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. Sully says:

    The “Media” – a large group of well-educated and highly-informed people. Well-educated and highly-informed people are liberal? Shocker.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 61 Thumb down 61
    • J1 says:

      You need to be specific about what you mean by well educated and highly informed. My experience has been that journalists have an almost comical ignorance of scientific and mathematical areas I have expertise in; I have to assume that ignorance extends to areas I’m ignorant of myself. Personally, I would not consider someone with a journalism degree to be “well educated”. Likewise, even when journalists are well educated (and informed, whatever that means), that doesn’t mean whatever expertise they have is applicable to the issues they report on. Is somebody with a law degree any more qualified than your cat to analyze scientific or economic issues?

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      • Joshua Northey says:

        Journalists are pretty ignorant yes, but have you ever interacted with the general public? They are downright morons and make the journalists all look like Rhodes scholars.

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      • J1 says:

        You (and me) are part of the general public. Are you sure you don’t want to narrow that down? If you were writing an article or producing a news show, would you do it in a fashion that you knew made you look like an idiot? Granted, some journalists go on the air and make themselves look dumber than a bag of rocks ( , but it’s usually inadvertent. She’s got a degree in journalism, by the way.

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      • Dan says:

        In my experience, non journalists are much more informed on economic issues than journalists.

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      • Brandon says:

        Well, if by “informed”, you mean, “Holds right-wing and/or libertarian views on economic issues”, then yes. But, based on all the info I’ve read, studies I’ve looked at, etc. etc., the hard right stance on economics (that government should basically just BUTT OUT except for a few critical areas) is total nonsense, robber baron-style crap. It’s a “dead idea”, as Matt Miller refers to them, and the only reason people keep holding onto them is because they either a) refuse to believe or accept the real facts otherwise or b) they only look at sources that confirm their economic bias, whether or not they actually tell the truth and are verified.

        Of course, I’m not even really much of a socialist, although I DO believe in a strong safety net and social insurance programs “Just in case”, esp. as automatic stabilizers when the sh*t hits the fan, but that in no way makes me someone who “loves” government. Not a chance.

        I sure hope this Groesclose fella actually has empirical ‘evidence’ to back up his ridiculous-sounding assertion that Obama would’ve LOST by a whopping FOURTEEN points to McCain (…really? 14 points after being basically a carbon copy of Bush?) if not for “liberal media bias.” I don’t wanna read a bunch of conservative ranting and grandstanding. Furthermore, it boggles my mind that ONLY Tim thinks he has the ‘know-how’ and ability to “empirically” demonstrate that “without media bias”, Obama would’ve lost in a landslide, even though ALL the major polls consistently rated Obama as a top candidate, and McCain never really had a chance. Obama would’ve had to F up to lose. Americans were already fed up with 2 terms of Bush, and they could tell McCain was really McBush.

        I mean, am I to believe that NO CREDIBLE POLLING FIRM in the country would’ve had the balls or ability to ‘see through the media bias’ and ‘correct’ the poll results for this alleged bias? Or at least THINK to do an experiment to see what the results would be like IF media acted differently in 2008? I doubt it. Tim sounds like a cocky with claims like that.

        Good thing I’m getting this book from my library and not actually buying it. I really wouldn’t wanna waste my money if it sucks.

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      • Loothor says:

        “Is somebody with a law degree any more qualified than your cat to analyze scientific or economic issues?”

        Duh. Yeah, I’m going to go ahead and assume there’s more value in analysis of anything by a human being with any type of college degree than by a cat.

        And yes, there is a point to that other than just to be funny. Educated people, regardless of what their specific focus of study was, tend to have picked up a lot more information throughout their lives about general topics… they are more comfortable reading, researching, and connecting the dots.

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    • Dan says:

      Nowhere will you find more economic illiterates than in the media — at all levels.

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  2. frankenduf says:

    do you know who owns and funds the mass media outlets?- are these owners/funders liberally biased?- if not, how do you explain the contradiction that corporations control the mass media yet produce a bias against their own interests?

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 53 Thumb down 3
    • Ben says:

      The assumptions made here are:

      a) Corporations are pro-Republican/conservative. This is not necessarily true. Look at the money that President Obama received from Wall St and corporations.

      b) Big government is against corporate interests. This is patently false. Corporations have learned, because of their amoral nature, to manipulate the government through lobbying for their own advantage. A real-world, open competition imagined by Capitalists is much harder for a corporation to win than if they have friends in the monopoly that is the government.

      Corporations are not necessarily conservative in nature.

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  3. rageon says:

    Liberal…or socially liberal?

    Socially I think it’s pretty clear that the media leans that way, and I’m not sure too many people, even liberals themselves, would disagree too strongly about that.

    But fiscally, I’m not convinced. The companies that control the media are some of the largest companies in the entire world. They would have no incentive to promote fiscially liberal policies. And corporation, like people, presumably respond to incentives (which if you’re on this website, you already know).

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    • Lawrence says:

      What role does religion play in these biases? Michele Bachmann and Jim DeMint are both Christian ideologues, and while there are certainly “anti-religion” ideologues on the left, neither Barney Frank nor Nancy Pelosi would qualify.

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      • James says:

        But the religion bias works both ways. I would like conservatism quite a bit more if it didn’t expect me to share a tent with the religious right.

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    • Steevn says:

      But I don’t think the company owners are shaping the views of their news desk. Rather, I think the news people themselves are attempting to serve a different set of two masters: ratings, and “making the world a better place” by way of their reporting.

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      • Tim says:

        Of course the owners shape the view of their news desks. Do you think Roger Ailes at Fox doesn’t force that network to be a mouthpiece for conservatives? Little outta touch there Steve…

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      • Michael says:

        Rupert Murdoch

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    • Mike Lemmer says:

      “Because they make money.”

      If you assume the more outrage a media outlet riles up, the more viewers/revenue it gets, then a liberal media railing against abuses & misdeeds would make more money than a conservative media going, “Things are fine the way they are.” A liberal media outlet would make sense for a conservative company as long as it A)didn’t attack its parent company and B)its parent had enough lobbyists to get exceptions from the fiscally liberal policies.

      I would use Fox News as a test for the outrage assumption. My hypothesis: Fox News is as successful as it is because it grew during a time (’96-’00) where government & businesses were turning liberal, which reversed the standard stances of conservatives (“Things are fine the way they are”) and liberals (“No they’re not”).

      Finally, a question: If a liberal corporation acquired Fox News today, would they make more money by dampening its conservative slant or leaving it as-is?

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  4. KevinH says:

    I must admit, I haven’t heard more than the barest outline of Mr. Groseclose’s thesis, but I am intrigued. My question is the following:

    “Do you believe that there are institutions within the country which provide a conservative bias? What are they and how does their impact compare with the media in your analysis?”

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    • cackalacka says:

      Agreed; I think the strongest counterpoint to Mr. Groseclose’s premise is, what would the presidential split have been if all the influential media outlets weren’t owned by conservatives (re: Disney, Murdoch/Newscorp, GE, etc.)

      Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 15 Thumb down 11
      • Ben says:

        You assume Disney and GE are “conservative.” GE is a massive recipient of government grants and tax breaks. Lobbying is required for this, especially with GE’s “green” initiatives and income streams. Do you think GE is for or against a larger, more regulatory government that gives them tax breaks and grants for their research? GE is certainly not conservative, and I’d be interested to see how you’d claim Disney was as well?

        I can’t argue with Newscorp, though.

        Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0
      • mary says:

        The Koch Bros are very conservative, yet their companies receive massive grants and tax breaks, too. They take advantage of ethanol and oil subsidies, logging roads, bailouts, etc. Does that mean the Kochs own liberal companies, or does it just mean that they’re conservatives not above taking advantage of programs they purport to hate?

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    • Steevn says:

      Talk radio, Fox News, and the Wall Street Jounral. That’s about it. Good question.

      Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1
      • Goatherd says:

        I think the question was about other non-media institutions. Like e.g. the church, the military, Wall Street. These have a conservative bent.

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    • Matthias says:

      And as a follow up…if there exists institutions that provide a conservative bias, how do their ratings compare to one with a liberal bias?

      Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
  5. TMoney says:

    How in the world of shareholder owned media companies could a liberal newsroom exist ?

    – Unless that was what the market demanded. Surely these companies would pander to either their shareholders (by slanting news for increased market share) or to the public (by slanting news for increased market share) or perhaps by marketing news to a specific – presumably profitable niche (Christian, gay, liberal, conservative, spanish-speaking etc). Indeed, Fox news clearly shows that there is only a finite market for news with a specific (conservative) bias – and you can make the same arguement about mother jones and the liberal media.

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  6. Matthias says:

    Isn’t the idea of unbiased news an oxymoron? In American history, I understood that news sources had a proclaimed bias that was as obvious as their name (e.g. The Arizona Republic or The Tallahassee Democrat). Do you know when the general media outlets began to proclaim “non bias”, and has a true unbiased news source ever really existed?

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    • Alex says:

      Not true, considering that Anti-American movies continually are made and sell poorly (See Green Zone, GI Joe, Hurt Locker), while Pro-American movies dominate (See Iron Man, Captain America).

      Going further, Fox dominates MSNBC. Often it beats its Broadcast rivals that reach millions of more homes and have a strong familiarity aspect. Drudge outperforms any site that is similar in nature. Wherever there is real choice, conservative views are drawing more eyes.

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      • FDUK says:

        How can the supposed liberal bias actually exist?

        If you are a main stream media company and your market audience is near to a score of 25, what incentive is there to being more liberal than a score of 50? Surely if the book’s hypothesis were correct then the mass media would gravitate to a score nearer to 25, but it does not despite the main media companies (Disney, Newscorp etc) likely having a score that is close to 25?

        Why would main stream media companies go against their obvious self interest in terms of the parent company’s outlook and the mass of their audience?

        I also wonder what effect the fact that most mainstream media is based in cities has? Cities are generally more liberal than the countryside so you might well expect main stream media to be more liberal.

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    • Michael says:

      “has a true unbiased news source ever really existed?”
      Christian Science Monitor, Al Jazeera

      Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2
    • Jebuswankel says:

      About one hundred years ago. The trend you’re talking about is the rise of ‘professionalism.’ It coincided with market pressures that lead to consolidation of media companies. Bob McChesney has studied this topic, and I’m sure he’d say that there never has been an unbiased news source, nor should we aim for one.

      In England there used to be a vibrant, respected independent labor press, but it dried up specifically because it couldn’t earn advertising revenues by catering to working class people. Look at the ads in the WSJ and NYT and tell me those papers don’t cater to the elite.

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  7. Shane says:

    Hidden due to low comment rating. Click here to see.

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    • Still Learning says:

      Does the fact that most media outlets are owned by corporations limit how liberal or left leaning they can be? From my perspective, to question the the capitalist system on an extremely critical level would be bad for business and ultimately bad for left of center media corporations. With that in mind, it seems likely that right leaning media organizations are less controlled whereas those media outlets who lean to the left can only go so far. If right wing media can go farther right with less constraints, how might that impact the current media landscape?

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  8. Brennan Young says:

    1) Any “highly regarded academic” would take care to bring in related works on this topic. How do you relate your research and findings to “Manufacturing Consent” by Herman and Chomsky, and “Flat Earth News” by Nick Davies? Both of these works are thoroughly researched, rather definitive studies of the influence of PR on, and the mechanisms of propaganda in the free press. They illustrate that the more common scenario is conservative – or more correctly – ‘corporatist’ bias.

    2) Given that the politics of the USA is significantly more conservative than most other developed nations, how applicable are your findings to an analysis of the mass media in other countries?

    3) Aren’t there other – perhaps more important – ideological axes than liberal/conservative? (e.g. statist vs. grassroots)

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    • Nathan B says:

      I particularly appreciate 1 and 3 of Brennan’s questions. I’d also be curious to hear thoughts on the so-called echo chamber effect, where news is not shaped by newsroom ideology, but rather by the talking points presented by left and right-winged propagandists and if that has dramatically altered the degree and type of media bias beginning with the rise of conservative talk radio and later Fox News.

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