BusinessWeek's sister company Bloomberg News is a CNBC competitor). "The insurance industry, which is a key barometer of these things, has reached the conclusion that whatever your politics are on this, the costs of extreme weather are so great and the patterns over the last couple of decades are so distinct that the corporate establishment absolutely must recognize these risks."
Barrett added, "It's past the point of letting ideology shape the dollars-and-cents calculations that businesses are already making, it is not a question of whether business should do this, business is doing this."
Michael Hiltzik, a veteran Los Angeles Times business columnist, agreed.
"I accept the evidence of climate change," he said. "I don't think I've ever run into a legitimate business leader or business owner in the course of my reporting who doesn't. I think, for the most part, it is settled science and the debate is really over what to do about it."
Hiltzik and others stressed that in business reporting, information is so vital to those running large and small companies that facts have to be on point and disregard political calculations.
"There is no percentage in denying it, there's no point. You can't hold back the tide," Hiltzik said. "It seems to me that denial is basically a political position, it's not a practical position, especially for a business that is in an industry that is going to be impacted by climate change."
With climate scientists in agreement that climate change is occurring and being triggered by human activity, major companies are acknowledging and evaluating the impact of that change on their businesses. Top consulting groups have pointed out that climate change is a major risk to insurance companies, and a 2011 survey found that most investors now consider climate change consequences across their organization's entire investment portfolio.
In spite of this emerging consensus among business leaders that climate change is a real concern for their companies, Media Matters found that 24 of the 47 substantial mentions or segments on climate change in 2013 on CNBC, or about 51 percent, cast doubt on whether man-made climate change even existed. Prominent CNBC figures have claimed that climate change is simple "a scam analysis" by "high priests." More than 14,000 people have signed Forecast The Facts' petition calling urging CNBC's executives to stop their network from promoting climate change denial.
The Texas lieutenant governor's recent threat that statehouse reporters could potentially be arrested and jailed if their behavior is deemed "not respectful" of the legislature is being called "worrisome" and "absurd" by Texas journalists.
Several editors and reporters who have been covering the contentious abortion debate in the state Senate, which drew national interest last week during an 11-hour filibuster that derailed the legislation, said Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst's threats of potential arrest during an interview Friday raised concerns.
During a June 28 interview with HotAir.com's Ed Morrissey, Dewhurst said that his staff was reviewing security tapes of the Senate gallery to examine the behavior of reporters during the demonstration that occurred as Republican leaders failed to pass the bill before the legislative session expired. Dewhurst explained:
"We have reports and I have my staff taking a look at the video, the internet video that we keep, we store, on the proceedings that evening and if I find as I've been told examples of the media waving and trying to inflame the crowd, incite them in the direction of a riot, I'm going to take action against them. That is wrong. That's inciting a riot. That is wrong. And we have a provision in our rules that if people do not deport themselves with decorum, they're not respectful of the legislative process, one of our rules says we can imprison them up to 48 hours. Of course that was out of the question with that many people, but it is, we take a democratic policy seriously."
Within a day, Dewhurst's office backpedaled from the threat, claiming they had reviewed tapes of the session and found nothing worth pursuing.
Still, several journalists are speaking out with concern that such a threat was even made and the option of arresting reporters even considered.
"As I listened to this, I said, 'what the hell is this, you're going to throw us in jail?'" said Wayne Slater, a longtime political reporter for the Dallas Morning News, who posted video of the HotAir.com interview on his blog. "The first thing I thought of is there are other countries that do this, where they arrest reporters whose work they don't like or who don't report things or act in the way the majority likes. It seemed absurd to me because there are countries that do this and we are not one of them."
After Slater posted the interview video on his Morning News blog Saturday, he said Dewhurst's office called him within hours to backtrack on the comments.
"They saw it and made a decision fairly quickly that they had to pull back from this," he said. "To call and say no media did anything wrong."
But that did not stop other journalists from criticizing the original comments and worrying about what they could mean for future reporting.
"As a newspaper editor, the lieutenant governor's statement I found worrisome," said Steve Proctor, managing editor of the Houston Chronicle. "If any action were taken against a Houston Chronicle reporter, they would be defended vigorously. Any editor is going to consider that worrisome."
He said even a hint of such action can be negative to reporters' work: "I want to be able to cover the news without interruption or interference, so you are always worried when there is interference on the information."
Gary Kleck, a Florida State University criminologist who is the source of a debunked claim that critics say dramatically exaggerated the frequency of defensive gun use, recently served on a committee tasked by the federal government with creating a potential research agenda focusing on ways to minimize gun violence.
The committee, formed by the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council at the request of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in response to an executive order President Obama signed in January following the Newtown school shooting, recently issued its report, titled "Priorities for Research to Reduce the Threat of Firearm-Related Violence."
The committee of 14, led by Alan I. Leshner of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, was tasked with developing "a potential research agenda focusing on the public health aspects of firearm-related violence-- its causes, approaches to interventions that could prevent it, and strategies to minimize its health burden." The report calls for a research program to be implemented by the CDC and other agencies and private foundations and "designed to produce impacts in 3-5 years" that focuses on the characteristics of firearm violence and risk and protective factors, among other issues.
Kleck is best known for his 1995 study with Marc Gertz that claims that up to 2.5 million incidents of defensive gun use occur every year. Media figures and the National Rifle Association frequently cite this study to bolster their claims that owning firearms makes people safer.
But critics point to the study's "serious methodological difficulties" -- it extrapolates a very rare event, the slightly more than one percent of respondents to a survey that said they had used a gun in self-defense over the past year, to the entire population of 200 million adults. This means that even slight deficiencies in the accuracy of the survey, whether due to false positives or a sample that is not perfectly indicative of the overall population, can lead to large differences in the result. Harvard Injury Control Research Center Director David Hemenway has labeled Kleck's result "an enormous overestimate" and pointed out that the results require one to believe, for instance, that "burglary victims use their guns in self-defense more than 100% of the time."
Contra Kleck, data from the National Crime Victimization survey produced by the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics suggests that there are roughly 100,000 instances of defensive gun use per year.
Right-wing media have pointed to the report's citation of Kleck's research to claim that it proves that "guns actually save lives." In fact, the report's treatment of the criminologist's work is more complex, typically contrasting his results with other studies that show dramatically different results. For example, the report states (emphasis added):
Estimates of gun use for self-defense vary widely, in part due to definitional differences for self-defensive gun use, different data sources, and questions about accuracy of data, particularly when self-reported. The NCVS has estimated 60,000 to 120,000 defensive uses of guns per year. Based on data from l992 and l994, the NCVS found 116,000 incidents (McDowall et al., 1998). Another body of research estimated annual gun use for self-defense to be much higher, up to 2.5 million incidents, suggesting that self-defense can be an important crime deterrent (Kleck and Gertz, 1995). Some studies on the association between self-defensive gun use and injury or loss to the victim have found less loss and injury when a firearm is used (Kleck, 2001b).
Similarly (emphasis added):
Defensive uses of guns by crime victims is a common occurrence, although the exact number remains disputed (Cook and Ludwig, 1996; Kleck, 2001a). Almost all national survey estimates indicate that defensive gun uses by victims are at least as common as offensive uses by criminals, with estimates of annual uses ranging from about 500,000 to more than 3 million per year (Kleck, 2001a), in the context of about 300,000 violent crimes involving firearms in 2008 (BJS, 2010). On the other hand, some scholars point to radically lower estimate of only 108,000 annual defensive uses based on the National Crime Victimization Survey (Cook et al., 1997). The variation in these numbers remains a controversy in the field. The estimate of 3 million defensive uses per year is based on an extrapolation from a small number of responses taken from more than 19 national surveys. The former estimate of 108,000 is difficult to interpret because respondents were not asked specifically about defensive gun use.
A spokesperson for the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council would not comment on Kleck's controversial presence on the committee, but explained that the committee was selected by staff based on "folks that are nominated" with an eye toward providing "enough expertise to address all of the questions" at issue as well as "these different perspectives and points of view with the expertise." She stressed that the slate was approved by the president of the National Academy of Science and that all members must sign off on the report before its release.
Kleck and Leshner did not respond to requests for comment.