Journal Sentinel: STATS not as impartial as it claims

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel‘s Susanne Rust and Meg Kissinger make the case that George Mason University-affiliated STATS, a media watchdog group that calls itself a “non-profit, non-partisan Statistical Assessment Service” actually has “a history of working for corporations trying to deflect concerns about the safety of their products.” They note that the organization contracted with Philip Morris at least twice to monitor news coverage on behalf of tobacco companies.

plastic-bottle

Photo by How can I recycle this via Flickr

STATS recently accused the media in general and the Journal Sentinel in particular of using sketchy science to over-inflate fears about bisphenol A. As Rust and Kissinger mention, “Gina Kolata of The New York Times and the Center for Health Care Journalists [sic]” repeated STATS’ claims of impartiality when writing about its report on BPA.

Rust’s and Kissinger’s research about STATS turned up documents, including an internal memo outlining Phillip Morris’ strategy for using STATS reports for their own PR purposes.

Rust and Kissinger also found that, while STATS does not disclose its donors, IRS documents showed that “the Sarah Scaife Foundation reported giving STATS $100,000 in 2007, an amount that equaled all of STATS’ assets – except for $435 in income interest. The Scaife Foundation funds a number of organizations that promote public policy against regulation, including the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Cato Institute.”

The reporters also chronicle an odd little incident in which they noticed that STATS listed the Hormone Society as a contributor on their Web site, a relationship which the foundation’s director vehemently denies.

Finally, reporters presented an interesting quote posted on the Poynter Institute’s Web site by STATS editor Trevor Butterworth, who they describe as “BPA’s fiercest advocate.”

“Forget conventional PR! If some bratty journalist gives you a whack, whack back with obscene, jaw dropping disproportion: knee him in the groin, pull what’s left of his hair out, tell him he writes in clichés, and misuses the semicolon, and stomp on his iPhone! A hack is like a bully, and charming a bully is a bit like reasoning with a psychopath or writing a novel on Twitter. For the tough cases, go Dada.  . . .  Defending the brand means exacting respect and that will come from fear not charm.”

Update

STATS has responded to the Journal Sentinel‘s article, including a specific note about the use of Butterworth’s quote from the Poynter Institute’s Web site.

One thought on “Journal Sentinel: STATS not as impartial as it claims

  1. Robert S. Pezzolesi, MPH

    Kudos to Rust and Kissinger for a well-researched and trenchant article.

    Those of us working toward evidence-based public health policy – and whose issues intersect with the business and consumer spheres – have long realized that STATS is, functionally, a front group for corporate interests. Unfortunately, their proficiency in self-promotion and public relations has enabled them to brand themselves as a kind of “FactCheck.org of statistics” in some circles.

    In reality, their key staff members have no expertise in epidemiological or etiological analysis – the disciplines at the core of many of the issues on which they opine. Furthermore, as the Journal Sentinel reported, STATS’ claims to neutrality belie that their funding comes almost exclusively from the corporate libertarian/right-wing. Their analyses nearly invariably come down on the side of business against consumer/environmental/public health groups. I would note, also, that Dr. Lichter’s rejoinder to the Journal Sentinel article sidesteps the issue of funding. Ridicule may be an effective PR technique, but it is not rational argument. Funding does impact analysis, as several studies of pharmaceutical research (as well as tobacco, alcohol, etc.) have demonstrated.

    Incidentally, I highly recommend the Denialism Blog as a guide to how groups of this nature operate.

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