How Biased is the Media? Tim Groseclose, Author of Left Turn, Answers Your Questions

Last week we solicited your questions for Tim Groseclose, a political science professor at UCLA and author of the new book, Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind. The response was fast and furious. A total of 149 questions (and counting) have been posted in the comments section. We selected 14 of them for Groseclose to answer, and he obliged us quite promptly. As always, thanks to all for participating.

 

Q. 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? – Jack

A. The main reason why bias exists, I believe, is simply that newsrooms are filled overwhelmingly with liberals. Here’s the most important fact to know, if you want to understand media bias: If you poll Washington correspondents and ask “Who’d you vote for last election?”, about 93% will say the Democrat.

Why are newsrooms so liberal? I don’t know, except that I suspect that it’s mainly self-selection. I believe that there is something in the DNA of liberals that makes them want to pursue careers like journalism, academia, and the arts.

A manager or owner of a media outlet could try to counteract this by trying to hire more conservatives, but he will have a hard time trying to find conservatives who want to be journalists. He’ll either have to pay conservative journalists more or be willing to hire conservative journalists who are not as good at reporting as liberal journalists. It’s a hard problem for a news-outlet manager to solve. I basically believe we’re in an equilibrium  – that liberal bias is basically here to stay.

How can journalists be aware of their own biases?  One way is to read Chapter 11 of my book, “The Anti-Newsroom, Washington, County, Utah.”  In the chapter I search for a place that votes the opposite of a newsroom – 93-7 for the Republican. It’s basically impossible to find such a county, but one that comes close is Washington County. I interview lots of people in the county to give the reader a sense of what political views in the anti-newsroom are like.  If journalists think about how conservative, and maybe even strange, views are in the anti-newsroom, they may begin to realize how liberal, and maybe even strange, views are in actual newsrooms.

And if a journalist is really serious about understanding his or her own biases, he or she could visit Washington County, Utah.  One of its residents, Tom Seegmiller, has agreed to host such journalists.  Seegmiller is the owner of Dixie Gun and Fish and the Locker Room, an athletic supply store. If such journalists are interested, they should contact Seegmiller at one of his two businesses. Seegmiller is even willing to take such journalists to church with him. And if they desire, Seegmiller is willing to take such journalists hunting with him.

Q. How do you account for the filter bubble effect — that liberals and conservatives alike listen to media that doesn’t challenge their views? – Rachel

A. All my results about where people get their news involved surveys about where independents get their news.  I ignored the results involving Republicans and Democrats.

Although Republicans and Democrats probably do get their news from vastly different sources, in one sense it hardly matters.  To win a nationwide election, you need to win over the independents. Republicans and Democrats basically cancel each other out. To change policy, the key is to persuade independents/moderates.

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

A. Yes, I think self-selection is the key. But it feeds on itself. That is, once the newsroom becomes overwhelmingly liberal, it becomes less pleasant for conservatives. Consequently, conservatives become even more reluctant to become journalists.

As a conservative professor, I can speak from experience, that when people from one political group begin to dominate an organization, they can sometimes become a little sanctimonious and tedious.  See, for example, page 4 of my book, where I describe an email that my co-author received from one of his fellow University of Missouri professors.  (I think Amazon allows you to read the page for free.)

I think probably the most conservative profession is military officer.  So I hear, military officers vote about the opposite way that journalists vote.

Q. 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. – Lawrence

A. I think you are probably right; there are no strong anti-religion ideologues in Congress. But I think the vast majority of Americans are fairly pro-religion.  If America were divided 50-50 on religion vs. anti-religion, I believe you’d see more anti-religious ideologues in Congress.

But just because there are two sides to an issue, that does not mean that a reporter should give each side equal treatment.  That is, “unbiased” does not always mean giving equal treatment to two sides of an issue.

For instance, lots of people (and I am one of them) believe that the evidence suggesting (i), that the earth is warming, is greater than (ii), that the earth is not warming.  Thus, to be unbiased, I believe that a reporter should give more favorable treatment to (i) than (ii).

A hero of the left, Edward R. Murrow, may have made this point best. Interestingly, he used a religious example to make the point:  To insist upon such an artificially equal treatment of two sides of an issue “is like balancing the views of Jesus Christ with Judas Iscariot.”

 

Q. 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.) – cackalacka

A. I’m not sure I agree with the premise. If GE shareholders and executives are so conservative and have such power over their journalists, wouldn’t that cause Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz to have a conservative bias? For much of the time that John Stossel was at ABC, the chairman of the Disney Board was George Mitchell – the former senator who’s PQ is about 80.  If corporate executives are so powerful, wouldn’t we have seen a liberal bias from Stossel?

The New York Times is a corporation with two classes of shareholders. The class that has control over running the company contains a relatively small number of shareholders. The same is true with the Washington Post. I’m sure that with each company the shareholders are very liberal.

Meanwhile, the Washington Times is not a corporation (it is owned by the Unification Church), yet its slant is fairly conservative. So I’m not sure that it’s true that corporation-owned media companies tend to be more conservative than non-corporation-owned media companies.

To answer your question about the presidential election, suppose that for some reason all the media moved left – say all media began adopting a Slant Quotient of 74, like the New York Times. This would mean that the overall Slant Quotient of the media would move from 58 to 74, a change of 16 points. This would give Democrats an extra advantage of about 8 percentage points. Assuming everything else constant (e.g. Obama and McCain are still the candidates and they adopt the same policy positions as they did in the actual election), then, according to my results, Obama would have won by approximately 61-38, instead of the actual result, 53-46.

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

A. Well, I suppose that one of the most conservative groups in America is officers in the military. I’m not sure what it would mean to calculate a slant quotient for them.

 

Q. Given that the politics of the USA are significantly more conservative than most other developed nations, how applicable are your findings to an analysis of the mass media in other countries?  - Brennan Young

A. Yeah, my book is completely silent on that question. I agree that other nations are generally more liberal than us. If I’m right, that there’s something in the DNA of liberals that makes them go into journalism, then I’d at least speculate that in other countries journalists similarly adopt a Slant Quotient to the left of the country’s average Political Quotient. But that’s just speculation, not evidence.

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

A. Yes, there are definitely other axes.  E.g. you could imagine a libertarian/anti-libertarian axis. But I’m not sure they are more important.  Please see, for instance, my discussion on pages 40-44 of political scientist Keith Poole and the Nominate scores he created.  Nominate estimates a numerical score for politicians on the “dimension of maximal conflict” within Congress.  According to Nominate, politicians like Nancy Pelosi and Barney Frank are at one end, and politicians like Michele Bachmann and Jim DeMint are at the other. That is, the “dimension of maximal conflict” puts far-right conservatives at one end and far-left liberals at the other. It does not put libertarians like Ron Paul at one end and anti-libertarians at the other.  Accordingly, Nominate suggests that the liberal/conservative dimension is indeed the most important dimension, at least in Congress.  (This is not to say that in future years, things might change.)

Q. How does PQ vary by age and education? If more education is correlated with higher PQ, does that explain media bias since most journalists are required to have a college education? – Sam

A. It turns out that the people with the least education (non high school graduates) and those with the most education have the most liberal views. The voters with the most conservative views are those with intermediate amounts of education – those with only “some college” and those who completed a bachelor’s degree but did not attend grad school.

Q. How do you reconcile your conclusions with the fact that Americans appear to choose media you label as liberally biased when they have more conservative options? Why doesn’t the media reflect the supposedly conservative viewpoint of its consumers? Does the media really drive consumer thought in an open media market, or is the opposite true? – Ricky C

A. I think a lot of it is simply that it’s hard for a media organization to hire conservative reporters.  I know that if academia suddenly decided “we need a balance of conservative and liberal professors,” then the next question that deans and department chairs would ask is “Okay, where do we find the conservative professors to hire?”  I suspect something similar occurs with the media. Conservatives just don’t tend to want to enter into journalism, at least not at the same rate as liberals.

As a consequence, news outlets can hire liberal reporters at a lower wage rate than they would have to pay if they insisted on hiring conservatives. They can probably also get higher quality reporters if they’re willing to hire more liberals, simply because the pool of liberal reporters is larger than the pool of conservative reporters.

As I understand, a similar issue arises in baseball. Teams want a balance of right- and left- handed pitchers. But the pool of right-handed pitchers is much higher than that of left-handed pitchers (since there are much more right-handed people in the population than left-handed people).  As a result, on lots of objective measures – e.g. throwing speed – right-hand pitchers tend to be better than left-hand pitchers. I think something similar might be occurring with liberal and conservative reporters.

Q. American public opinion is fickle on important issues. It is hard for me to consider the average American voter the “center” when that center appears to be a sporadically moving target. When talking about a “center”, you expect something a little more stable even as it shifts. Journalists, more ingrained with the issues and needing to maintain integrity over time, would have more stable opinions. Do you look at shifts over time? Do you have a PQ moving average? How does this compare to journalistic PQ?    – Ricky C

A. Well, events cause us to change our views.  I know my views have evolved over the years.  (E.g. I used to think that abortion was okay when the fetus is three months old.  But having a kid and seeing a sonogram changed that view.)

Nevertheless, I’d argue that, at least over the last half century or so, the American center has been pretty stable.  E.g. if you check page 50 of my book, you can see a graph of how the center (i.e. average PQ of American voters) has evolved.  Between 1960 and 2009, it’s remained within the 47-58 range, and usually it’s been very near 50.

Although I have a few surveys over how journalists vote in elections, I don’t have much data about their PQs.  Part of the problem is that journalists are so reluctant to reveal their political views.  If it were up to me, they’d be more transparent about such things.  (See, e.g., the epilogue of my book.)

Q. Of the actual voting public what’s the percentage of viewers that get their news exclusively from the liberal media? What’s the percentage that gets it from both liberal and conservative view points? What’s the percentage getting their news exclusively from conservative viewpoints? What prevents one set of viewers from changing their news consumption habits? Is selection of media source an indication of enlightenment?  - Deron

A. My answer to the first four questions is “I don’t know.”  As for the fifth question, yes, I believe that anyone who has a PQ under 20 (like me) yet chooses to subscribe to the New York Times (as do I) is enlightened. I’d say the same thing about anyone who has a PQ above 80 yet chooses to frequently read the Washington Times or frequently watch the O’Reilly Factor or frequently listen to Rush Limbaugh.

Q. Do you have PQ scores for economists? I’d like to cross-reference this with the economists’ track records over the last 10 years so I can decide whether your idea of PQ is poppycock.  - Ben

A. No, but on page 112 of my book I review the work of Dan Klein (at George Mason University) and Christopher Cardiff (at San Jose State University).  They have tracked the voting behavior of economists and other professors. They find, for instance, that in a typical presidential election economics professors vote about 2.8:1 for the Democrat.  (In sociology the ratio is 44:1; in political science 6.5:1; in electrical engineering 2.5:1, and in finance 0.5:1.)

As for economists having poor track records, I might agree with you, at least when it comes to macroeconomics.  I believe that in 200 years people will look upon the current state of macroeconomics the way we look upon blood-letting doctors of two or three centuries ago (i.e., that they had no idea what they were doing).


Q.
During the Depression, the overwhelming majority of newspapers opposed Franklin Roosevelt. Yet he won 3 re-elections easily. Does that mean that without the opposition of the newspapers, he would have won even more easily? – Paul

A. My results suggest yes – the media really do influence the way people think and vote.

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  1. J1 says:

    “It turns out that the people with the least education (non high school graduates) and those with the most education have the most liberal views”

    Let’s not confuse credentials with education. People with graduate degrees skew more liberal than those with bachelors degrees (though nowhere near as liberal as non HS grads), but that cohort is heavily loaded with graduate degrees in education (the most common graduate degree) and diploma mill MBAs (when I was a public sector employee, everybody I worked with had one). Somebody with a masters in education does not have “more education” than somebody with a B.S. in engineering.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 20 Thumb down 8
  2. Marci Kiser says:

    Let’s leave aside the absurd PQ metric (almost as poorly-constructed as the National Review’s ratings). Let’s just focus on what we’ve learned about rigorous political scientist Tim Groseclose. It turns out that political science barely scratches the surface of his credentials.

    1) He’s a geneticist (question 1)

    2) He’s an oppressed minority (question 3)

    3) He can read the minds of our military (question 3 again, and heaven forfend he ever use his telepathy for evil!)

    4) He’s publishing a new dictionary where pro-religion = pro-Christian (question 4)

    5) He’s not just a stock market analyst, but a stock market psychologist (question 5). He knows the political views of stockholders in specific companies, even if he’s never met them (question 5). Not only this, he knows Rupert Murdoch never influenced the political perspective of Fox News, because Rachel Maddow has a job somewhere else!

    6) He’s a lawyer familiar with the unbeatable Chewbacca defense (quesion 5 again). Specifically, when asked about conservative-owned media outlets, his answer is that corporation-owned media companies are not necessarily more conservative than non-corporation-owned media companies, because some media companies are owned by religious cults.

    All of this is, of course, because Chewbacca is a Wookkiee but lives on Endor.

    7) He’s talked to poor people who have read Marx and Alinsky! (question 9 – well, half of question 9. He ignores the age aspect) Wait, what? PQ has no accounting for the level of nuance or justification in one’s views? Nonsense! It’s a *quotient*, for heaven’s sake! It’s practically math!

    8) He’s for affirmative action. That is, he supports raising the wages and lowering the bar of conservative professors and journalists.

    9) He’s the Buddha! (question 12) Well, at the very least he’s enlightened, and he’s enlightened because he reads a newspaper like the New York Times. But if you don’t listen to Rush Limbaugh or Bill O’Reilly (both flagrantly advertised as OPINION so they aren’t bound by journalistic ethics), you are doomed by your karma to be broken on the wheel of existence.

    So as the modern-day Goldilocks Buddha, Professor Grossclose knows that somewhere between one of the leading newspapers in the world and Rush Limbaugh is enlightenment.

    10) He’s a mathematical genius (question 14). That is, by taking the argle-bargle of his ‘research’ and stating via the transitive property of pithy insights that it all boils down to ‘the media really do influence the way people think and vote’, if you disagree with the former you disagree with the common sense of the latter.

    Heavens. No wonder conservatives have such a tough time being journalists or educators. Why waste such DaVincian range of expertise?

    I know it’s bad form to question such a multiply-credentialed polymath, but if I may, I’d like to suggest a quote from you in question 7 as a slugline to be placed under your book’s title. So then, it would read:

    Turn Left
    “But that’s just speculation, not evidence.”

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  3. Jestak says:

    Wow, you certainly did a good job of going through the submitted questions and picking the toughest, most challenging ones for Groseclose to answer–Not!!

    You seem clearly to indicate that you, not Groseclose, chose the questions for him to respond to. Your decision to focus on softball questions, while avoiding the ones that challenged his research on substantive grounds, is indefensible.

    You should have a second round where Groseclose has to answer some of the tough questions that you left out this time.

    Well-loved. Like or Dislike: Thumb up 23 Thumb down 5
    • James Briggs says:

      Who knows what kind of deal they have with Groseclose but he will never engage in honest debate because he isn’t a serious academic. Perhaps they want to have their readers to heap scorn on people like him. Others are doing interesting work on political bias and this is a great place to discuss their work.

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  4. Ben says:

    Yeah, this final installment of the Q&A with this guy has not quelled my outrage for Freakonomics. This guy must really have something on Levitt. They must go way back to Elementary school or something. There’s just so much ridiculousness in his answers that I don’t even know where to begin.

    Barney Frank, an ultra-liberal? What, just because he’s gay and he’s from Mass? C’mon he’s in the pocket of big finance as much as any Republican. And of course anyone w/ any sense calls free marketers “liberals,” not “conservatives” like we do in the US. Does anyone honestly believe in 2011 that Republicans are free marketers? C’mon, they’re pro-business, not pro-free markets. Next your gonna tell me Obama is also a wild-eyed liberal. His healthcare plan was pure Gingrich circa 1994. It’s a sop to the health insurance companies (again, pro-business, or “conservative” in US political parlance).

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    • James Briggs says:

      I’m not saying were should get rid of free speech but the media of communication has become so powerful that the truth as become irrelevant. In 1776 the importance of free speech was based on the idea that people said what they believed and the truth would eventually come out. Now that idea seems hopelessly naive. No one says what they believe anymore. Instead speakers hope to shape their readers views through rhetoric. The problem is everything is for sale including the institutions that used to provide the truth. The press is owned and controlled by the right. For example they spread the hoax that Barney Frank so controlled the president and congress that he single-handedly created the mortgage bubble. In academic we have individuals like Groseclose, we see the changes in Freakonomics and have to accept that researchers cheat to get grant money.

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  5. Owen says:

    How can I take you seriously when you compare The New York Times and Rush Limbaugh?

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  6. Jonathan says:

    So in order to be “enlightened” I should be listening to Rush Limbaugh? If that is your idea of a true “conservative” then I’m frightened to see what your “scale” looks like. It is embarrassing that you think anybody should listen to Limbaugh… Here’s a Limbaugh quote for you:

    “The NAACP should have riot rehearsal. They should get a liquor store and practice robberies.”

    and another:

    “Feminism was established to allow unattractive women easier access to the mainstream.”

    What a joke

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    • PatrioticUSGlory says:

      Rush Limbaugh employs humor which, because it involves liberal thinking or mob mentality, is likely to be taken literally by them and no one else. You, for instance, are a typical example.

      I believe it unlikely you have listened much to Limbaugh, for if you had, you would find his radio show challenging as it often requires thinking on the part of its listeners. A glib but well-placed comment often has the effect of causing listeners to think outside of their comfort level and learn something.

      The New York Times, and in my opinion ALL liberal media, fails in this regard. It whines, it complains, it skews, and requires obedience to its overall narrative that progressive is not only not evil, but that it is good.

      Thumb up 9 Thumb down 9
      • Natalie says:

        Really? The trope that all black people are violent and feminists are ugly is “challenging” and requires thinking on the part of the listeners? Your bar is set awfully low.

        Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3
      • James Briggs says:

        I have listened Rush Limbaugh quite a bit and their is no big whiner on the planet. SEE PEOPLE I told you what they were about. “They want people to think you are racists.” I wan to be fair. Limbaugh is very funny and engages in humor at a high level that you will hear on any other media outlet. Everyday he brings reports on interesting things you won’t hear any place else. He does not want his listeners to think. I remember him trying to convince his audience that McCain was untrustworthy. Bob Dole wrote a letter to counter Limbaugh’s lies. Limbaugh read the letter praising McCain and then said see even Dole doesn’t trust him. Limbaugh uses the same trick every tyrant uses to control the uneducated he says the end is neigh and soon they will destroy American. He predicted that Obama would end all free enterprise and socialize the economy. He predicted that Obama would close down all the radio stations and news papers. He talked about sending Conservatives to camps when they would be brainwashed. If you have any doubts listen to him. Actually everyone should listen to him for a while you will learn something.

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  7. mannyv says:

    Is the bias towards liberalism in newsrooms because conservatives would rather go do things than write about other people doing things?

    “Those that can’t do, teach. Those that can’t teach, write?”

    It has been observed in the past that the press tends to have all the perks of power without any of the responsibilities. That’s almost the perfect job description for an intellectual.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 18 Thumb down 15
    • PatrioticUSGlory says:

      Aside from the responsibility to submit your work by deadline….

      I find the lack of exposure by most liberals to anything other than liberal perspectives to cause today’s liberal journalists to write rather one-dimensionally for the choir. And I believe that results in declining quality, and with it the decline of the print industry.

      Thumb up 8 Thumb down 6
    • James Briggs says:

      The press is owned and controlled by the right. For example they spread the hoax that Barney Frank so controlled the President and Congress that he single-handedly created the mortgage bubble. The list of right wing hoaxes by the press is endless.

      Thumb up 1 Thumb down 5
  8. Caleb b says:

    How can the media have a liberal bias when they are owned by profit seeking corporations?

    Someone else said it last time, because they want to make money.

    I like NPR, I’m also a fiscal conservative. When NPR discusses the debt ceiling, all they want to talk about is how we need to raise taxes. Regardless of how you feel about taxes, spending cuts need equal, if not more, time in discussion. Why? Just like my own household, I always want to make more money, but I have WAY more control on how I spend it.

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    • Joshua Northey says:

      To be fair to NPR, I think the speak out in favor of raising taxes because it is the responsible position but an extremely unpopular one.

      So they defend it as their guests certainly won’t. If everyone was all jazzed up about raising taxes NPR would be all over government waste/abuse/fraud. But people don’t need to get riled up about spending, they already are.

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      • D.J. says:

        It’s pretty generous to credit NPR as principled for taking a stand in favor of raising taxes when they clearly have an interest in the government taking in enough tax money to continue to fund them.

        As for how profit-seeking corporations can somehow remain liberal, the answer’s pretty easy. Ever hear of a limousine liberal? Would the boards of the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Atlantic Monthly, Time Magazine, or Newsweek really intervene to make their publications more conservative in slant?

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    • Winghunter says:

      Go to these two websites and search NPR. Read all of the links and then see if you can ask that question again without blushing. If you can, you might be a Liberal.

      Media research Center http://www.mrc.org/public/default.aspx

      NewsBusters http://newsbusters.org/

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    • James Briggs says:

      Just like my own household, I always want to make more money, but I have WAY more control on how I spend it. Let’s look at your household. Let’s say you quit your job and got a job as a paperboy. When you family wants to buy food you say WAY control how you spend. But a family can’t eat on a paperboy’s salary. The fact that you think that on cent can finance the war in Iraq and Afghanistan by WAY controlling expenses is pathetic.

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