Monday, January 16, 2006


Life's Little Ironies

Last month, a "new" academic study got some buzz for purportedly proving that the media do, indeed, have a liberal bias. The study, by UCLA political scientist Timothy Groseclose and University of Missouri economist Jeffrey Milyo, measured bias (in both directions) by comparing the media's citations of various think tanks and other quasi-political organizations with citations of the same organizations by members of Congress, and assuming that similar citations indicated similar politics: for example, if a liberal senator (as measured by the senator's rating from the liberal Americans for Democratic Action) cited an organization, it's a liberal organization; so if a media outlet cited the same organization, that indicates the media outlet is also liberal. No, I'm not making that up. But you don't have to rely on your lunacy detector to tell you the study is nonsense. Dr. Eric Alterman enumerates the ways the study itself is biased — not politically biased, but methodologically biased.

As a spokesman for the Dow Jones Company, publisher of the not-so-liberal-though-you'd-never-know-it-from-the-study Wall Street Journal, asks, "What are we to make of the validity of a list of important policy groups that doesn't include, say, the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the AFL-CIO or the Concord Coalition but that does include People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals?" [...] For instance, the researchers looked at the news content of The Wall Street Journal's news pages — finding it the most liberal of the bunch — for a mere four months in 2002, while CBS News, which comes in as the second most liberal news organization, was studied for more than 12 years. One can't come to any other conclusion than that this huge discrepancy in length of study represents a major analytical flaw.... What's more, Time magazine was studied for about two years, while U.S. News and World Report was looked at over a period of about eight years. [...] But the oddest part of the study is that the authors ascribe ideological bias to reporters — and news organizations — for merely quoting experts in their pieces. For example, as Media Matters notes, the NAACP is the third most quoted group in the study, "But stories about race relations that include a quote from an NAACP representative are unlikely to be 'balanced' with quotes from another group on their list," due to the dearth of credible "pro-racism" groups in this country. So instead, "Their quotes will often be balanced by quotes from an individual, [and] such stories will be coded as having a 'liberal bias.'"
That's right, the study used a list of organizations that excluded some of the most influential and included the least reputable; surveyed news media for different lengths of time in differen periods of time; and, by ignoring citations of individuals, ascribed "imbalance" to instances where a liberal citation was balanced by a conservative. I think the technical term for this methodology is "cherry picking": considering only the data that support the conclusions you like. Who are these scholars who devised such a ... remarkable ... methodology for detecting bias?
In 2000-2001, Groseclose was a Hoover Institution national fellow, while Milyo has been granted $40,500 from the American Enterprise Institute; both were Heritage Foundation Salvatori fellows in 1997.
I wonder what rating the ADA would give to Messrs. Groseclose and Milyo, and what organizations they've cited in the course of their careers.
I have yet to see a mention of the real flaw of this study: the study's authors measure news sources' bias relative to the average member of Congress. That's just fine... if you're trying to figure out if the news is biased to the left or right of the average Congressman. But it *doesn't* necessarily tell us if a news source is biased to the left or right of the average American *citizen.*

I would submit that, in fact, the average member of Congress is more conservative than the average American citizen.

Example: Republicans currently dominate the Senate: 55-44 (with 1 independent). Does that mean that Senate Republicans represent the majority of voters? Actually, no. Over the last three Senatorial elections (2004, 2002, and 2000... the three elections which have, together, assembled our current Senate), Democrats have beaten Republicans by nearly 2 million votes.

This electoral fluke (a function of Democratic votes tending to amass in urban areas) is unaccounted for by the study's authors when they assume the average member of Congress to be an ideological proxy for the average American, nor is it addressed by the study's compensation for the disproportionate representation that the Senate gives to low‑population states.

Additionally, the study's assumption necessarily presumes that the American citizenry's political spectrum spreads no wider to the left or right than Congress's political spectrum happens to spread. I would submit that, in fact, there's a substantial political Left in this nation that is completely unrepresented by any Senator or Congressman. Example: Ralph Nader garnered 3% of the presidential vote in 2000 from the American hard-left (and, of course, that 3% doesn't include those voters who agree with Nader ideologically but voted for the more mainstream candidate for fear of "wasting" their vote.). Are those 3% of the voters truly represented, ideologically, in Congress? Are there 16 members of Congress (3% of 535) who are as truly, genuinely liberal, issue-for-issue, as Ralph Nader? I would say no.

Additionally, remember that low-propensity voters had a lesser say in choosing their Congressional representiatives (their ideological proxies, this study presumes) than did high-propensity voters. Non-voters, of course, had no say at all. And, of course, these two underrepresented-in-Washington demographics (low-propensity voters and non-voters) tend to be, relatively, poor and young, and are more likely to belong to an ethnic minority than are the (relatively) richer, older and whiter high-propensity voters who actually elected this Congress.

Finally, the average Congressmember is older, whiter, and *much* more affluent than the average American citizen. Additionally, the average Congressmember is much more likely to be male and heterosexual than the average American citizen.

For these reasons, and for others, I dispute the assumption that the average member of Congress is an ideological match for the average American citizen. And I thus repeat: to the extent that this study measures anything at all, it only measures a news source's bias relative to the average member of Congress, as opposed to the the news source's bias relative to the average American citizen.

Patrick Meighan
Venice, AC
Excellent post, Patrick!

I must confess that I did notice that methodological flaw and thought that what it exposed was the bias of the academicians.

The one point I might disagree with you on is whether a greater proportion of Congressmen are straight than the rest of the population. All of the whispers I hear are to the effect that the Republican delegations are awash in sex of all kinds.

There are some facts we know to suggest that this is true. Why was Jeff Gannon being admitted at odd hours to the White House? What was the Call Boy scandal about? Why does David Dreier refuse to comment on rumors of his homosexuality, despite a vicious campaign against him by rightwing talk radio in his district?
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