It’s Time To Enact a “Truth in Academic Research” Communications Industry Labeling Law

Too many academics and scholars are part of the communications industry lobbying complex. In Congress and at the FCC, academic testimony and filings from scholars support the arguments of industry. Such scholarly contributions are meant to provide a patina of respectability for policy positions that ultimately undermine the interests of the broad public at large.

These scholars seldom reveal that either they or their academic institution have received handsome grants or other funding from the very interests that their research politically supports. They are treated with respect because our society still views academics as dispassionate and scientifically-focused investigators. But instead of being impressed with a Ph.D. or an academic appointment at a prestigious university, the first question policymakers should ask scholars is: “are either you or your institution receiving money from any of the vested commercial interests involved in this issue.”

Take for example “senior research fellow” Dr. Jerry Ellig from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.” Dr. Ellig has recently testified before Congress and filed at the FCC on the issue of local cable franchising. The good doctor finds that local franchising is a wasteful practice, costs consumers billions “in higher prices,” is unnecessary, and that there should be stringent limits on the number of local public service channels provided a community.” Prof. Ellig cited the “careful and independent analysis employing contemporary economic scholarship” he used in developing his submission to the FCC. Ellig’s work is, of course, highly beneficial to the telephone lobby. Right now AT&T, Verizon and others are working to destroy the role local government can play in any oversight of broadband communications.

But Prof. Ellig failed to acknowledge, in his written testimony and FCC filing, that his own Mercatus Center was the recent recipient (2005) of a $100,000 grant from SBC (now AT&T). He also did not acknowledge that SBC has also provided generous support to George Mason University itself. Nor did he list the other financial support Mercatus receives that links it to a variety of think-tanks and non-profit groups that also receive telephone industry support (and also advocate on its behalf). Perhaps the Prof. absent-mindly forgot to mention that his university was also the recipient of a generous gift from Verizon to build the “Verizon Auditorium” on its campus. Finally, perhaps too he should have added in a footnote that his Mercatus Center’s website highlights how “special” donors can participate at the “exclusive Founders Circle Retreat held each spring.” Among the past events for this exclusive club was a talk by former Congressman J.C Watts, an advisor to SBC.

That’s why policymakers should really insist on full disclosure. Professional academic organizations should enforce a code of conduct that requires scholars to be forthright about any financial ties. As an ever-growing number of astro-turf, front-groups, and “unaffiliated” scholars ply their trade in DC and elsewhere, one should ask: Pardon me. Please show me your funding.

Author: jeff

Jeff Chester is executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy. A former journalist and filmmaker, Jeff's book on U.S. electronic media politics, entitled "Digital Destiny: New Media and the Future of Democracy" was published by The New Press in January 2007. He is now working on a new book about interactive advertising and the public interest.

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