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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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.”