Analysis

U-M Research Guide Leans Left On ‘Fake News’ And Media Bias

Watching academia's taxpayer-funded media watchers

A visitor to the online store of Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) would find three books and one DVD highlighted for sale to support the self-described media watchdog’s operations.

The books are titled: “Blowing the Roof Off the Twenty-First Century Media, Politics, and the Struggle for Post-Capitalist Democracy”; “The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly”; and “The Way Things Aren’t: Rush Limbaugh’s Reign of Error.” The DVD is titled, “Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism.” All express a strong left-of-center viewpoint.

FAIR calls itself the national progressive media watchdog group that challenges misinformation.

Yet, the University of Michigan’s efforts to educate people about what constitutes legitimate news sites directs people to FAIR as a valid source for trying to detect bias in media.

The advice appears on a website, focusing on news sources, that was created by the University of Michigan’s library staff, in a module called “‘Fake News’ and Misinformation.” The page also promotes other “watchdog and fact-checking sites” that one media expert claims are actually partisan or have a liberal bias. These include The Washington Post, Snopes.com, and Politifact.com, among others.

The U-M site also links to a controversial list of “false, misleading” news sites that include some prominent conservative outlets. The list is the product of Melissa Zimdars, a Merrimack College professor who is a supporter of socialist politician Bernie Sanders and once tweeted that she would like Oprah Winfrey to be the next president.

For example, Zimdars branded CNSNews and Breitbart as “unreliable” and biased and said PJ Media was biased. But left-leaning sites such as Huffington Post and Vox were not included in the spreadsheet’s evaluation of news sites.

University of Michigan spokesman Alan Pinon stated that the librarians created the guide to “help students navigate the vast resources of the U-M Library.”

“This particular one is centered on helping students understand news media related resources,” Pinon said in an email. “The news sources section is primarily focused on the resources the students can access through the library, as well as suggested resources for students studying the news media.”

Timothy Groseclose, a professor of economics at George Mason University who has studied the impact of media bias on elections, said he wasn’t familiar with all the website that the U-M library guide links to.

“But of the ones with which I’m familiar, I’d say that all lean left,” Groseclose said. “No way would I direct my students, or any other people, to that web site. … Further, the website, it appears to me, promotes a partisan — specifically liberal/progressive — agenda. If the voters of the state of Michigan knew their tax money was paying for this, I don’t think they’d be too happy.”

Groseclose, who did a study on bias in the media while he was a professor at UCLA, questioned why U-M would allow librarians to put together such a site.

“Usually when a university tries to provide information to the public, it relies on its professors,” Groseclose said in an email. "After all, they’re the ones who’ve earned Ph.D.s, published in peer-reviewed journals, and generally become experts on a subject. That site is run by staff members at U. of Michigan, specifically its librarians. I have a hunch that the leaders of the university are not fully aware of this. And I have a feeling that many professors at the U. of Michigan would not be too happy with this.”

The list of hundreds of websites that Zimdars compiled includes many that are unambiguously “fake news” or “hate speech.” But alongside these are other sites that do legitimate reporting with a forthright conservative or center-right point of view. And notably, similar sites with a center-left point of view are not included.

So for example, Zimdars calls out The Daily Caller news site with the labels “political,” “clickbait,” and “bias.” Analogous websites that are forthrightly left-leaning — like The Huffington Post, BuzzFeed or Vox — are not included on her list and so escape the tarnish of being batched together with what all sides agree are genuinely bad actors.

“I think what’s problematic is when the people doing the determining are themselves biased and, as this resource indicates, not very media literate,” said Geoffrey Ingersoll, editor-in-chief of The Daily Caller.

“I’ve run two newspapers. I have a master’s in journalism from New York University. I’ve reported on the ground in Iraq, Afghanistan. I’ve been on staff in newsrooms ranging from CNN and NY Daily News to Business Insider and Marine Corps Times,” Ingersoll said in an email. “I find these kinds of passive-aggressive categorizations happen frequently, are usually superficially applied, and more often than not, spring primarily from a source of political disagreement than any kind of legitimate or objective analysis. There’s no doubt in my mind that many of these sites on this list are garbage and, it appears to me, academics are attempting to use a tidal wave of bull[****] to sully the reputations of what few conservative sites that do actually report real news.”

In June, the state Legislature passed an appropriation bill that grants the University of Michigan $320.7 million state tax dollars in the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1, 2018.