The Magazine

Party Line

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
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Dan Rather Photo

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.