Accuracy in Media

One way to detect liberal bias in the media is to monitor coverage of new scholarship on early American history or the founding fathers. When new historical findings are supportive of the media’s liberal agenda, the New York Times or New York Review of Books will promote these prominently in an effort to influence the public debate. If the subject relates to an issue hotly debated in the political arena, the author is assured of publicity in the nation’s most influential publications.

On the subject of gun control, for example, both the Times and the New York Review of Books promoted Emory University associate professor Michael Bellesiles’ Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture. The Times was covering Bellesiles’ book months before it was published, citing gun control advocates as saying that the book “may change the terms of the debate.” Bellesiles’ research challenged the widely held belief that gun ownership had been commonplace in early America; in fact, he claimed that records of the era show that no more than ten percent of the total population owned guns at any time before 1850. Bellesiles said that gun ownership did not become popular with Americans until the Civil War.

His findings were used to undercut interpretations of the Second Amendment that rely on early America’s gun ownership as proof that the founding fathers meant the amendment to apply to an individual’s, and not just a state militia’s, right to bear arms. The Times assigned Garry Wills to review of the book; he lavished praise on it and the Times put his review on the front page of its Sunday book review section. Wills wrote that Bellesiles had “dispersed the darkness” and dispelled our deepest “superstition” about the role of guns in American history. Bellesiles won the Bancroft prize?the most prestigious in American history scholarship. His book was on its way to influencing court cases on the meaning of the Second Amendment, particularly a bitterly contested federal appeals case in Texas.

The book could not withstand the scrutiny of other academics when they checked his scholarship and research. His footnotes could not be verified. He misused historical records, and some records he cited had been destroyed. The Times finally got around to reporting that Bellesiles was under fire about a year late and then in an article buried in its Saturday edition. The Times focused mostly on the hate mail and harassment Bellesiles received and implied that the campaign had been started by the National Rifle Association. It did air criticisms of the book by other scholars, but Bellesiles told the Times that his research materials had been destroyed in a flood and that, anyway, the portions of his book under fire weren’t really central to his overall thesis. Despite lots of academic posturing, Bellesiles still has his Bancroft prize and he is still a member in good standing of Emory’s history faculty. Obviously, Bellesiles picked the right topic on which to fudge the facts.

Now comes another new book that examines America’s historical experience about another hot button issue in contemporary politics. Professor Philip Hamburger, a legal scholar at the University of Chicago, published his book, Separation of Church and State, just days after the San Francisco-based Ninth Court of Appeals struck down schools’ use of the Pledge of Allegiance because of the phrase “under God,” and the Supreme Court found that school vouchers do not violate the separation doctrine. Hamburger’s research overturns the long-held belief that Thomas Jefferson enshrined the doctrine in the Constitution; instead the doctrine grew out of nativist objections in the years before the Civil War to government support for Catholic schools in New York City. In fact, the doctrine of separation of church and state owes more to the Ku Klux Klan than to Jefferson or the American Civil Liberties Union, according to Hamburger. Late in the 19th Century, the Klan made anti-Catholicism part of its central nativist creed, which continued into the 1920s when the Klan was known in the mid-West more for its anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic positions than its hatred for African-Americans..

However unpalatable such findings might be to the Times’ and other liberal opinion makers, to its credit the Times has discussed Prof. Hamburger’s startling findings. Not on its front pages or prominently displayed in its Sunday book review section, however. The Times’ only mention of the book, thus far, came in a Saturday piece in its Metropolitan section two days after the Fourth of July. Hamburger clearly picked the wrong topic.

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