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. Day Brown says:

    When my new neighbor was busted, the Tampa Tribune printed his photo under “Teacher busted for drugs”; but when it was realized the drugs were left in the house by the previous tenant, no correction was made. When the local Hippy paper printed the truth, that office was trashed in a drug search. I saw the same in New Orleans, where that alternative paper office was trashed twice by law enforcement for telling the truth about drugs on the street, and saw it again when my barn was searched and photos of haz mat suits carrying lab equipment was called “The Biggest Meth Lab Ever in Northern Arkansas”. Only there wasnt any meth.

    I could go on citing mis-representations of the drug war, or Afghanistan, or the debt crisis, global warming…. anything that creates sensationalism drives up ratings and thereby ad revenues & profits gets coverage while the real truth is just too boring.

    Machiavelli said an intractable political problem is one that is not properly understood. Media does all it can to prevent that real understanding because when that happens, we all move on.

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  2. Kevin says:

    Ah yes… If we weren’t exposed to the “liberal” media we’d all be 8% more Republican, remove exposure to a “liberal” educational system, and you’d get another 8%. Remove exposure to “liberal” books, another 8%. Remove exposure to other countries, people of other ethnicities, people at different socioeconomic levels, etc, another 8%. If only everyone could be kept locked in our houses with exposure to noone but people just like us, and “non-biased” media outlets like fox news. We could all return to our “natural” conservative state along with great thinkers like Bill O’Reilly. Honestly, I would like to read the book so I could pick this guys rationale apart piece by piece, but the premise is so ludicris compared to my own experience that I would feel guilty about giving this guy a platform.

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  3. Randle Reece says:

    Tuesday all-day Nielsens:

    Fox News + CNBC + Fox Business News = 1.7 million
    CNN + MSNBC + HLN = 1.3 million

    Tuesday prime-time Nielsens:

    Fox News = 2.5 million
    CNN + MSNBC + HLN = 2.3 million

    The number of liberal/conservative news outlets does not matter. The consumption of them does. People who want steak will walk on by a hundred vegan restaurants.

    Real questions are what % of the populace is open to being persuaded by opposing points of view, and how many of them vote. Enough to sway elections?

    It is simplistic to think that news media bias is the reason why many people vote Democrat. People who gravitate to media that confirm their existing beliefs are not victims of media bias; they want media bias. And most people inherit their political beliefs.

    Over the postwar generations, the predominant migration has been away from liberalism, not toward it. The percentages of Americans who identify with labor unions, who oppose protectionism, who support lower taxation of the wealthy, almost a linear downward progression over a long span of time. The author portrays this movement as an inexorable march toward right thinking, despite the furious headwind of the illogical liberal media hordes. What has developed in my lifetime is an ever-larger, increasingly homogeneous conservative thought leadership, promulgated across myriad media channels, dominating highly consumed channels such as cable TV news, talk radio and syndicated opinion columns. This group rarely bickers among themselves, has remarkable ability to stay on message, and practices a systematic demonization of its opposition reminiscent of the “party newspapers” of the 1800s.

    News media need to be biased, as competently as they can express cogent points of view that do not portray all views as equally valid. Let the consumer decide, and consumers do. People migrate toward the news media they view as consistent with their own views.

    But there is a huge difference between bias and fairness. When Fox News or Dan Rather tries to spin news instead of being honest about how it might conflict with their previous versions of the truth, they move from news to propaganda.

    Intentionally minimizing the significance of important news because it hurts one’s prior point of view, that’s unethical bias. My impression is that Fox News is guilty of this practice more often than the New York Times is, but I have no evidence to support that. Often, Fox News or Rush or Beck leave me with the impression that they define their world views as the opposite of whatever their targets are saying, regardless of what they’re saying. I cannot look to them for thought leadership, because often they are just cheering for their team. When news developments turn wild, I want an honest evaluation, not a clever way of using this news against the president. And I certainly don’t want a news source to dig a hole in the backyard and bury any news that makes its point of view look bad.

    What I ask of all news media, right now:

    Where have you been since January 2009? Where were you while President Obama focused on implementing vast new regulatory schemes and drawing up plans for a massive new health care bureaucracy? Where were you while Tea Party candidates were stirring up so much anger that it actually disrupted economic recovery? Where were you when the Recovery Act treated the country’s problems as just a temporary dent in consumption? Did you talk about how the Recovery Act did nothing but create “zombie jobs” that would end when the stimulus did? Did you focus on how the president and Congress, in the middle of a recession, increased the cost of labor and actually provided incentives to accelerate the substitution of capital for labor in this country? Did you notice how S&P’s politically charged US debt rating downgrade once again drew the country’s attention away from the growth problem and put it back on debt? Did you talk about how economic growth is more important to the debt / GDP ratio than changing the debt inflow is?

    Did anyone in the media ever recognize that Greenspan-era easy money did nothing to solve the dangerous decline in positive-ROI domestic investment opportunities for American businesses? That easy money + too few attractive investments = bubble? No, our Internet and real estate bubbles even today are portrayed as something perpetrated on good people by a few bad men.

    Conservative media are too busy talking down the economy from now till election day. Liberal media are all over the lot, but they tend to portray business profits and jobs as inversely correlated. Who in our country is the advocate of growth? Who is pushing the government’s role as investor in long-payback-period initiatives to build new growth drivers for the US economy?

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