How Biased Is Your Media?: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

(Photo: Jon S)

When it comes to politics and media, the left argues that the right is more biased than the left while the right argues that the left is more biased than the right. Who’s right?

That’s what we try to answer in our latest podcast, “How Biased Is Your Media?” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen live via the media player above, or read the transcript below.) In a way, this episode is a follow-up to a podcast we put out a few months ago called “The Truth Is Out There, Isn’t It?,” which examined how we choose to believe what we believe about a variety of important issues. In this episode, we apply that same idea in a small-bore fashion, going after media bias.

You’ll hear from a variety of media practitioners and academic scholars who’ve been brave (foolhardy?) enough to wade into the media-bias debate. Among the practitioners: Glenn Beck (who’s been on Freakonomics Radio before), Ann Coulter, Juan Williams, and Andrew Rosenthal, the editorial page editor at The New York Times.

Everyone of course has his opinion about media bias, but we were trying to get beyond opinion. As Steve Levitt points out, this is no simple matter:

LEVITT: Measuring media bias is a really difficult endeavor because unlike what economists usually study, which are numbers and quantities, media bias is all expressed in words.

So we look at some of the recent empirical work on media bias, in which research scholars use words as data to better understand whether a) media bias exists; b) if so, to what degree, and in what directions; and c) what purpose/s it serves. In a 2004 paperTim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo took a stab at media bias; that paper became the launching point of Groseclose’s book Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind. You’ll hear from Gloseclose about his methodologies and findings, and you can read an earlier Q&A with him hereHere’s how Levitt has described the Groseclose-Milyo analysis:

LEVITT: Tim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo estimate how left-wing or right-wing media outlets are based on what research by think tanks they mention in their stories. They then compare that to the think-tank research that elected officials cite when they talk on the House or Senate floor, to calibrate where the media fits relative to the Congress. They find some interesting answers: most of the media does have a liberal bias (throwing out the editorial page, the Wall Street Journal is the most liberal of all, even beating the New York Times!). Fox News is one of the few outlets that is right of center.

Here’s how 20 major media outlets rank on Groseclose and Milyo’s slant scale, with 100 representing the most liberal and zero the most conservative:

 

ABC Good Morning America

56.1

 

 

ABC World News Tonight

61.0

 

 

CBS Early Show

66.6

 

 

CBS Evening News

73.7

 

 

CNN NewsNight with Aaron Brown

56.0

 

 

Drudge Report

60.4

 

 

Fox News Spec. Rept. w/ Brit Hume

39.7

 

 

Los Angeles Times

70.0

 

 

NBC Nightly News

61.6

 

 

NBC Today Show

64.0

 

 

New York Times

73.7

 

 

Newshour with Jim Lehrer

55.8

 

 

Newsweek

66.3

 

 

NPR Morning Edition

66.3

 

 

Time Magazine

65.4

 

 

U.S. News and World Report

65.8

 

 

USA Today

63.4

 

 

Wall Street Journal

85.1

 

 

Washington Post

66.6

 

 

Washington Times

35.4

 

And here’s a chart of some well-known Congressmembers’ “Political Quotients,” based on their voting records. Again, 100 represents the most liberal, zero is the most conservative. (In the episode, you’ll hear where Levitt, Groseclose, and I rank on this “PQ” scale. You can take a quiz to find out your own PQ here.)

 

 

University of Chicago economists Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro have also done some interesting research on media bias. In a 2010 study, they used text as data to look at common Democratic and Republic phrases in Congress to help determine which way newspapers lean — and, most important, why. Here are some common Democratic phrases:

 

And some of the phrases favored by Congressional Republicans:

In this episode, you’ll also hear from Danny Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, on why bias is hard for each of us to see.

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  1. Tony King says:

    I love reading Freakonomics columns but this is one of your worst. I have studied media bias at length, and you fall right into the trap in this one. The problem with this approach is with a conservative congress in 2004, anything remotely critical becomes a left wing media bias. The same could be done to show a right wing bias with a democratic congress.

    The fundamental problem with bias studies is to find a bias, one must first know reality. Too often, today, we take 2 talking heads with an agenda, put them together, and let them spin and call it analyzing the story. They aren’t analysing anything. They are trying to spin for political gain and all facts went out the window after the 10 second story snippit. So if the truth is left or right of the ideology of the nation, then the truth begins to be seen as “biased” even if it is true. In such a case, proclaiming the world is round and the govt should recognize it becomes a left wing bias; proclaiming the world is round and the private sector will prove it becomes a right wing bia. But both focus on the bias of approach instead of the error… The world is round, not flat.

    The question is how do you get at the truth of the story to find good bias data? I have yet to find a good, sound methodology for finding bias, which is why we still create measures that the average person doesn’t understand, but allow both sides to shout “BIAS!”. Maybe the answer isn’t in a simple bias matrix but rather in understanding the profit strategies of today’s media. After all, they aren’t loss leaders of the 70s anymore, they are big business of the 21st century, the information age. (Hint, hint)

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    • J says:

      I’d argue with some of your points in the last paragraph, but instead let’s agree a media source that tells us they’re unbiased has already lied to us once.

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    • tmeier says:

      They are trying to measure how the bias of media differ from the average bias of the population not determine who is right, that is an entirely different question.

      Thinking you know “the truth” about complex political and social questions pretty much guarantees you aren’t going to like a study like this.

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      • eiaboca says:

        Except the pubic’s opinion and the opinion of journalists aren’t the same thing. And the public’s opinion and that of the people in Congress isn’t the same thing. You’d need some standard that was at least a little less shifting than the current Congress, an attempt to try for some modicum of objectivity in what it means to be liberal and what it means to be conservative.

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      • tmeier says:

        But there isn’t any objective meaning to liberal and conservative, they are relative as are left and right. Whether a thing is to your left or right depends on where you are. There is no absolute left or right as some people seem to think. I just got finished reading a biography of JFK who would be a right-wing reactionary if he were alive today and held the same positions.

        The people who made this study believe is supports the theory that most of the media report news with a slant which is to the left of the average American.

        Like a lot of commentators I can’t see why you would bother with this except as a propaganda exercise, it isn’t going to change anyone’s mind.

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      • eiaboca says:

        I don’t think you can say regarding policy that there are necessary and sufficient conditions for being one or the other, but instead a family resemblance of people who choose to identify in a category.

        In other words, there are generalizations to be made that will not hold up for every single identifier. If concepts didn’t have any kind of public meaning known to the people who use them in discourse there wouldn’t be any concepts! Republican and Democrat could mean whatever to whomever! But when someone says they are a liberal you do get a general sense of what that means. It might be related to current understanding, but it also has a concept definition.

        Here’s a first stab: Liberal– more government spending, more social programs; Conservative–less government spending, less social programs.

        Conservative–generally pro-corporation/religion/other large authoritative institution as a fundamental unit of society. Liberal–not so much.

        Liberal–more regulation of economic policy; Conservative–nope!

        It doesn’t mean that these are hard and fast boundaries, but you have to have some basis for analysis, and a transient body of politicians that are bounded inside a particular context just doesn’t hold up to a more conceptual test of what being liberal or conservative means.

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      • tmeier says:

        I don’t think liberals want more social spending, what they want is for some problems to go away and they see government spending as the best solution. Likewise conservatives don’t like corporations, they like economic liberty and see corporations as a consequence of that liberty.

        If you want to understand the real differences look at why they take a particular position not what that position seems to be.

        I don’t see the conservatives or liberals I know in any part of your definition.

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    • Grant Sutton says:

      I found the article interesting, and went to the site to test my own PQ. I became annoyed at the amount of work required to take the test with the “bias”ing nature of the question. The vote tally by political party as well as the phrasing of the issues it seemed had a very slanted view.

      Can we put a grade on his test, and practices from a scientific prospective. Here is my idea on how to do it. First we have a control group, the members of the government that actually voted on the laws, and put the test up with just the laws. No translation to common English language. Then we put a test up with a very liberal description of the laws being past, and one with a very conservative attempting to bias the people as much as possible. By attempting to swing people mind I think you not only measure the ability to bias a population, but the bias in the test themselves.

      Maybe also allowing people to click on the information they want to receive from the test would be interesting. One click to see the bill in true form as passed or rejected, one click to see a conservative understanding of the bill, one click to see a liberal understanding, one click to see how congress voted i.e. just raw totals. One click to see how the parties voted. By measuring each click you could tell the information that each person desired to know when making the choice of whether the bill should be passed. Certainly this would not design a perfect test just like Bill Maher or Bill O’Riley having an equal number of guest on a show reporting to be Conservative or Liberal does not guarantee a bias in either direction, but i think you would get a far better picture of the make up of yourself and others taking that test.

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      • Pete says:

        I listened to the podcast and then also decided to take the PQ test a little bit later. First of all, I love the podcast and I enjoyed this one as well. But I wanted to add onto the comments about the quiz above to express how I was also disappointed by the language of the questions and the party tally shown at the end of each.

        Its ironic that a guy who studies media bias would have a quiz on his site that allows for the participant to be biased. Even if the language wasn’t biased, which one could argue it was, the party voting tallies at the end allows for the participant to simply choose what his respective party chose in 2009. Or at least unconsciously, or consciously, skew themselves towards their identifiable party affiliation.

        Maybe Groseclose could use some of those straight shooting news writers to write the questions on his quiz next time.

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      • SSInterest says:

        If you read Left Turn, you will see the study authors did that in their methodology.

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    • Dave Outlaw says:

      Tony
      You nailed it…facts are easy to prove but perceptions are harder for us to define. To validate a perception as a truth requires that it is repeats in the same context over and over. Because perceptions is a verb and facts are nouns perceptions implies that it requires action and can change by definition. We must also be mindful that even if a perception is taken out of context does not mean it is not a truth in another context.
      Dave Outlaw

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    • akcita says:

      Perhaps you didn’t understand the method they used. The issues are taken from normal political discourse and positions established as wither conservative, moderate, or Liberal. The reporting of the given outlet is reviewed and the position they are taking or favoring rather than the fact that they are reporting is the driving factor. If the media outlet comes out against Drilling in ANWAR by focusing on the immense loss to Nature, it is a liberal talking point that is being spouted, if it discusses the wasteland that ANWAR is and focus on the Energy and jobs, it is conservative, and if it does both or speaks of a middle ground it is considered in the middle/moderate for reporting purposes.

      Speaking out against the status quo is not what this method is tracking.

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      • Peter of Brooklyn says:

        I don’t think akeita understood the method used. The scoring system is NOT based on issues, but instead on a rather convoluted system based on a score given out to members of congress by a website. The whole system is clearly flimsy, and the statistics stuff has nothing to do with whether you think the measure is good.

        As I understand it: Step one, somebody gives a score to some or all members of congress, a higher number means more liberal, a lower more conservative; step two, look at all the times a selection of “think tanks” (broadly defined) are cited by those members of congress; step three assign a score to the think tanks based on the score of the members of congress who cite it; step four, look at the pattern of citations of the same think tanks in various media outlets; step five, assign a score to the media outlet based on the scores of the think tanks it cites;

        step six: very important make a big deal of the fact that you used some statistics formulas, and try hard to gloss over the real issues: (1) is the original score meaningful?, (2) Why should you think a think tank that is cited by a member of congress makes that think tank more or less liberal; (3) why should the fact that a newspaper, like the WSJ, which cites these think tanks make it more or less liberal?

        b/t/w if you look up the original paper this is based on, go to the section trying to explain the wsj, you’ll find a reference backing up the claim that WSJ is liberal – based on the WSJ promotion of homosexuality!

        In an essay titled Myth of the conservative Wall Street Journal, Paul Sperry writes (his essay is cited as backup in the Groseclose article), “But did you know that liberal homosexuals for years have helped decide what goes on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, commonly cited as a bastion of conservatism?”

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    • RSense says:

      Where is PBS on this?!

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1
    • Dr_Jones says:

      Your assessment of this article is off. The study did not determine bias based on story content, rather on which think tank authored the material qoute by the media outlet.

      Since the think tanks had a stated political affiliation. The authors of the study ranked each think tank as either conservative or liberal based on thier stated political leanings.

      Presuming that, a conservative think tank would author studies with right slanting content and a liberal think tank would author studies with left slanting content meant that every “study” or report cited became a marker for or against the political ideology that authored the study.

      By using this technique the authors had no need for baseline data (reality) as it became irrevelevant.

      I certainly am not saying that this technique is flawless, but it probably got it in the ball park.

      Quick and dirty…

      Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0
    • Fred says:

      Most “truth” is purely perspective, especially in politics and written history. Your perception of political ‘truth’ is most often completely relative to your personal bias and/or self-interest. You example of the truth of the shape of the earth is a poor one, because very little political debate has to do with the relatively simple measurement of the shape of a large mass. Instead, it has to do with the complex interaction of human groups for which there is very little black and white area.

      You’d have to accomplish a much more in depth critique of the methods of the author before levying a legitimate crticism of the methods. For all we know, the methods are far more valid than are your own in your research. Where are your quantified results and how are they more valid than those of the author?

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  2. Zach Brannan says:

    Not to be a stickler, but your graphic cites Barney Frank and JFK representing my home state of Mississippi. I think you meant “MA”.

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  3. 164 says:

    Is that a mistake, the WSJ at 85.1more liberal than the New York Times?

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    • Erik - Dallas says:

      “throwing out the editorial page, the Wall Street Journal is the most liberal of all, even beating the New York Times!” You are thinking of the WSJ editorial page, that is their conservative arm.

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    • Akcita says:

      I am betting that they are looking at the issues presented on the WSJ editorial pages, which are totally Liberal in their slant.

      Thumb up 0 Thumb down 2
  4. Simonsez says:

    Very disappointing episode. Judging “slant” by the mere presence of phrases, with absolutely no regard for the context in which those phrases are used, is absurd. According to this methodology, if a pundit were to state, “Poor people don’t deserve any tax breaks. Increase taxes on the middle class if you want to see economic growth. Cut funding on those living in poverty and cut health care if you want to fix the budget deficit”, this methodology would evaluate that pundit as a far-leaning liberal.

    I would have expected a little more intellectual skepticism from you guys when a guest comes on spouting such complete nonsense.

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    • rehajm says:

      I read ‘Left Turn’ and this was the first thing to cross my mind as well. Supporting evidence- Nobody would reasonably conclude The Wall Street Journal has a strong left wing bias, though they do publish many left wing phrases in their arguments against the left. What say you, Groseclose?

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      • rehajm says:

        BTW, I’m looking at the media bias score of a quite liberal 85.1 for the WSJ (from the story).

        Thumb up 6 Thumb down 3
      • jmx says:

        It’s pretty simple. The opinion pages of the WSJ are overwhelmingly conservative, but the rest of the paper, which still takes up the majority of the paper, is often more liberal than the average newspaper.

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      • Alvaro Fernandez says:

        In the Uncommon Knowledge video series the author of ‘Left turn” explained that the study was done pre Rupert Murdoch’s era.

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    • Jason says:

      However, in modern politics, someone on the right would never say your quote in that way. Part of the reason the language analysis works is that speakers on the House floor and talking heads on cable news operate like broken records. They won’t say “poor people” don’t deserve things – they will say that we need to fix the broken welfare system. Or they just won’t talk about it and focus on other issues. They certainly wouldn’t say “Increase taxes” in any context – both Romney and Obama have been in trouble for out-of-context clauses because sound bytes clip the rest of the sentence. Insiders learn to give minimal quotes that fit the narrative – that is how you maintain control of the message and the news cycle.

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  5. Allen Hughes says:

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

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    • James says:

      What you see here is not really a left-right bias, but a variant on the boiling frog effect. What attracts media attention is not stasis, but change: the higher the rate of change, the more attention it attracts. So when gas prices are increasing rapidly, that attracts media attention. When prices remain static (or decrease slowly, as they have been until recent weeks*), that’s not news, regardless of whether the base price is low or high.

      *Indeed, if the media were notably biased to the left, one would think we’d have seen weekly stories along the lines of “Obama policy success, gas prices drop again this week! (0.1 cent, but who’s counting?)”

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    • Jason says:

      James is right about the lack of change impacting coverage. However, the other challenge that conservatives face is that their philosophy is “do-nothing” (laissez-faire, or whatever you want to call it). Liberals can say, “I am going to do X, Y, and Z to bring down gas prices.” Conservatives say, “I am going to not do those things.” So, even if they are right, all a conservative can say is, “I didn’t do anything, and it worked!” See Romney’s wishy-washy comments about the auto industry bailout today – I wouldn’t have done what Obama did, but I would not have let the companies be liquidated.

      All of this is broadly speaking, and there are plenty of counter examples, but I think it generally contributes to bias. Media would rather cover what you are doing, not what you are not doing.

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    • eiaboca says:

      I went to take the quiz, and immediately found problems in it additional to the ones already mentioned. Going in, you know if you identify as a Republican or a Democrat, and giving the way the votes in the House fell is extremely prejudicial.

      Second, there were many times that the bill provided to me that was “liberal” wasn’t liberal enough for me, and I would have therefore not favored it. Would the quiz have taken that as evidence that I am conservative? If it does, it is inaccurate, because I am indeed MORE liberal than the current Congress.

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    • Greg Mankiw says:

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

      Disliked! Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 21
      • Paul says:

        @GregMankiw — That’s not a very scientific or accurate means of determining bias. One issue? And you decided it based on NPR using one phrase? “Enhanced interrogation techniques” covers a lot of techniques other than waterboarding, if that’s what you’re citing as “torture.” Do a wiki search and get informed. [e.g., is yelling at someone inside your definition of "torture"?] Your assessment says more about your bias than that of the media.

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  6. Wilson says:

    What I never see mentioned in these discussions is something I call the “Cubs fan” effect. Daniel Kahneman probably has a better name for it. It’s like this: it’s an article of faith among Cubs fans that sportscasters on national TV networks are biased against the Cubs. So whenever a game is broadcast on Fox or NBC, you can guarantee you will hear critical comments about the Cubs’ players and management.

    I believed this too when I lived in Chicago, so when I moved to St. Louis I was surprised to find that Cardinals fans feel the same way: network sportscasters are biased against their home team too! It turns out it’s a universal phenomenon.

    The way I see it is, we don’t think too much about comments that accord with our own beliefs. We let those pass by, thinking “well of course!” But when we hear something that clashes with our beliefs, we really notice it.

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    • lutraphobe says:

      Here’s another way to put it:

      If 80% of a report agrees with my view and 20% doesn’t, I’d view that report as 100% biased. If 100% or a report agrees with my view, I’d call that 0% biased.

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    • Shane L says:

      Well said Wilson – I have never seen someone argue that the media is biased in THEIR favour.

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  7. edel says:

    ABC, CBS, USA Today, Washington Post, wow… virtually all media are “Liberal”!
    That should pause us for a second to see that something is not right here; literally!

    I don’t doubt in how the study was conducted, but that definitely something else may be at play; Likely there is a disconnect of what conservative politicians talk about and what the society (press) care about, even conservatives.

    Is a bit like the catholic church talking against anti-conceptive methods while catholics used them as much as any one else. Should we come to the conclusion so that 98% of catholics aren’t catholics? No, just that their leaders are totally disconnected with their followers on their main topics of discussion, unlike other religious groups.

    Sorry, but most conservatives I know could care less about “embryos”, “stem cells” and “pass the bill” while they do about “credit card”, “middle class” and “budget deficit” as any one else are.

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  8. life is biased says:

    I think this is a great article and points out some of the issues of trying to identify bias in several different venues. I think you see this even manifest in the comments section. While reading some of these, it occurred to me that a rather open look at a study conducted on potential bias, comes across to some as being “very disappointing episode.”

    Then when you read the reasoning behind your comment, you see that it is based clearly on underlying biases for what answer they were hoping the study would find. There isn’t really a sound argument against the article for how the studies were conducted, and yet the whole article is prefaced by the statement “Measuring media bias is a really difficult endeavor because unlike what economists usually study, which is numbers and quantities, media bias is all expressed in words.”

    While the article is talking about analyzing data to find markers which point to sentiment behind a statement, comments reply with rather grandiose and immeasurable statements like “The fundamental problem with bias studies is to find a bias, one must first know reality.”

    It seems that the sentiment behind these comments is the core of the issue that the article is trying to illustrate. When you are looking at data that consists of points which are more complex than say a number, then results are difficult to ascertain. While the article clear points this out, it offers several studies to illustrate certain trends which are present in speech that MAY have some correlation to sentiment.

    To most people media bias is somewhere along the lines of Justice Potter stating that “I’ll know it when I see it.” Yet, of the studies there are some surprises which I did not see coming – the left leaning WSJ and the left leaning Drudgereport?

    It is an interesting problem to consider measuring sentiment in an unbiased way; I appreciate the article in considering the complexities in such a short space. While measuring bias may be difficult, it seems more difficult to remove your own filter and allow the data to present its own story.

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    • Tony says:

      I love your books, but I am very disappointed with this blog. It does not use any of the fact based statistical analysis that makes your book so good. If I was to go to your website and read this blog post then I would never have bought your books. Why did you jettison your fact based statistical analysis for this?

      Why did you use an analysis from an acknowledged hardcore right winger? You know his bias would seep into his analysis. You know from your previous analysis in your book that what data you use is very important. Also, why did you use a study that only use one year of data? You used much years of data in your book. Why did you take the lazy way out in this blog? This is an extremely poor ad for the methodology you use in your book. If this is how you are going to make your blogs then please stop. It is harming the brand you made with your book. It also makes me strongly question how slipshod you did when you gathered the data in your book. I already questioned some of your conclusions when reading it. This just makes me question how you collect your data and your conclusions much, much more.

      In short, using the thesis from your book, we base our behavior by economic incentives. Your incentive for this website is to sell more books and appearances. But the minimal effort you put into your blogs demonstrates that you are going are choosing the cheap route, the route you claim OB GYNs and cardiologists go down because they want to earn more money. They don’t care about their patients. They just want to earn money. If patients do well, that is a plus. You just want to earn more money and this quick way is how you want to keep your name out there, but it is actually hurting everything that you claimed you were for in your books.

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      • Jeff says:

        This article contradicted itself. First it claimed that most people are conservative, and if not influenced by the media, would lean more to the right, and later claimed that, despite the staff’s personal beliefs, newspapers adopt the political leanings of the readers in their market.

        Can’t be both.

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