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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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.