How Biased Is the Media? Bring Your Questions for the Author of Left Turn

Tim Groseclose is a political-science professor at UCLA (and an occasional co-author with Steve Levitt) who has spent years trying to systematically and empirically study media bias. He has a new book out called Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind. Here’s what Levitt had to say about it recently:

As the title suggests, it has a definite conservative slant. It is not, however, a right-wing rant by any means. Rather, it is a carefully researched and amusingly written book by a highly regarded academic.

Groseclose’s core argument is that the U.S. media overall has a strong liberal bias, and that this bias strongly influences how Americans vote and how they think about the issues of the day. He reached this conclusion by constructing a “political quotient” (PQ), which is meant to measure political views in a “precise, objective, and quantitative way.” The average American voter, he argues, has a PQ of 50. Liberal Democrats Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi both have a PQ of approximately 100; conservative Republicans Michele Bachmann and Jim DeMint have a PQ of approximately 0. If we could “magically eliminate liberal media bias,” Groseclose writes, the average American would have a PQ closer to 25, and would be more in line with people like Ben Stein, Dennis Miller and Bill O’Reilly.

Groseclose also concludes that media bias helps Democratic candidates by about 8 to 10 percentage points in a typical election — and that if media bias didn’t exist, John McCain would have defeated Barack Obama in the 2008 election by 56%-42%, rather than losing 53%-46%.

Groseclose has agreed to field questions from Freakonomics readers, so please post them in the comments section below. As always, we’ll post his answers in short course. BTW: we may also make a Freakonomics Radio program on the topic of media bias, so please write some questions that are good enough for me to steal when I interview Groseclose and others.

To prime the pump, here’s the table of contents from Left Turn. Ask away! Which you did. And here are the answers to some of your questions.

Part I: Political Quotients and the Science of Politics
1. What Are PQs and How Do They Reveal Media Bias?
2. Caught in a Trap: Problems in Judging Media Bias
3. But I’ve Been to Oklahoma
4. Ps and Qs of PQs
5. Defining the “Center”

Part II: A Distortion Theory of Media Bias
6. Lies, Damned Lies, and Omitted Statistics: A Case Study in Distortion Theory
7. Hidden Under a Bushel
8. An “Alien” Conservative Injected into a Liberal Newsroom and the Topics She Might Cover

Part III: Evidence of Liberal Media Bias
9. Political Views in the Newsroom: Viva Homogeneity
10. The Second-Order Problem of an Unbalanced Newsroom
11. The Anti-Newsroom: Washington County, Utah
12. Walk a Mile in the Shoes of a Centrist
13. “Wise Men from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Say…”
14. The Language of Journalists and the Special Case of Partial-Birth Abortion
15. The Language of Journalists and Gentzkow-Shapiro Measure of Media Bias
16. Facts About the Bush Tax Cuts: Another Way to Measure Media Bias Objectively and Quantitatively
17. The Media Mu

Part IV: Effects of Media Bias
18. Measuring the Influence of the Media I: Many Methods False and Spent, and One That’s Not
19. Measuring the Influence of the Media II: Two More Groundbreaking Experiments
20. The Media Lambda
21. Rendezvous with Clarity
22. Walk a Mile in the Shoes of a Centrist… Whose Mind Has Not Been Distorted by Media Bias
Epilogue: Small Steps Toward a Better Media



View All Comments »
  1. Jim says:

    Without giving away the whole book, how about a short explanation of how a PQ is computed?

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  2. Mike B says:

    There is no point is engaging a propagandist in any sort of reasoned discourse. Questions will be instantly deflected to their talking points and anyone who disagrees will be singled out for hostile or uninformed.

    Of course his point about the average American being more conservative if all media resembled Fox News is almost a tautology. A population will tend to reflect the ideas of media they are exposed to. Look how much the North Koreans continue to love Kim Jong Il.

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  3. Jeremiah Stanghini says:

    While I’m not familiar with the years that Groseclose used to conduct his study, I think it would be important to have just as many years where Republicans were in power as those where Democrats were in power. Meaning, if he used 2000-2008 in his study, it would be important to use 1992-2000, as well, as the media slant in the different decades may be different. Beyond that, and this may be a bit too difficult, it would be interesting to see the particular slants when Congress is Republican-controlled vs. Democrat-controlled (and even if the President is R/D). I wonder if we would see differences in the media bias in the different iterations.

    It’d also be interesting to see how Groseclose explains a book like The Spirit Level, which, to my recollection purports that as countries strive for equality on all levels, the health and well-being of the country increases. [I am aware of the counter-arguments in The Spirit Delusion.] The research from The Spirit Level, if I may extrapolate, may suggest that the planet, on the whole, is moving towards a more socialistic ideology. As such, wouldn’t it be fair to assume that the range of the media bias would also move slightly to a more socialistic (and liberal) viewpoint?

    With Love and Gratitude,


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  4. Jack says:

    Why does liberal media bias exist in the first place? What would you suggest as a way that a) journalists could be more aware of their own bias and limit it in their reporting, or b) the profession of journalism could attract a more unbiased (or merely more representative) cohort?

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  5. robu says:

    Is it true that certain media organizations assigned interns to monitor certain political figures and watch for gaffs and missteps? Was this practice limited to a particular party?

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  6. Carl Natale says:

    I’m a recovering journalist so I’m not a believer in the left-wing media conspiracy. But the 2008 presidential election made me wonder.

    During the GOP primaries, Sen. John McCain was constantly asked to defend his conservative credentials. There was even a GOP debate that seemed dedicated to finding out who was the most conservative. (“If Ronald Reagan were alive today, would he think you were conservative enough?”)

    At one point in the campaign, McCain had to declare himself more conservative than George W. Bush. Since not yet President Obama ran against Bush, it was a gift from heaven.

    I know McCain had more problems than that. But I feel like the Republicans were set up. How crazy is that?

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 23 Thumb down 21
  7. Rachel says:

    How can you seriously argue that without the “liberal media”, the average American would closely resemble the conservative media giants? Wouldn’t your argument basically boil down to that if the “liberal media” went away, then people would form their opinions based entirely on the “conservative media”?

    Furthermore, how do you account for the filter bubble effect — that liberals and conservatives alike listen to media that doesn’t challenge their views?

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    • KevinH says:

      I think this is a good question, but I think that the answer would that the manipulation in the study is to look at relative levels of all media engagement. If you take away all media and people tend to be more conservative, then that would be evidence for there being more liberal media than conservative media.

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      • Enter your name says:

        Not necessarily: Taking away all media means taking away (nearly) all information about what’s going on. This could mean only that the more ignorant you are of current events, the more conservative you are.

        This is not an unreasonable outcome: if you don’t know about the horrible situation in the next town, then your default is to think, “Everything is currently okay for me and mine: therefore, no changes are needed.”

        When you hear that the hard working young woman who moved away (as I once did fifteen years ago) was unexpectedly abandoned by her husband in the middle of a difficult second pregnancy, lost her job because she kept fainting and vomiting, and learned (after the birth) that the “pregnancy difficulties” were actually caused by brain cancer rather than the pregnancy, you start wondering about the strength of the safety net.

        When you later hear that the State of Colorado’s response on receiving her welfare application for temporary help with food, housing, and hospital bills until she was out of treatment and could go back to work, was to say “Why did you (note: a married woman who believed she was healthy) have a baby anyway? You could have had surgery to prevent it” — you start thinking that some serious change, in the direction of those liberal values of compassion and respect for individual choices, would be a very good idea indeed.

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    • Letstrylogic says:

      Well…if you look at the ratings at Fox News compared to the rest I think you will get an answer to your question. Most people, that actually watch news…are conservative.

      Thumb up 7 Thumb down 10
      • Lance says:

        fox news may have high ratings because they get the vast majority of conservatives to watch a single news source, whereas there is a greater variety and number of less right wing-biased news sources that less conservative people watch. there may actually be a much greater number, and even greater relative percentage, of non-conservatives who watch news, but the numbers are spread out over those various channels and programs, thus diluting the ratings for any one of them. it’s pretty basic math. “high ratings for fox” does not necessarily equal “conservatives watch news more than non-conservatives.” it’s a logical fallacy, a false equivalent.

        one might argue that people who are conservative are dumb and don’t/can’t read, so they rely on the easy medium of television to get their news, whereas less conservative and more intelligent people get their news from written sources as well, thus decreasing the number of non-conservative news-watchers. again, that would be a logical fallacy of sorts if i tried to present it as a statement of fact, but i’m not. but it’s as valid as your comment is.

        Thumb up 5 Thumb down 3
    • Dan says:

      No, silly. The argument is that without Liberal bias, voters would not be so liberal.

      Their views would not be based on ‘conservative media’, but rather on a balanced media with ratings in the 50ish range.

      Thumb up 3 Thumb down 3
      • Rachel says:

        “The average American voter, he argues, has a PQ of 50. Liberal Democrats Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi both have a PQ of approximately 100; conservative Republicans Michele Bachmann and Jim DeMint have a PQ of approximately 0. If we could “magically eliminate liberal media bias,” Groseclose writes, the average American would have a PQ closer to 25, and would be more in line with people like Ben Stein, Dennis Miller and Bill O’Reilly.”

        By this guy’s reasoning, if we eliminate “liberal media bias”, then the average American ends up….exactly where he places prominent conservative media commentators. That’s not “magically eliminating liberal media bias”, that’s “replacing liberal bias with conservative bias.”

        Thumb up 6 Thumb down 4
  8. Caleb b says:

    Without reading the book, it would seem to me that self-selection would push people with a high interest in social issues into the media workforce. Just like all, and I do mean all, the staff at my local Big Brothers/Big Sisters office are self identified democrats.

    Self-selection isn’t bad for society, in fact, it’s part of being rational maximizers.

    My question is this: is self-selection at work in media companies (both the liberal and conservative medias)? And, where other occupations have strong political self-selection? Are bankers more likely to be conservative? Are artists and actors more likely to be liberal?

    Also, what about a person whose occupation conflicts with their political party? Like a republican abortion doctor, or a democrat prison executioner.

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    • Steevn says:

      Self-selection is fine, but what’s concerning is a professional not being able to put that aside and deliver unbiased results, which is what the news profession claims to do.

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