The liberals are speaking, the liberals are speaking!

A conservative group complains about leftist bias in college commencement speakers, but its methodology could use a little work.


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Alex Koppelman
June 1, 2007 11:20PM (UTC)

Where, oh, where won't those insidious leftists strike next?

The Drudge Report and the conservative Washington Times are both highlighting a new study from the conservative Young America's Foundation, which purports to show that, in the words of spokesman Jason Mattera, "college administrators are using commencement ceremonies to send their students off with one more predictable leftist lecture." And while it does appear to be true that more liberals spoke at commencement this year than conservatives, just a cursory look at YAF's study shows that the disparity is nowhere near as wide as the group pretends.

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YAF lists 49 speakers as being a "liberal activist, Democratic Party official, and/or representative of the old, liberal media," compared with just eight who are a "Republican Party official, conservative activist, and/or representative of the new media." (Some of the people on the list are speaking twice this year, and are for the most part counted as such.)

But that tally is laughably skewed. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, for instance, is listed as a liberal -- he's a Republican.

Beyond that, there are many people who, at least judging by the YAF's stated reasons for including them on the list, don't even fit the YAF's stated criteria.

There are, for example, the two people who apparently made the list of liberals solely for their support of affirmative action. And there's Columbia University president Lee Bollinger, who is on the list for not punishing students involved in an incident in which they disrupted a speech by the anti-immigration Minutemen harshly enough, as well as Duke University president Richard Broadhead, who was counted because he didn't do enough to stand up to "leftist professors and racists, including Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, [who] accuse[d] members of the Duke lacrosse team of rape." Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute president Shirley Ann Jackson (at one point incorrectly referred to as president of the University of Rochester), on the list as speaking twice this year, is included for praising Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton -- when, YAF neglects to mention, Clinton was speaking at the school -- and supporting affirmative action.

Then there are the people who have clearly been invited for nonpolitical reasons, but have been counted because of some liberal misdeed, like Microsoft CEO Bill Gates, on the list for donating to causes "including gun control ballot and tax hike initiatives as well as 'family planning and reproductive health' organizations"; YouTube co-founder Jawed Karim, for having once signed a petition calling for divestment from Israel; Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, a pioneer in microcredit, because he criticized President Bush and said "the military response to terrorism is not a solution"; businesswoman Elizabeth Van Ella, for making contributions to two Democratic politicians in 1996 for a total of $500; actor Paul Reiser, for having contributed to Democrats; and businessman James T. Stephens, for giving money to former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean.

And of course, since belief in man-made global warming must be a liberal position, there are the people who made the list just for that reason, like John Doerr, a venture capitalist who cried when discussing the subject; Ralph Cicerone, president of the National Academy of Sciences; and Jared Diamond, professor and author of "Guns, Germs and Steel," for "strongly believ[ing] in the leftist positions of overpopulation and man-induced global warming."

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The YAF also counted every representative of "old" media as liberal, which, admittedly, it stated upfront as part of its criteria. Some, like New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, former PBS anchor Bill Moyers and "Meet the Press" host Tim Russert -- who did once work for former Democratic New York Gov. Mario Cuomo -- we'll give them. But other representatives of "old" media, CNN anchors Wolf Blitzer and Soledad O'Brien, NBC News anchor Brian Williams and former ABC News anchor Ted Koppel, seem like padding.

And finally, the YAF counted some people as neutral when they are in fact clearly conservative. There's conservative Newsweek columnist and editor Fareed Zakaria. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Zakaria was the only member of the "old" media not listed as liberal.) There are also four current or former Bush administration appointees, though they admittedly don't fall under the YAF's criteria for determining conservatives; but then, neither does Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who is counted as a conservative. And then, amazingly, there's former President George H.W. Bush -- though he appears to have not been included as conservative because he was speaking with former President Clinton, who was counted as a liberal elsewhere. So we'll add one to each of the conservative and liberal tallies there. YAF also counted novelist John Grisham as neutral; we'll lend it a hand and count him as liberal -- he's a former Democratic politician.

So what's our tally? Well, sticking strictly to the YAF's own criteria, counting anyone from the "old" media except Zakaria as liberal, and leaving out the Bush administration appointees -- including Gates -- we count 36 liberals and nine conservatives. Where the YAF presents a ratio of roughly six liberals for every conservative, when we follow its criteria our ratio is roughly four liberals to every conservative. When we add back in the conservatives who clearly should have been counted as such based on whom the YAF actually counted, we get 36 liberals to 14 conservatives, for a ratio of roughly 2.5-to-1.

The republic is probably safe. For now.

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Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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