Can math prove me­dia bias?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. -

Ilost my tele­vi­sion de­bate vir­gin­ity to Tom Braden, the old cur­mud­geon lib­eral coun­ter­part to Pat Buchanan, on the orig­i­nal CNN “Cross­fire” se­ries. His first ques­tion was a hay­maker: “Who the hell do you think you are pass­ing judg­ment on jour­nal­ists?” he snarled. Lit­tle did I know this was the of­fi­cial De­nial Ex­cuse No. 12 in an end­less litany of me­dia de­nials of what ev­ery­one knows, but only they con­tinue to deny: The “news” me­dia are drown­ing in a lib­eral po­lit­i­cal bias. En­ter into the fray UCLA pro­fes­sor Tim Grose­close with “Left Turn: How Lib­eral Me­dia Bias Dis­torts the Amer­i­can Mind,” with a new method­ol­ogy to mea­sure that bias.

I con­fess that at the out­set I wasn’t too keen about do­ing this re­view. The Me­dia Re­search Cen­ter, which I head, has con­ducted more stud­ies on this sub­ject than any other in­sti­tu­tion on the planet over the past quar­ter- cen­tury, so I turned to the “Left Turn” in­dex out of cu­rios­ity to see which ones were cho­sen for ci­ta­tion. (Clear throat here: Ahem.) Not a one. Worse, where the in­dex cites the MRC, in one in­stance it misiden­ti­fies the group; and in the other, al­legedly over three pages, it’s a phan­tom ci­ta­tion — the MRC isn’t there at all. But I had agreed to re­view this book, so I read it. On the whole, I liked it.

Mr. Grose­close ar­gues that one can mea­sure lib­eral me­dia bias through ob­jec­tive and quan­ti­ta­tive sta­tis­ti­cal anal­y­sis, that “ev­ery [em­pha­sis his] main­stream national news out­let in the United States has a lib­eral bias,” that out of more than 100 ma­jor news out­lets stud­ied, only a hand­ful lean to the right and none of the sup­pos­edly con­ser­va­tive news out­lets is far right.

There is a whole lot of math go­ing on here, and some of the sta­tis­ti­cal jar­gon is pure mumbo-jumbo that the lay­man just must ac­cept, (“To find the pseudo in­ter­cept ren­dezvous pa­ram­e­ters b, k and the ra­dial dis­tance d be­tween cir­cu­lar or­bits,” “en­do­gene­ity prob­lems” and the like), so out of ne­ces­sity, I will sim­plify (and the author might well ac­cuse me of over­sim­pli­fy­ing). Mr. Grose­close first in­tro­duces us to the “PQ” anal­y­sis, the “po­lit­i­cal quo­tient” that mea­sures the de­gree to which a per- son is lib­eral.

Mr. Grose­close mea­sures the PQs of mem­bers of Congress by study­ing their roll-call votes; for oth­ers, he of­fers a self-test­ing se­ries of ques­tions. Rep. Michele Bach­mann (mi­nus 4.1) and Sen. Jim DeMint (4.8) are on one end and Rep. Bar­ney Frank (103.8) and Ron­ald V. Del­lums (107.4) fall on the other. Next, the author con­ducts the “SQ” anal­y­sis, mea­sur­ing the “slant quo­tient” of me­dia out­lets based on their source ma­te­rial, i.e., which pol­icy think tanks they turn to for their ci­ta­tions. Thus, the author con­cludes that the New York Times has a 74 SQ, on par with the 74 PQ of Sen. Joe Lieber­man, Con­necti­cut independent.

Later in the book, Mr. Grose­close in­tro­duces an­other mea­sur­ing de­vice, es­ti­mat­ing the bias based on an anal­y­sis of the facts re­ported about cer­tain is­sues, when there are facts sup­port­ing both the lib­eral and con­ser­va­tive po­si­tions.

From there, the author doc­u­ments how this bias man­i­fests it­self, re­vis­it­ing some fields well-tilled by oth­ers but with fresh ap­pli­ca­tions. It ex­plains the bias of omis­sion and the dearth of sto­ries of in­ter­est to con­ser­va­tives. It ex­plains why lib­er­als can’t dis­miss independent stud­ies show­ing their dom­i­na­tion of the news­rooms. It ex­plains the use of lan­guage (i.e., “so-called par­tial-birth abor- tion”), the slant in is­sue cov­er­age (Bush tax cuts equal tax cuts for the greedy rich), and in one fas­ci­nat­ing sec­tion, the author ex­plores what might be the po­lit­i­cal im­pact on the na­tion if the bias came in equal in­ten­sity — but from the right.

It’s worth buy­ing the book just to read this part.

There’s much to like about this book. There is Mr. Grose­close’s fierce in­tel­lec­tual hon­esty: He makes no bones about his own po­lit­i­cal bi­ases. There is a cer­tain mod­esty in his work: He con­tin­u­ously sub­mits his the­o­ries to peer re­view, even when his peers’ pol­i­tics veer sharply from his own.

Just as there is no such thing as purely ob­jec­tive news, there is no purely ob­jec­tive way to mea­sure news bias. It can walk, talk and quack like a lib­eral, but it is far too com­plex an an­i­mal to re­duce to quan­ti­ta­tive math­e­mat­i­cal for­mu­la­tions.

Still, I like the book and rec­om­mend it.

It will drive the next gen­er­a­tion of Tom Bradens wild. It’s guar­an­teed they will dis­miss the PQ and SQ anal­y­sis PDQ, which means Mr. Grose­close is on to some­thing.

L. Brent Bozell III is founder and pres­i­dent of the Me­dia Re­search Cen­ter.

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