News in Itself: Backlash Against Heritage Foundation Report Makes Journal’s Front Page

May 9th, 2013 · 1 Comment · Fact Check, immigration, Uncategorized

By Denise Tessier

What, to a longtime reader, could have been more astonishing than finding in the Albuquerque Journal a news story containing criticism about the Heritage Foundation? Answer: Seeing that wire service story on the Journal’s front page – and then seeing the Journal follow it up with its own staff-generated report the next day, again on the front page.

To the longtime reader, the sightings were incongruous because for decades the Journal has run Heritage Foundation columns (without questioning them) and availed itself of the conservative think tank’s agenda-based “expertise” when preparing news stories.

But in this highly unusual case, national criticism of the Heritage Foundation’s financial analysis of a bipartisan Senate immigration bill was too big to downplay – its newsworthiness buttressed by the fact that much of the criticism of the report comes from members of the political party that once was in step with Heritage Foundation views, and even from fellow think tanks.

As the Associated Press story carried by the Journal Tuesday (May 7) put it, the report “laid bare splits within the Republican Party. “

Part of what captured critics’ attention was the report’s huge cost estimates (the American Prospect cutely reported Heritage’s dollar estimates as “eleventy bazillion” in one blog post and as a “gajillion feptillion bazillion” in another).

Heritage actually claimed the pending immigration bill would cost taxpayers a “lifetime fiscal deficit” of more than $9 trillion (over the next 50 years), resulting in a net expense of $6.3 trillion after deducting $3 trillion the new immigrants reportedly would generate paying taxes.

“This study is designed to try to scare conservative Republicans into thinking the cost here is going to be so gigantic that you can’t possibly be for it,” former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour was quoted in the AP as saying. Barbour, a Republican who’s part of a task force with the nonprofit Bipartisan Policy Center that supports the bill, added:

The Heritage Foundation document is a political document; it’s not a very serious analysis.

The AP story offered some insight into the Heritage Foundation’s seemingly sudden vulnerability to criticism.

It said the current report is a reprisal of a 2007 report issued by Heritage “at the height of the last congressional debate on immigration.” That report’s estimated cost of $2.6 trillion was also disputed, but “carried weight with Republicans and helped lead to the legislation’s eventual defeat in the Senate.”  According to the AP (my emphasis added):

This time, supporters of the bill are determined not to let opponents wrest control of the debate. Anticipating Heritage’s release of its new report, bill supporters responded quickly with conference calls and talking points criticizing its methodology and the foundation’s agenda.

Among those joining the Republicans in criticizing the Heritage were a number of fellow think tanks, including the Cato Institute, whose Alex Nowrasteh had criticized the 2007 report as “so flawed” one could not take its conclusions seriously. This week, Nowrasteh wrote a scathing piece, saying:

Unfortunately, their updated version differs little from their earlier one.

I’m joined in this view by a host of prominent free-marketeers. Jim Pethokoukis at AEI (American Enterprise Institute), Doug Holtz-Eakin at American Action Forum, Tim Kane at the Hudson Institute, and others have all denounced the fundamentals of the Heritage report.

Nowrasteh countered Heritage’s report with research by Professor Raul Hinojosa-Ojeda of UCLA, whose paper for Cato last year found “that immigration reform would increase U.S. GDP by $1.5 trillion in the ten years after enactment.”

Conversely, he said Hinojosa-Ojeda examined the economic impact of the policy favored by Heritage – “the removal or exit of all unauthorized immigrants” – and found:

The economic result would be a $2.6 trillion decrease in estimated GDP growth over the next decade. That confirms the common-sense observation that removing workers, consumers, investors, and entrepreneurs from America’s economy will make us poorer.

The Journal’s Washington reporter, Michael Coleman, brought Heritage report coverage home to New Mexico by reporting on testimony before the congressional Joint Economic Committee, of which Sen. Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., is a member. Coleman’s story  — the second Page One piece on the topic in the Journal — quoted Grover Norquist, founder of Americans for tax Reform, as testifying that Heritage’s report was flawed because it included costs of immigrants with legal status already in the country.

Professional that he is, Coleman sought a response from Heritage and got an email reply from Jason Richwine, senior policy analyst at the think tank and co-author of the immigration report, who said:

Legal adult residents are removed from the illegal households when calculating the benefits. Citizen children of illegals (sic) are included in the cost calculations because they would not be here in the absence of illegal immigration.

(Note Richwine’s use of the term “illegals” to describe immigrants. )

Aside from Richwine’s choice of words, Richwine has personally drawn negative attention this week, as both the Washington Post and The Atlantic published stories about Richwine’s 2009 doctoral dissertation entitled “IQ and Immigration,” in which he asserted that:

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.

The Atlantic’s story was updated with an email response from Heritage vice president of communications Mike Gonzalez, who said of Richwine’s controversial dissertion: “This is not a work product of The Heritage Foundation. Its findings in no way reflect the positions of The Heritage Foundation. Nor do the findings affect the conclusions of our study on the cost of amnesty to the U.S. taxpayer.”

Then on Wednesday, Media Matters pointed out Richwine’s ties to extremist anti-immigration groups.

Only in recent years have readers been made aware of the influence of “think tanks” and “policy analysts” like Richwine in shaping public policy through the media.

Framed by the immigration story, the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza this week posted a summary of Heritage Foundation history that explains this influence and how the Heritage Foundation’s reputation has fallen in the last six years, this after decades of enjoying policy and media domination since its founding in 1973. Some excerpts (my emphasis added):

For much of its history, Heritage fashioned itself as a quasi-academic institution. Its specialty was providing serious policy ideas to Republican legislators and Presidents. There was always a political component to its work, but during the Reagan years, Heritage gained a reputation as an intellectual powerhouse.

Rather than looking to universities, as they had in the 1960s, in the 1980s, “Governments in search of advice looked to think tanks such as the Institute of Economic Affairs in Britain and the Heritage Foundation in the United States, rather than to Oxford or Harvard,” the New Yorker said, quoting an article from the Economist in 1993. Add newspapers, including the Journal, to the list of those eager to use whatever the Heritage Foundation chose to disseminate.

Again from the New Yorker’s Lizza:

In 2007, as the immigration debate began, (co-founder Edwin J.) Feulner officially changed Heritage’s focus. . . . (and) proposed transforming Heritage from a genteel place that provided sound policy to a pressure group that would enforce conservative orthodoxy. . . .

The 2007 attack on the immigration bill was Heritage’s first foray with its newly aggressive posture. It started advertising on conservative radio—Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh—and four years later, Feulner started Heritage Action for America, a lobbying group that hoped to force Republican lawmakers to adopt Heritage ideas.

Since then, the group has become a major source of irritation to Republican leaders. Earlier this year, an aide to Majority Leader Eric Cantor told me House Republicans were often exasperated with how difficult the group made their jobs. . . . Heritage’s transformation from a boring Washington policy shop to a populist pressure group was completed in January, when (former Sen. Jim) DeMint took over.

DeMint no doubt hoped that this week, when Heritage released its updated version of the 2007 report, the document would have a similar impact on the immigration debate. Instead, something very different happened: Republican officials and conservative writers tore the report to shreds, criticizing it for its shoddy analysis and intellectual dishonesty.

Lizza says the Heritage report and the reaction to it “was a major event on the road to immigration reform”:

The overwhelming majority of the conservative movement has been united in opposition to the Obama agenda. But on immigration reform, something very unusual is happening. The Republican elite has decided to take on the grassroots of the party in a battle that will undoubtedly redound to Obama’s benefit.

The Journal has been covering this split in the GOP consistently. I often marvel at how well the Senate’s minority party manages to generate publicity and dominate headlines day after day. Case in point: The April 28 article on A5 headlined “Some say immigration ‘reform’ bad for GOP” was an analysis (not marked as such) and not a news story, positing that “the party must support more liberal immigration laws if it’s to be more competitive in presidential elections.” It carried a photo of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., and Rubio’s quotes from an interview he did with Limbaugh, positing Rubio as a supporter of the bipartisan immigration approach. Talk about milking the media.

The Journal had already run photos of Rubio and fellow presidential possible Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., atop a March 15 page with a story headlined “GOP goes looking for new leadership, image: Party weary of losses at polls,” then really gave Paul a boost when it ran his photo again March 20 at the top of A2, this time with Paul weighing in on immigration (“Tea party favorite favors ‘probationary status’. . .”).

But that’s an aside.

The important lesson for readers is to be aware of the influence of think tanks and to be guarded when it comes to the source of information reported in the media, whether in the Journal or elsewhere.

The American Prospect put it well in the article “When Bad Intentions Meet Bad Data”:

. . . every day, think tanks and advocacy groups produce reports and studies that are intended to move public policy in their authors’ favored direction. It’s important to know where the authors are coming from, not because it allows you to dismiss them, but because it alerts you to where you should be on your guard.

Does this mean the Journal will refrain from running Heritage Foundation columns on its opinion pages? Unlikely, because as we’ve pointed out on JournalWatch, the Journal will run just about anything to fill page space, even if it’s incorrect, or propaganda.

Readers, meanwhile, must remain on guard.



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One Comment so far ↓

  • Cheryl Everett

    “That’s one small step” for the Journal …. which then “taketh away by burying on Page A-5 of today’s edition a story in which the diplomat-source of Banghazi “coverup” charges noted that Hillary Clinton had nothing to do with the alleged coverup.

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