Why is the media rehabilitating John Lott?

The pro-gun economist was discredited in the early 2000s, but TV news -- even PBS -- still takes him seriously

Topics: Guns, Gun Control, John Lott, PBS, Journalism,

Why is the media rehabilitating John Lott?

In the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, one man has represented the pro-gun argument in the media perhaps more than anyone else: John Lott. Lott, an economist who first lent credence to the argument that the answer to gun violence is more guns, was a major presence in the gun control debate of the past two decades, before being sidelined by controversy. So his reappearance on TV news programs in the wake of the shooting is surprising.

Here’s what critics say about him. Lott held prestigious positions at Yale and the University of Chicago, where he published his groundbreaking book, “More Guns, Less Crime.” In the early 2000s, his work fell into controversy for employing what some academic critics termed “junk science” and for various apparently fatal methodological flaws. Later, he was unable to prove the existence of a study central to his thesis. He was also caught using a fake “sockpuppet” persona to defend his work and attack his critics online. “In most circles, this goes down as fraud,” Donald Kennedy, the then-editor of the prestigious journal Science wrote in an editorial. Even Michelle Malkin said Lott had shown an “extensive willingness to deceive to protect and promote his work.”

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There were other controversies as well, such as the case of the mysterious missing table and the claim that 50 percent of black Republican votes in Florida were rejected. Eventually, even the conservative American Enterprise Institute apparently was not a good fit for him, as he left that gig in 2006, which he had taken after leaving academia. He now has no academic affiliation and is a general conservative commentator.

Yet in the wake of the shooting, the media has turned to him as an expert, and often failed to caveat his arguments by mentioning the controversy surrounding his work. Since the shooting, he’s appeared on CNN at least three times, done numerous radio interviews, and most disappointingly, appeared on the ”NewsHour” on PBS.

“NewsHour” is perhaps the finest news program on television and is well respected by people whose respect you would want (full disclosure: It also gave me my first internship in Washington), but it was a lapse in judgment to bring Lott into the program so uncritically. On CNN, at least, he went toe-to-toe with hosts Piers Morgan and Soledad O’Brien, who challenged his thesis and methodology. The “NewsHour” interview, however, was characteristically civil and credulous.

“John Lott has been a prominent voice in the gun rights debate, arguing against further restrictions. He’s an economist and the author of ‘More Guns, Less Crime,’” was anchor Ray Suarez’ introduction of Lott. He appeared with Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at UCLA who is also skeptical of the effectiveness of gun control. Lott and Winkler were both key sources in Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent article in the Atlantic making “The Case for More Guns.”

Even Fox News, which employs Lott as a contributor and generally has significantly lower standards than “NewsHour,” appears to have avoided booking him or commissioning him to write Op-Eds on its website it the wake of the shooting.

News program should be free to bring on whomever they want to interview — there’s no value to viewers in censoring certain guests by keeping them off the air. But, if you choose to bring on someone like Lott, who has been so thoroughly questioned by his peers, broadcast journalists owe it to their audience to give all the pertinent information, or at the very least, challenge the arguments the guests are making, so they may better make up their own minds.

Alex Seitz-Wald

Alex Seitz-Wald is Salon's political reporter. Email him at aseitz-wald@salon.com, and follow him on Twitter @aseitzwald.

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