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“Eight-Gate” and Political Profiling (Updated)

John on March 12, 2007 at 3:27 pm

Update: NewsBusters has a helpful media analysis of Eight-gate, which notes:

Attorney General Janet Reno fired all 93 U.S. attorneys, a very unusual practice. Republicans charged the Clintonites made the move to take U.S. Attorney Jay Stephens off the House Post Office investigation of Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski. The network response: ABC and CBS never mentioned it. CNN’s World News and NBC Nightly News provided brief mentions, with only NBC noting the Rosty angle. Only NBC’s Garrick Utley kept the old outrage, declaring in a March 27 “Final Thoughts” comment: “Every new President likes to say `Under me, it’s not going to be politics as usual.’ At the Justice Department, it looks as if it still is.”

That was then, I guess.

[End Update]

The left wing of the blogoshpere is gearing up for another Fitzmas-level scandal. This one involves the firing of eight US attorneys by the Department of Justice. Over at HuffPost, Arianna is already comparing “Eight-gate” to Watergate (And, for the record, I am coining “eight-gate” and expect a nickel for everytime it is repeated on the internet).

Support for the idea that BushCo have turned Justice into a political witch hunt is being provided by this unpublished study. The claim being made by authors Donald C. Shields and John F. Cragan is that US Attorneys investigate Democrats seven times as often as they do Republicans. Here’s how they put it:

We compare political profiling to racial profiling by presenting the results (January 2001 through December 2006) of the U.S. Attorneys’ federal investigation and/or indictment of 375 elected officials. The distribution of party affiliation of the sample is compared to the available normative data (50% Dem, 41% GOP, and 9% Ind.).

This claim was picked up by TPM Muckracker and is now making the rounds. It hit the big time when Paul Krugman wrote a about it on March 9th for the NY Times (Times select). Today, Instapundit guest blogger Tom Maguire noted that Krugman’s exceprt of the study’s results (the same as the excerpt above) was being cited by other lefty blogs. Maguire suggests we’re likely to see a lot more of this. I concur.

And since that’s the case, we might as well know what we’re dealing with. First off, the authors of this study are both professors of communications, not law, criminology or even statistics. It’s also worth noting that Donald C. Shields is a Democrat. He donated $250 to Claire McCaskill in 2006. He also stated his lifelong affiliation to reporter Michael Smerconish of the Philadelphia Inquirer, saying:

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘political bent,’ ” he said. “I guess I kind of believe in the Amendments to the Constitution. … I’m a lifelong Democrat.”

Professor John Cragan of Illinois State has no record of donating to any candidate left or right. If anything can be know about his political leanings it can probably be gleaned from quotes contained in the study itself. For instance, here’s the first line of the summary available online:

Our ongoing study of the Bush Justice Department (to be published in 2008) investigates the implications of the Bush/Ashcroft/Gonzales Justice Department’s blended religious -fundamentalist and neo-conservative rhetorical vision.

The study itself hasn’t been published in full, only a few charts and conclusions on this page. There is a note saying that it will be published in 2008, but no specific periodical is mentioned. Commenter Brett Bellmore noted over at the Obsidian Wings blog, the “study” only looks at data from 2001-2006. Obviously it’s a bit difficult to claim that the numbers add up to a new conspiracy when there is no baseline for comparison. What were the numbers under previous administrations and how do they compare? We don’t know because the authors weren’t interested in that data.

Furthermore, there is some question about the reliability of the data itself. Here again I’ll return to work done by reporter Michael Smerconish of the Philadelphia Inquirer:

I asked Shields about his methodology. How did he arrive at the conclusion that the Bush administration targets Democrats?

It seems the research done by Shields, or Cragan, or both consisted of simply hitting the Search button on Google.

Specifically, their work consisted of a tabulation of the number of times the words or phrases federal grand jury or public corruption AND elected produced a result, along with “a census search of extant press releases available at each U.S. Attorney’s Office official Web site.” The names of Democrats come up far more often than those of Republicans.

From that, he asks us to believe that Democrats are investigated disproportionately and presumably unfairly.

I question the conclusion because of what is not addressed, namely:

What about investigations that never get media coverage (and thus don’t get on Google)? Grand jury proceedings are by definition secret, so we can never know the true extent of what’s really going on.

What about the disparity of media coverage between large and small towns? The Inquirer covers Philadelphia like a glove – but local outlets may be less well-equipped to look into secret or putative investigations of their local leaders. This is an important point because investigations often are sparked off by media reports in the first place.

What about the disparity in Internet participation among newspapers? Same here. Many good investigative stories in local papers don’t make it to the Web and therefore don’t make it to Google.

Where is the confirmation of actual investigations? Shields and Cragan got some of their data from U.S. Attorneys’ office press releases, but evidently never called those offices back to check their figures.

Why not address actual prosecutions, not just simplistic media coverage of investigations? Granted, Sprague’s claim, and the study it’s based on, concern investigations, but it’s the cases that make it to the prosecution stage where the rubber meets the road.

Most important, what about actual convictions? (See above.)

And – dare I say? – it is theoretically possible that sometimes the conduct of members of one party may warrant more investigation than that of another?

In other words, this study isn’t tracking who gets investigated or who gets prosecuted, it’s tracking media coverage on Google. I’m not saying this method has no value, but we probably need to get a lot more specific before we start demanding Karl Rove’s head on a platter (…again).

All in all, this study reminds me of the Lancet study on civilian deaths in Iraq. That one used shoddy methodology to reach a pre-determined political conclusion. Whether or not that turns out to be the case here, time will tell. In the meantime, expect more talk of “Eight-gate” and further expect “political profiling” to become the left’s new buzzword.

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