Media bias? Give me more, please!

By Jack Shafer
September 20, 2011

By Jack Shafer
The views expressed are his own.

Before we go any further on the topic, may we first please thank the gods for media bias?

If not for media bias, I’m certain that my news diet would taste so strongly of sawdust and talc that I would abandon news consumption completely. As long as I’m eating news, give me the saffron smoothness of New York Times liberalism and the hallelujah hot sauce excitement of Fox News Channel conservatism. Anything but a menu of balance, moderation, and fairness!

Not that I don’t value balance, moderation, and fairness—a good Associated Press story can nourish the soul as well as a six-pack of Bud on a hot summer day. But as a rule, I like my news chefs to make spicy meals or no meals at all.

My devotion to biased media puts me on the outs with the conservative gang at the Media Research Center, who patrol the nation’s airwaves and news pages for liberal transgressions against the truth, and the liberals at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and Media Matters for America, who stalk conservative deviations. Good luck to you all, I say, but leave me off your e-mail lists.

Yet the search for media bias goes on, the latest contribution to the genre being a new book by Tim Groseclose, Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind. Professor Groseclose, who holds positions in both the political science and economics departments at UCLA, has with his colleague Jeff Milyo, devised a new way to measure bias. First, he calculated the “PQs,” or political quotients, of members of Congress “based upon issues chosen by the Americans for Democratic Action.” The closer the member follows the ADA’s liberal line, the higher his score; the less often, the lower. The PQ machine awards Rep.  Maxine Waters, D-Calif., a perfect PQ of 100 and Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., a PQ of 4.8. Former U.S. senator Arlen Specter scored about 50, making him the archetypal middle-of-the-roader. (I took Groseclose’s 10-item questionnaire and recorded a PQ of 30, but don’t put too much stock in that score. I’m a libertarian, a political persuasion that confounds questionnaires designed to smoke out righties from lefties.)

The two scholars then devised “SQs,” or slant quotients, to measure media bias. The more liberal think tanks a news outlet cited, the greater its SQ. The New York Times came in at 73.7 out of 100 for perfectly liberal and the Washington Times scored 35.4. By juxtaposing PQs and SQs, Groseclose attempts to demonstrate how far the press diverges from what America thinks.

I won’t bother to argue with Groseclose whether the New York Times is more liberal than the Washington Times. Neither would former New York Times Public Editor Daniel Okrent. The average reader who seeks the New York Times isn’t looking for a “normal” publication that cites liberal, centrist, and conservative think tanks in equal portions. He’s likely looking for a publication that ranks his Manhattan-state-of-mind as normal—that is pro-gay marriage, pro-gun control, pro-choice, pro-regulation, and so on. This reader won’t throw his newspaper to the dirt in disgust if an article mentions the Heritage Foundation or the American Enterprise Institute, but he’s not going to tolerate a newspaper that acts like a debate society, giving equal time to all points of view in pursuit of a SQ score of 50. The same is true for your average Washington Times reader or Fox News Channel viewer, who would rather be accused of soliciting confirmation bias from their news sources than be forced to watch PBS’s NewsHour, which records a predictable middle-of-the-road SQ of 55.8.

I admire Groseclose’s effort to quantify bias, and I found enlightenment in his chapter-long studies of press coverage of tax cuts, “partial-birth abortion,” Hurricane Katrina, and the role of race in UCLA admissions. So, I will also keep his book on my shelf for future consultation. But here’s the “but”: Left Turn‘s worshipful normalization of the centrist point of view prevents it from rethinking the media bias question. As the folks at Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting have been shouting for 20 years, centrism is just as much an ideology as leftism or rightism. The “truth” does not necessarily reside in the center: A centrist is potentially as biased as any lefty or righty. Or to put it in the Texas pejorative, as Jim Hightower does in a book of the same name, “There’s nothing in the middle of the road but yellow stripes and dead armadillos.”

Rather than ripping news outlets for “slanting” the news—as Groseclose and the other bias-hunters do—I prefer to blame news consumers for journalism’s deficiencies: Readers and viewers aren’t as critical about their favorite news outlets as they should be, except to complain that the New York Times isn’t as liberal as it should be or that Fox has failed to terminate the career of Barney Frank. My cure for this kind of credulousness is simple: Have readers and viewers expand the range of news sources they consume, embracing the whole SQ spectrum from liberal to centrist to conservative to “off the wing.”

The recommendation comes from my prejudice that liberals are better at sniffing out corporate corruption and national security shenanigans and conservatives better at blowing the whistle on waste and overreach by governments. Centrist news outlets, or at least self-defined centrist journalists, don’t strike me as possessed or deranged enough to battle their way to the end of a good investigation.

I also call upon readers to learn how to hit both lefties and righties—and whatever ambidextrous centrist journalists take the mound. Media bias isn’t a journalistic problem. It’s a solution.

******

In addition to four daily newspapers, I read the Weekly Standard, the Nation, the National Review, the American Prospect, Reason, the New York Review of Books, Mother Jones, Commentary, Harper’s, the New Republic, the American Spectator, and more. My RSS reader similarly overflows. What else should I be reading? Drop recommendations to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and follow my Twitter feed, where I suggest worthy articles frequently. (This RSS feed rings every time a new Shafer column goes live. This hand-built one rings every time a correction is filed.)

PHOTO: Members of Color of Change protest against Fox News Channel outside the News Corporation building in New York July 23, 2008. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

17 comments

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

Media bias is great and necessary. Good article. Just read the comments allowed to be posted by the public and you get arguing sides flooding the pages. Granted these may not be some some of the brightest people, me included, but you get some raw sense of the great divide that is present on almost every subject.

Posted by rcd1160 | Report as abusive

Sad. No one wants to report the news they want to be it.

Posted by DavidS95 | Report as abusive

Anyone with sense knows the MSM is and always has carried the water for Obama and lib polices in general. Not only are they in their pocket but they attack and attempt to marginalize anything that is not part of their agenda. But none of that really matters to anyone who is on the liberal koolaid. Like good sheep they are going to believe whatever they are told by the media and if they try to step out of line they will be vilified. And if they disagree with Obama and his agenda, they will be attacked and called labeled racists by the liberal media who blindly supports him.

Posted by USBPinSD | Report as abusive

News media are not America’s watch dogs but lap dogs to whatever hand feeds them. Media bias in not great or necessary. Multiple sides of issues can be reported and people can then decide what to think for themselves. The media today makes Hearst and Yellow Journalism quaint.

Posted by NewsDebbie | Report as abusive

What about Reuters?…..
In any case, good article.

Posted by ReaderAtSunrise | Report as abusive

Your confusing “news” with entertainment or rather, infotainment – and how the information needs to be conveyed to in order to be useful and not destructive; which leads to journalism. However, these so called “conservative journalists” [even a few so called liberal ones] don’t do journalism…they do “Yellow Journalism.”

Yellow journalism is a type of journalism that presents little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead uses eye-catching headlines to sell more news[].
-See, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yellow_jour nalism

“Obama a Commie-Fascist! Film at 11!”

That’s the issue.

News can be entertaining. People not only WANT to be entertained but in order to digest news properly, perhaps, it needs to be.

Every try reading a scientific paper? They are full or facts and figures and contain a lot of knowledge but are a terrible read; this applies to many types of “news” items including: court decisions, stereo instructions, you know primary sources!

Journalists take these boring dull sources, add additional sources, weave a narrative and tell a well-researched story to convey essential (true) information to the mass market.

Fox News makes stuff up. Fox News lies. Fox News gives half the story, infers the rest and ends with … “and that’s why Obama’s a Commie. Next why the American flag rules, a Mexican boy who hates apple-pie and a tale of a blond white woman who either murdered a baby (booooooo) or was killed by an evil man (yea! her, booooooo him).”

It’s not conservative news. It’s infotainment. It’s certainly not journalism. It’s made up most of time out of hole-cloth.

Look, I get it. Rupert wants to make money. We all want to make money but if you sell crack-cocaine don’t call it vitamins.

If you sell crack-cocaine you’re a drug-dealer. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that (where legal) it’s a very lucrative business.

But vitamin salesmen are pushing a different product entirely and can’t compete with drug dealers; they’re in different businesses.

No one will ever get high or addicted to vitamin C. It, however, is very good for you…wheres as crack-cocaine is not, but I’m sure it much more entertaining.

That’s why crack-cocaine has better annual sales.

…and now you know the rest of the story.

Posted by FoxxDrake | Report as abusive

The danger resides in the audience and lazy listening and parroting practices that align with one’s core views (done by most Americans I’d agree). But eventually, as one or the other end of the spectrum gains in greater popularity, balance will be lost.

When it reaches the levels of say Herr Goebbels, then what? Then is ‘bias’ going too far?

Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and the majority of Fox News talking heads already hedge over the line of reason, and if the audience pays no understanding to (or demonizes) any alternative views, what then? How long before the radicalization of huge segments of society leads to widespread violence? (which is where I believe we are heading within the next ten years…just ask Andrew Breitbart who claims to have high ranking US military officers ready to ‘have his back’ and how he is itching for someone to cross his line)

Free speech is one thing, blatant distortions of truth for political ‘entertainment’ that is veiled encitement to violence is dangerous.

So if your support of slanted journalism is going to lead us into wholesale violence and a second civil war…thanks, but I’d rather eat sawdust and paste.

Posted by NobleKin | Report as abusive

In a democracy it would seem that not only elected officials should uphold their responsibility. Perhaps less discussed but maybe more important, each and every person who votes should take up their responsibility to be informed. Only with a knowledgeable electorate can democracy succeed. Unfortunately, all too often the results of elections reflect the lack of effort expended by those voting. Truly, there is no free lunch.
We should do all in our power to help educate the electorate. At a time when all you need to do to vote is display a driver’s license, obfuscating the truth with slanted news is a disservice to our town, our state and our country.
If you want entertainment, great! Simply label it as such. But if you want news please do not package opinion to look like news. An informed electorate is too important to confuse the two.
Oh, and by the way, who here believes that either the New York Times or Fox Broadcasting does not intend to sway their audience and with it, as much of the electorate as they are able.

Posted by Bruce100 | Report as abusive

A world with no news bias…

I’m thinking about that Simpson’s episode, where the lawyer imagines a world without lawyers, and the world is in peace holding hands together. That’s what this article reminds me of.

The bias of news is just children fighting against children.

Posted by ahms | Report as abusive

I may live in Ohio, but I cherish my “Manhattan state of mind”!

Posted by Plamya | Report as abusive

Most of the consumption of so called news should be abandoned anyway, as it is usually biased.

Posted by DarkerThanAmber | Report as abusive

“If not for media bias, I’m certain that my news diet would taste so strongly of sawdust and talc that I would abandon news consumption completely.”

So what’s so wrong with that. News is boring. Commentary is entertainment. Maybe if news were a bit more boring, fewer persons would mistake sensational entertainment as news and we’d all be better off.

Posted by GCN | Report as abusive

I did not read the whole article (sorry) but I am shocked by its premise.

Sane people (I know there is less and less in the world) watch news to GET INFORMED, not ENTERTAINED.

As such, this should be the objective of any good news channel. Not bias.

News should present reality. And if it is boring, so be it.

The way mass media has shaped public opinion on important subjects has gone completely out of control since the invention of TV and radio not to mention the internet.

Posted by EUInvestor | Report as abusive

Manhattan-state-of-mind is much more than normal, it is the only SANE one. Fox categorized as INSANE. No need for reports.

Posted by thinkbeforetalk | Report as abusive

There is a name for biased news: propoganda. The reason that news organizations historically tried to appear to be unbiased is that they would lose any credibility they possessed and simply be viewed as the propaganda arm of a political organization.

I don’t watch Fox News or read the New York Times anymore because they have both sacrificed their credibility to their egos out of their belief that passing on their opinions is more valuable then reporting on the facts.

Hot Tip for Journalists: The public is as smart or smarter than you, and is fully capable of forming their own opinions. They don’t need to be told what to think. Just let them know what is going on and let them form their own opinions. This is not a totaliterian state. Thank You.

Posted by johnintj | Report as abusive

I just love reading these comments. It’s like no one here read the column, they just cut and pasted their typical diatribe against the liberal or conservative [your choice] evil scum who are going to destroy America.
I find “yellow journalism” very entertaining and enjoy the foaming and drooling of Ann Coulter and Michael Moore equally for the comedic value and the warm reassurance that I’m really not the dumbest guy in America. Whoever he is, he probably lives in DC and is a distinguished pundit with a book contract and a cable show. And I bet he’s a “Real American”, to boot.

Posted by jeffman | Report as abusive

You just fail to get the point. The problem is not “bias” in itself, it is the biased selection and hiding of FACTS. Any media organization has the strict right to have its own opinions and to stick to them. For this they have their opinion sections. But the news pages should reflect the objective importance of facts, not the subjective preferences of a politically committed group. If you understand these simple criteria, you cannot deny that leftist bias, not objectivity, mold the selection of news in most of American big media, so that if a citizen does not listen to conservative radio shows he will be deprived not of conservative opinions, but of very important facts.

Posted by xb2415tt | Report as abusive