Eric Alterman’s What Liberal Media? attempted to rebut charges that American mass media have a left-leaning bias. Conservative pundits dominate talk radio, many liberal outlets carry conservative commentators, market-oriented ideas are ascendant in the think tank world, and, I might add, many bloggers have a libertarian orientation. So Alterman’s response has some punch. Anna Schwarz offers a good review of the book, in Jeffrey Friedman’s on-line The Dissident, you might know Jeff from his editorship of and writings in Critical Review, he is an impressive intellectual polyglot.
Schwarz concedes many of Alterman’s points, but does not believe that Alterman has dismissed the charge of liberal media bias. She writes:
Alterman never comes to grips with the fact that the people who cover the news are overwhelmingly liberal. In 1992, an astonishing 89 percent of Washington correspondents and editors voted for Bill Clinton…Alterman acknowledges midway through the book that there might be some merit to his opponents’ arguments: “the overall flavor of the elite media reporting favors gun control, campaign finance reform, gay rights and the environmental movement,” he writes…These are distinctly liberal stances and this admission, by itself, pokes a gaping hole into Alterman’s argument…
My (partial) take: TV broadcasters need a good story, which leads to an emphasis on visible victims who can be interviewed. Media will neglect unseen opportunity costs. This bias often supports a “left-wing” perspective, but not always out of design. The bias also gives extra attention to crime victims. Members of the public often think crime is worse than it truly is, arguably a “right-wing” bias, crime victims get on the news because they make for good stories. We should not forget that media output is demand-driven, and people do not always want their media to reflect their politics.
My question: It is not obvious that reporters have been especially left-wing throughout the history of the American republic. When and how did this start to change?
See also an excellent earlier post by co-blogger Alex.
Accusations of media bias are common but are typically based upon nothing more than subjective standards and anecdote. A brilliant new paper by Tim Groseclose (GSB Stanford, currently visiting GMU) and Jeff Milyo (U. Chicago, Harris School) pioneers a more promising approach. Since 1947, the interest group Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) has tracked how Senators and Represenatives vote on key issues and they have used these votes to rank politicians according to their liberalism. In the 2002 session, for example Ted Kennedy received an ADA score of 100 and Phil Gramm a score of 0. Political scientists are familiar with ADA scores and have come to rely on them as a measure of ideology.
Groseclose and Milyo have found a way to compute ADA scores for media outlets as if they were politicians. What they did was to examine the Congressional Record for every instance in which a politician cited a think tank. They then did the same thing for newspapers, network news shows and other media outlets. By matching newspapers with politicians who had similar citation records they can impute an ADA score for the media outlet. Joe Lieberman, for example, has an ADA score of 66.3. Suppose that in his speeches he cites the Brookings Institution twice as much as the Heritage Institute. If the New York Times has a similar citation style then the New York Times is assigned an ADA score of 66.3. (The method is slightly more complicated than this but this gives the right idea.) Note that Groseclose and Milyo do not have to determine whether the Brookings Institution is more liberal than the Heritage Institute all they need to know is that the Times has a similar citation style to Lieberman.
Ok, what were the results? It turns out that all of the major media outlets, with the exception of Fox News: Special Report are considerably more liberal than the median member of the House over the 1993-1999 period. Moreover, although Fox News: Special Report was to the right of the median house member it was closer to the median member than were most of the other media outlets. (Interestingly, all of the liberal media outlets were less liberal than the average Democrat and Fox News is less conservative than the average Republican – thus there is a sense in which all media outlets are less biased than is the typical politician.) Here are the ADA scores of various media outlets along with some comparable politicians.
Joe Lieberman (D-Ct.) 66.3
New York Times 64.6
CBS Evening News 64.5
USA Today 62.6
NBC Nightly News 62.5
Los Angeles Times 58.4
Ernst Hollings (D-SC) 56.1
ABC World News Tonight 54.8
Drudge Report 44.1
Arlen Spector (R-PA) 44.0
House Median 39.0
Senate Median 36.9
Olympia Snowe (R-Me) 36.0
Charlie Stenholm (D-Tex) 29.3
Fox News Special Report 26.4