Media bias? Give me more, please!
By Jack Shafer
The views expressed are his own.
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