There is such a thing as media bias, and it’s not good for you.
Aug 15, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 45 • By CHARLOTTE ALLEN
Mickey Mouse, Dan Rather, 2009
WDW / Splash News / Newscom
In November 2005, the Quarterly Journal of Economics, published by Harvard University and regarded by academics as one of the four top scholarly journals on economics in America, published the results of a study conducted by Tim Groseclose, a professor of political science and economics at UCLA, and Jeffrey Milyo, then a public policy professor at the University of Chicago and now holder of an endowed chair in social sciences at the University of Missouri. The study, using rigorous quantitative analysis, found that most major American news outlets, including newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post, newsweeklies such as Time and Newsweek, network television shows such as CBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News, and Internet sites such as the Drudge Report, slanted their news reporting to reflect a distinct liberal bias. That was the outlets’ news reporting, by the way, not their editorials, columns, book reviews, or opinion pieces, where the writer’s ideological leanings are an expected part of the package.
In other words, what conservatives had been complaining about for decades—the prejudices of mainstream media—was actually true: The media not only skewed left in terms of the political leanings of their personnel, but they could not report about a controversial issue—whether the issue was George W. Bush’s tax cuts, global warming, partial-birth abortion, or the effects of affirmative action on college-campus demographics—without loading the piece in ideological ways that made it a completely different story from that which a conservative, or even a centrist, might tell. The Groseclose-Milyo study devastatingly undercut the prevailing wisdom, held dear by the press and its apologists, that yes, most reporters (actually, nearly all of them) may pull the Democratic lever in the voting booth, but they bend over backwards to frame their news stories in a nonpartisan and evenhanded fashion that disguises their personal ideological leanings.
As Groseclose and Milyo concluded, that doesn’t happen.
Now, Groseclose has expanded the pair’s research into a full-length book, less technical in style than the Quarterly Journal article and pitched to general readers, not professors (there is far less math in the book than in the article, for example). As the title indicates, he has added another element to his and Milyo’s earlier thesis: Not only are most of the media biased in their reporting, but their liberal bias has made the American voting public considerably more liberal than it would otherwise be—which means that if the average American voter these days is a centrist, he would vote like Ron Paul if he could get out from under his daily bombardment of liberal-leaning news. If Groseclose is correct, this cracks wide open another piece of prevailing wisdom, subscribed to even by many conservatives: that readers of, say, the relentlessly progressive New York Times automatically correct for the Sulzberger slant, saying to themselves, “Oh, yeah, that’s the New York Times.”
According to Left Turn, that doesn’t happen, either.
For their 2005 article, Groseclose and Milyo strove to find an objective way (rather than just assuming that the Washington Post is pretty liberal and Fox News is pretty conservative) to assign a number on a scale of 0 to 100 (with 0 being down in Michele Bachmann territory and 100 being up there with Nancy Pelosi) of what Groseclose in his book calls the “slant quotient” or “SQ” of various major media outlets.
Here’s what they did: They used an adjusted version of the scores that the famously liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) uses—also employing a scale of 0 to 100—to rate members of Congress according to their roll call votes on hot-button issues such as shutting down Guantánamo, cap and trade, and federal funding for abortion. (On that scale, Bachmann stakes out the cellar, while Pelosi, Barney Frank, and Ron Dellums vie for the tippy-top.) Those scores constitute what Groseclose calls the “PQ” (“political quotient,” presumably) of the 535 occupants of seats on Capitol Hill.
By that reckoning, the average American voter, whose ballots decide who goes to Congress, has a PQ of just above 50—approximately Arlen Specter’s PQ (50.6) before he switched from the Republican to the Democratic party in 2009 and began voting (67.4) more like Harry Reid (75.6). (In calculating American centrism, Groseclose has made small adjustments to account for the small-state-favoring composition of the Senate and other factors.) In case you are curious, Groseclose has included in his book a ten-item questionnaire—there is a longer version on his website, timgroseclose.com—that enables you to calculate what your own PQ would have been had you been in Congress for the relevant votes. I took the test and discovered that my PQ is 10. That makes me slightly more liberal than Bachmann and Jim DeMint, although I’m slightly more conservative than Groseclose himself, who admits in an endnote that he has a PQ of 13.
After assigning an ADA-based number to the members of the House and Senate, Groseclose and Milyo then examined the frequency with which individual members of Congress, in bolstering their floor and committee arguments, cited the research of various think tanks and advocacy groups around Washington and elsewhere—organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and the Brookings Institution. By combining the frequency numbers with the PQs of the members of Congress, Groseclose and Milyo were able to assign PQs to the top 50 cited think tanks themselves—a far more objective way, in their thinking, to assign an ideological perspective to a think tank than simply to assume, for example, that the Heritage Foundation is conservative and the Sierra Club is liberal.
In a third step, Groseclose and Milyo quantified the frequency with which stories by reporters for various news outlets cited research and quoted spokesmen from those same think tanks as they fleshed out the facts that they reported. That enabled the two to calculate the outlets’ slant quotient, or SQ. As Groseclose and Milyo pointed out (and as Groseclose reiterates in Left Turn), the news stories themselves were seldom false or inaccurate. There was almost never anything intentionally dishonest about the reporting. It was just that the reporters presented their stories in a way that reflected, probably unconsciously, the reporters’ liberal ideological leanings. They used material from liberal think tanks and advocacy groups far more frequently than material from the tanks’ conservative opposite numbers. They highlighted or omitted facts as their personal political predilections dictated, even though their stories, in an effort to maintain journalistic impartiality, might contain a quotation or two from spokesmen for the conservative side.
The range of SQs that Groseclose and Milyo calculated was shocking. The most liberally biased news outlet proved to be the Wall Street Journal (its news pages, that is, not its conservative editorial and opinion pages). The WSJ turned out to have the slant quotient of the average Democrat, about 85, only a few points below the 89.2 PQ of the late Ted Kennedy. Of the rest of the mainstream media, only Fox News (with an SQ of about 42) and the Washington Times (with an SQ of about 40) registered below the midpoint—and both outlets are way more liberal in their reporting than the average Republican, whose PQ is less than 20. The Drudge Report, although regarded as troglodytic by progressives, has an SQ of around 50—that is, its reporting is about as centrist as the average American voter these days.
Such findings comport with other studies of newsroom homogeneity. An October 2008 survey of 62 contributors and editors at the online magazine Slate, for example, revealed that of those who planned to vote for the two major-party candidates, 98.2 percent (that is, 55 out of 56) said that they were voting for Barack Obama rather than John McCain. A 2004 survey by PoliticalMoneyLine (now CQ MoneyLine) found that the ratio of journalists who donated to John Kerry’s presidential campaign over those who donated to George W. Bush’s campaign was 93:1. That suggests, as Groseclose points out, that the average newsroom is not only far more liberal than the American electorate—which favored Obama by 53 percent in 2008 and Bush by 51 percent in 2004—but also more liberal than Ted Kennedy. Even such stereotypically liberal enclaves as Berkeley, California, and Cambridge, Massachusetts, proved to be less liberal in their 2008 presidential votes than an average newsroom. Voters in those cities gave McCain 10 percent and 14 percent of their votes, respectively. Groseclose writes that “if you read a newspaper article or watch a television news clip, then almost surely it will have been written or produced by a liberal.”
Those liberal leanings distort the news in subtle but telling ways. Groseclose dissects a 2006 story in the Los Angeles Times that linked a record low number of black freshmen at UCLA to the passage 10 years earlier of Proposition 209, a ballot initiative that forbids public institutions from considering race in admissions and hiring. The reporter, Rebecca Trounson, had quoted six sources, not for factual information but for their opinions. Five of those sources expressed conventional left-of-center views, complaining, for example, that the campus was insufficiently “diverse” and accusing UCLA of practicing racism. Only one source, former University of California regent Ward Connerly, architect of Proposition 209, suggested that fewer black high school graduates might be academically competitive, or that some blacks might have chosen to attend historically black colleges instead of UCLA. Not only did Trounson not examine the tortuous routes that UCLA’s admissions committee (on which Groseclose served at the time) followed to get around Proposition 209 so as to maximize black enrollment, but she failed to report a record number of black transfer students to UCLA that fall so that the black student population actually increased slightly. She also failed to notice what might have been the real story: the huge increases in Asian enrollments at UCLA, to the point that white people, once the overwhelming majority, now constituted only about a third of the overall student population.
Groseclose cites other examples of bias-induced misleading reporting: post-Katrina coverage that mostly blamed the Bush administration, not New Orleans’s corrupt and inefficient Democratic city government, for the resultant chaos; refusal to report on the 9/11 “truther” petition that Obama’s short-lived “green jobs” czar Van Jones had signed until conservative bloggers and Republican members of Congress made an issue out of the petition; the characterization of Bush’s tax cuts as favoring the rich when it was middle-income households whose share of taxes was reduced most; and of course, the refusal of many news outlets to use the term “partial-birth abortion,” even though the law that Congress passed in 2003 was titled “The Partial-Birth Abortion Ban.”
Furthermore, grossly unbalanced newsrooms breed what Groseclose calls the “second-order” problem: The handful of conservative journalists get tired of being treated like subhumans by their coworkers, so they drift left in order to fit in. Alternatively, the majority simply redefines extremism to include, say, opposing gun control or favoring restrictions on abortion. Who needs JournoList when you can be beaten down into conformity by your liberal peers at work?
Groseclose seems to be on less solid ground when he moves to his second premise: that the liberal media have succeeded in making Americans more liberal. Since Americans, with their average PQ of about 50, are already centrist, Groseclose calculates that without the “media lambda,” as he calls it—the drag effect of constant exposure to newspapers and TV clips produced by entities with SQs closer to 100—their PQs would be down in the 25-30 range. That is, the average American would have the political views of the average resident of Alaska, Kansas, Texas, South Carolina, and other low-PQ, Republican-voting states.
This is a daring claim, going against the grain of rational-choice theory and suggesting that the mainstream media are a sinister and effective liberal propaganda machine. He does cite some compelling studies, however, including one in which Yale researchers randomly distributed equal numbers of trial subscriptions to the Washington Post and the Washington Times to residents of suburban Northern Virginia. Sure enough, the Post-subscribing subjects voted 3.8 percentage points higher for the Democratic candidate in a gubernatorial election in question than did subjects who subscribed to the Times.
I cannot recommend Left Turn highly enough. For one thing, it is vastly entertaining. Groseclose has a gift for presenting statistics, tables, technical terms, summaries of abstruse scholarship, and even mathematics with clarity and humor (even the endnotes are great fun). For another, it is a gracious book: Groseclose generously gives credit to numerous other scholars whose insights and research paved the way for his own—colleagues whose political beliefs were often far left of his. Indeed, after the Groseclose-Milyo study appeared in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, UCLA, despite a faculty and administration containing almost no Republicans, promoted Groseclose to full professor (Milyo was similarly promoted at Missouri), and Yale and the University of Chicago also offered him full professorships.
The main opposition to the Groseclose-Milyo study came from—you guessed it—humanities professors, one of whom called it “agitprop for the conservative blogosphere” while another accused the two of ignoring “dialogism in discourse analysis,” whatever that is. The nastiest attack of all came from—you might have guessed this one, too—blogger Eric Alterman of Media Matters, who accused Groseclose and Milyo of having rigged their numbers and taken money from “right-wing” think tanks (the latter was true, but not for the Quarterly Journal article, whose research was entirely financed by the pair’s universities). One of Groseclose’s most liberal colleagues in the political science department at UCLA leaped to the defense of Groseclose’s scholarly integrity, firing off an email castigating Alterman for “lack of civility” and the “personal nature” of his supposed review. When Groseclose read his copy of that email (he does not name the ultra-liberal colleague, referring to him only as “Byron B. Bright”), tears sprang to his eyes.
That incident sums up what Groseclose would like to see from the liberal media. He doesn’t expect them to change their views, but they ought to be honest about their biases—and while they’re at it, get to know, instead of just writing about, some of those strange conservatives in the drive-past suburbs and the flyover towns, the ones with the guns who go to church on Sunday and vote Republican a lot of the time.
Charlotte Allen is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s Minding the Campus website.