Frank Rich on Media Bias

Our latest full-length podcast, “How Biased Is Your Media?,” is about how academic researchers have been trying to measure the slant of your news.

The most common meme in this realm says that the mainstream media leans to the left. Frank Rich, a former op-ed columnist at the New York Times, who is now a writer-at-large for New York Magazine, says recent history proves this just isn’t true. Take, for instance, how his former employer handled the lead-up to the war in Iraq:

RICH: I think it flies very much in the face of the assumption that the so-called liberal media are out to doom Republicans or conservative causes. The New York Times promoted dubious evidence of Saddam’s weapons programs on its front page. The New York Times is thought by many on the right to be a so-called liberal slanting paper. The Washington Post, also, less elaborately, failed to really vet the evidence. The networks, CBS, NBC, and ABC are often considered by the right to be liberal news organizations. None of them questioned at all the rationale for going to war in Iraq.

Rich wrote about the media’s handling of the Iraq War in his book The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina. In an interview with us, he laments the increase of partisan news:

RICH: Sure, some media are biased, [but] it’s usually clear who’s biased in which direction, and indeed, some organizations — Fox News and MSNBC — really make no bones about it. I find it gets under my skin a little bit less than it used to because it’s so transparent. Here’s a sort of important point to me about Fox News: I think that people, liberals, should be somewhat less concerned about it. The way I have become less concerned about it is because first of all, it really is speaking to the converted. It’s very unlikely that some naïve American, some tabula rasa American, is going to stumble on to Fox News and be brainwashed. It’s so transparently what it is.

Rich also says that things get tricky when it comes to discerning between opinion and news:

RICH: The fact is, particularly as people receive things digitally out of context of the print publication, the labels become murkier. Readers should not be expected to necessarily make these distinctions themselves. And I’m not convinced that news organizations have done a great job in this new world of making it clear. One would hope that readers would know the concept of separation of church and state and news and editorial, but maybe they shouldn’t be asked to. Plus, almost all of these publications and news organizations are stepping up the amount of opinion. The Times and The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal all have many more columnists than they used to — opinion columnists. And so they carry a greater proportion of the weight of the brand of those news organizations. And it’s understandably confusing to people.

The podcast features not only academics but some practitioners of news and opinion, ranging from Ann Coulter on the right to Times opinion editor Andy Rosenthal on the left.

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  1. Jay says:

    It’s unfortunate that the only lens through which we seem to grasp or discuss the concept of media bias is the right/left political lens. Other meaningful forms of bias such as racial bias, concision bias, and nationalist bias are arguably more important. For example, the run up to the Iraq War was a particularly egregious example of nationalist media’s deference to political leadership, and supposedly left- and right-leaning media sources alike were all too happy to beat the war drums.

    The incessant focusing on left vs. right in our conversations about media bias inhibits having a meaningful dialogue about media. It plays directly into the hands of the sound-bite culture that has come to dominate modern politics and the media landscape.

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  2. Nate says:

    In the podcast, isn’t kind of telling that the side saying there is a liberal media bias has studies and stats to back it up, while the rebuttal is simply members of the same accused media simply saying “not true!”

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  3. Paul says:

    Very disappointing that Freakonomics would publish something like this. A few anecdotes by a very liberal writer to make this case. No substantive facts to support the case. I expect better from the guys at Freakonomics. Really, Frank Rich? Geez…………….

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  4. Quin says:

    If, as the joke goes, a conservative is anyone to your right and a liberal is anyone to your left, it is not at all surprising that Rich, who was one leftiest of the NYT opinionators, sees that paper as not liberal. But his views are not remotely near the center, and I can only see his evaluation as what might be called “cosmopolitan provincialism.”

    The NYTimes Ombudsman answers the question “Is the NYT a liberal newspaper?” with “Of course it is.” (http://www.nytimes.com/2004/07/25/opinion/the-public-editor-is-the-new-york-times-a-liberal-newspaper.html)

    He writes: “These are the social issues: gay rights, gun control, abortion and environmental regulation, among others. And if you think The Times plays it down the middle on any of them, you’ve been reading the paper with your eyes closed.

    “But if you’re examining the paper’s coverage of these subjects from a perspective that is neither urban nor Northeastern nor culturally seen-it-all; if you are among the groups The Times treats as strange objects to be examined on a laboratory slide (devout Catholics, gun owners, Orthodox Jews, Texans); if your value system wouldn’t wear well on a composite New York Times journalist, then a walk through this paper can make you feel you’re traveling in a strange and forbidding world.

    “On a topic that has produced one of the defining debates of our time [gay marriage], Times editors have failed to provide the three-dimensional perspective balanced journalism requires. This has not occurred because of management fiat, but because getting outside one’s own value system takes a great deal of self-questioning. Six years ago, the ownership of this sophisticated New York institution decided to make it a truly national paper. Today, only 50 percent of The Times’s readership resides in metropolitan New York, but the paper’s heart, mind and habits remain embedded here. You can take the paper out of the city, but without an effort to take the city and all its attendant provocations, experiments and attitudes out of the paper, readers with a different worldview will find The Times an alien beast.”

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    • Joe J says:

      To me one of the more obvious cases of bias in overcovering or not covering a story is in the summer of 2009, Several people were shot because of their views and stance on abortion, as admitted by the two killers. One was the pro-abortion Dr. whose story was “front page news” over talked about. The others killed were pro-life protesters, their story was burried if reported on at all.

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  5. Scott Emery says:

    I like your program, I liked the podcast, but…

    In the wrapup to the podcast you asked (paraphrased) “Why do people coalesce into two groups?” giving as an example “If I want to protect the environment does that necessarily mean that I also want higher taxes?”. It sounded to me like you were concluding this is a universal human condition. I think it’s more a reflection of the way politics in the United States of America (bless us) is bi-polar. Third party runs here are seen as (political) suicide attempts or misguided efforts that split one side or the other (Thurmond, Wallace, Perot, Nader). In other countries there are more parties in the representative body. People are freer to associate with the opinions that interest them w/o linking to aspects that bother them.
    As a non-economist, I’m draw the conclusion that people split into two groups here because it’s the only way to get their opinion represented, that this is the only viable choice offered. I think it leads to some unusual groupings and perhaps some discomfort.
    I don’t think it’s natural, I think it’s necessary.

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    • Joe J says:

      Good point, but some of it is set up that way by the parties in power to limit the possibilities of actual competition. This is mainly accomplished with making it very difficult to become on the ballot in many states. Even when people have an entire established political party to do the legwork the main people fail to get on the ballots. i.e. Newt G failed to get on the Republican primary ballot in VA, and 4 yrs ago Hillary failed to get on the ballot of some states during the Democrat primaries. These are people with thousands of supporters in these states, who aren’t able to work through all the rules and regs to properly get on the ballot. What chance does a 3rd party have when it is starting out.
      Other things which spur it is matching campaign funds, you have to be “big ” to get matching funds, but once you are big you double your money. Congressional, majority and minority seniority rues, would make a 3rd party Senator, relatively powerless.

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  6. DJR says:

    This is about as plausible as arguing that university humanities departments don’t skew extremely left wing, just because there are a few conservative-leaning colleges out there. Ok, the Times did beat the drums for the Iraq War — but it was an outlier, coming soon enough after 9/11 that their normal perspective was momentarily skewed. Are there any examples of right-leaning reportage the Times has produced since?

    How about applying some of Freakonomics’ vaunted statistical analysis to this issue? Some actual facts would be nice. For instance, The New York Times last endorsed a Republican presidential candidate in 1956 — and that was Eisenhower, a war hero. That seems like a salient piece of data, no? If there truly were no left-wing bias in operation at the Times, wouldn’t they have found at least one GOPer worthy of their endorsement in the last half century? How about the stats (I don’t have them at my fingertips and I’m too lazy to look them up, but we’ve all seen them) on political donations from reporters at mainstream media outlets? I believe they run 90+ percent in favor of Democrats. Is it possible that that has no effect on their coverage decisions?

    Our old friend anecdotal evidence suggests otherwise. DaveyNYC rightly invokes Fast & Furious — the administration provided guns that have killed numerous people. It’s fact. It’s admitted. The only question is how far up it went. The Times seems uninterested, as does the Washington Post. Or, in a different vein, compare the treatment of Republican John McCain’s supposed “affair” (unproven, unfounded, but made the front page of New York Times at a moment that just happened to provide maximum damage to his presidential campaign) with the treatment of the factual, child-producing affair of Democrat John Edwards with Rielle Hunter. That was broken by The Enquirer and actively dismissed by the mainstream media until they couldn’t ignore it any longer. And we all know the story of how the MSM sat on the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal until Drudge broke it. We can’t know, it’s true, what they would have done had it been a Republican president. But I have my suspicions.

    I don’t watch Fox News (or any TV news for that matter — they’re all garbage). But I understand why it exists. Without Fox, without Drudge, without Instapundit, etc., there would be no corrective to the decided and pronounced left-wing bias of the MSM.

    I agree that the bias itself is not the issue. The issue is that the MSM can’t see (or, equally likely, refuses to admit) that it *has* such a pronounced bias. Frank Rich is but the latest in a long line of deniers. Pauline Kael famously found it incomprehensible that Nixon was elected: “No one I know voted for him!” It’s time for liberals to admit that they are all Pauline Kale now.

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  7. Chris says:

    Using Frank was a bad idea… I would have thought any number of journalists would have been a better choice. Mr. Rich has his own track record of biased reporting.

    Even the very opinion he uses to justify his arguements are quite biased.

    “Here’s a sort of important point to me about Fox News: I think that people, liberals, should be somewhat less concerned about it. The way I have become less concerned about it is because first of all, it really is speaking to the converted. It’s very unlikely that some naïve American, some tabula rasa American, is going to stumble on to Fox News and be brainwashed. It’s so transparently what it is.”

    This infers that Fox News is the terrible propaganda machine purported by media and the White house. The bias has been verified by this study

    http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/polisci/faculty/groseclose/Media.Bias.8.htm

    A very significant quote is near the beginning under the “A Measure of Media Bias”
    heading.

    “Our results show a strong liberal bias. All of the news outlets except Fox News’ Special Report and the Washington Times received a score to the left of the average member of Congress. And a few outlets, including the New York Times and CBS Evening News, were closer to the average Democrat in Congress than the center. These findings refer strictly to the news stories of the outlets. That is, we omitted editorials, book reviews, and letters to the editor from our sample.”

    Mr. Rich even addresses that opinions vs. news gets tricky… So to did the authors of the study which is why the parimeters of this study was confined to reported news and not opinion.

    So he may have not been the best to address the issue.

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  8. andrewphilips says:

    The Iraq war had so much of a rally-round-the flag effect, where not viewing it in a pro-war light would have made the papers (NYT, WP) seem anti-patriotic…so I’m not sure how much this example can be used as a case against media bias.

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