FLORIDA, August 11, 2012 — Surely by now even those who live under the heaviest of rocks realize that political bias plays a prominent role in the American media.
Do they — or you — know that the effects of politics-laden reporting might have literally transformed the face of our society? Can news sprinkled with personal viewpoints really impact a nation as large and diverse as ours?
Political scientist Tim Groseclose, Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics at UCLA, would say so. In his recent book Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind, he does something a bit unusual. Rather than simply claiming the press is prejudiced, a scientific argument is made which holds that our country’s very social fabric is defined by journalistic presentation.
Dr. Groseclose explaines the finer details of his conclusions to me. Beyond the subject of bias, he also shared his opinions regarding the past, present, and future of America’s media structure.
Joseph F. Cotto: For millions of Americans, television news serves as a major source of information. Today, cable and network stations are competing to dominate the future of televised news. Which do you believe will ultimately win out?
Dr. Tim Groseclose: Hard to say. But with at least one aspect, cable has an advantage. This is the fact that with two of the networks (ABC and CBS), they only show about 2 1/2 hours worth of news each day - namely a 2-hour morning show and a 1/2 hour evening show.
This means fewer hours to distribute fixed costs. For instance, suppose you’re ABC, trying to justify a bureau in, say, Australia. You might think, “How often are we going to show a story from Australia? Is it really worth it to maintain a bureau there?” But if you’re Fox or CNN or MSNBC, you might think, “We’ve got 24 hours to fill, there’s a good chance we’ll have room for a story from Australia.”
Once the cable outlets invest more in fixed resources - like bureaus across the world - they might have a higher quality product. People might actually prefer the cable-news shows over the network-news shows.
Cotto: Why, in your opinion, have cable news stations gained such traction over the last few decades?
Dr. Groseclose: I suspect a big part of it is the simple fact that more and more people are beginning to subscribe to cable TV. A couple decades ago, lots of people had no choice but to watch only the networks. Today that’s true for hardly anyone.
Cotto: In your experience, do most Americans want a serious presentation of the facts while watching a news program? Or, are they looking for evidence to validate their respective viewpoints?
Dr. Groseclose: I’m sure both. If you want to relax, it’s always easiest to watch something that you agree with. But lots of us also, at least occasionally, want to see what the other side is saying.
Cotto: Whether the station in question is a network affiliate or a cable channel, most people would probably expect some sort of bias to be present. Do you believe that this is actually the case? Are television news outlets intrinsically biased to some extent, or might certain ones achieve objectivity?
Dr. Groseclose: In my book I define “unbiased” as presenting the news exactly the way a perfect moderate would present it. This means adopting a “slant quotient” of exactly 50.4. It’s virtually impossible for an outlet to have exactly a 50.4 SQ (just as it’s virtually impossible for two runners exactly to tie in a race.) But some come pretty close. E.g. I estimate the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer as having an SQ of 55. This puts it only 4 and 1/2 points left of center (on a 100 point scale). Fox News Special Report, with an SQ of 40, is also pretty close to the center. The Washington Times, with an SQ of 35, is not too far from the center.
Cotto: Print publications, by and large, are going the way of the dinosaurs. Internet news outlets, meanwhile, are flourishing. During the years ahead, do you believe that this will contribute to or detract from the problem of media bias?
Dr. Groseclose: In one major way internet outlets diminish bias. This is due to the possibility of embedding links to sources. For instances, consider Pres. Obama’s “You didn’t build it” speech. Mitt Romney now shows part of it in a campaign ad. Some left-leaning outlets have claimed that Romney lifted some sentences out of context and that he gives a misleading representation of Obama’s speech.
If a news outlet is internet-based, it can provide a link to the entire speech so the reader/viewer can judge for himself if the Romney ad is misleading. This diminishes any incentive for the journalist to try to spin a story away from the truth - thus it works to diminish bias. However, such links are not always possible for non- internet -based outlets, and thus the same bias-diminishing factor is not there.
Cotto: Today, anyone can favor a news outlet on the basis of his or her political stances. In the long run, won’t this allow media bias to run even more rampant?
Dr. Groseclose: Yes. But remember elections are won by the candidate who can win over moderate and independent voters. I think moderates and independents will continue to watch and read a variety of news sources.
Cotto: You have written that media bias is more prevalent on the left than it is on the right. How did you reach this conclusion?
Dr. Groseclose: I use a statistical method to estimate the “slant quotients” of news outlets and a separate statistical method to estimate the “political quotients” of political actors. I find that the slant quotient of nearly all mainstream outlets is higher (i.e. more liberal) than my estimate of the political quotient of the average U.S. voter.
Cotto: What impact have you found that left-leaning bias has on the American public?
Dr. Groseclose: In a nutshell, here’s my estimate of the impact: In our current world, where the media tend to have a liberal bias, the average American thinks and votes approximately like the average voter in a purple state (such as Iowa, Colorado, or Nevada).
However, if we could magically eliminate media bias, then, according to my estimates, the average American voter would think and vote approximately like the average voter in a solid red state. That is, if we could magically eliminate media bias, America would begin to think and vote approximately like Texas or Kentucky.
Cotto:Some say that in order to moderate America’s political tone, the media will have to be restructured. Do you agree with this idea? Why or why not? On both sides of the political spectrum, new media outlets have emerged to seriously challenge established sources. Why do you think that this has taken place? Does it have anything to do with bias, or might other factors be at work?
Dr. Groseclose: The most significant case is Fox News. As Charles Krauthammer once said, “Roger Ailes decided to appeal to a niche market, half of America.” That is, before Fox, virtually no outlets (except maybe talk radio) tried to appeal to right-of-center voters.
My estimates also show that around 10 years ago, no major outlet existed to appeal to very far-left voters. I think MSNBC now fills that void.
Cotto: Now that our discussion is at its end, many readers are probably wondering exactly how it was that you came to be such a prominent media researcher. Tell us a bit about your life and career.
Dr. Groseclose: Whew, that would take a while to answer. But here’s maybe the best place to begin.
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