Friday, March 30, 2007

Political profiling?

Somehat apropos to the prosecutor firing flap, a study updated last month by University of Minnesota graduates (and now communications professors) Donald Shields and John Cragan uncovered an interesting data point: The Justice Department has investigated or indicted seven times as many Democratic elected officials as Republicans during the Bush administration. That's out of a pool of officials that is 50 percent Democratic, 41 percent Republicans and 9 percent independent.

Dig a little deeper, and that startling number only holds true for local officials. There's no apparent bias in investigations of statewide and federal officeholders, and overall Democrats get investigated four times as often, not seven.

The researchers postulate that media scrutiny explains the difference. Investigations of prominent officials get attention and thus must be more defensible; investigations of local officials tend to fly under the radar, being covered in a fragmented fashion by local press with no reference to the overall picture.

It would be instructive, of course, to run the same numbers for previous administrations. A certain amount of bias is almost unavoidable, given the political nature of U.S. attorney appointments. But a sevenfold (or even fourfold) difference certainly seems excessive at first blush.

Before jumping all over this factoid, however, perhaps some skepticism of the methodology is in order. David Frum has a go at debunking the study, citing Michael Smerconish, a columnist at the Philadelphia Inquirer who claims the "study" was little more than a tabulation of Google search results.

But his criticisms, while worthwhile, don't do a very good job of explaining why an essentially random search method would come up with seven times as many investigations of Democrats as of Republicans. He makes a good case that the methodology probably misses or miscounts cases; he offers no reason to think that those missing cases would involve disproportionatly Republican defendants.

But don't stop there. A much more thorough debunking is available over at Stubborn Facts, including a reply to Smerconish by the study's authors.

All in all, I'd be skeptical of the claims. The methodology clearly has some holes in it, starting with the rather nonrigorous definition of "investigation". That did not stop the authors from making broad claims based on the data, which should raise alarm bells about their credibility -- because either they don't know how flawed the data are, or they don't care. There might be a kernel of something here, but it requires some serious fleshing out and analysis before we can state anything conclusive.

(H/T: The Moderate Voice)

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Should the investigations happen according to the proportion of the democrats, repubs and independents?
I think we are looking at it the wrong way.
The right way would be to let the attorneys to do their job, not interfere with them and let the numbers take care of themselves.
And more than anything else, the right way would be for congress , irrespective of party affiliation, not let the pres. and cronies to come up with "political hit" jobs on career attorneys
GK

3/30/2007 3:32 PM  
Blogger Sean Aqui said...

Should the investigations happen according to the proportion of the democrats, repubs and independents?

No, of course not. If you accept the conclusions of the study, though, the point would be that the numbers are so out of whack they cannot possibly be "natural."

And more than anything else, the right way would be for congress , irrespective of party affiliation, not let the pres. and cronies to come up with "political hit" jobs on career attorneys.

Given how well the current firings have gone over, I think it's safe to say that you will not see another such move for a long, long time.

3/30/2007 3:37 PM  

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