Media bias and the Hostile Media Effect

Responding to the post about Max Boot and the Groseclose studies of “liberal media bias,” commenter Dilan Esper writes

In my experience, everyone thinks the media is biased against their side. Which is why I find “media bias” arguments to be among the dullest and most silly arguments out there.

Commenter “rachelrachel,” supporting Dilan, points to the documented “Hostile Media Effect”: most participants in a dispute feel that their side has not gotten a fair shake in the way that dispute is reported.

Dilan and rachelrachel think that ends the argument. I disagree. There are matters of fact to study; it’s just that studying them is very hard.

Almost all sports fans think the officials are biased against their favorite teams. But not all of them are wrong. There are examples of clearly biased officiating, based on personal animus, institutional pressures, the desire to please the “home” crowd, or simple corruption. So if someone tells you his team got cheated by bad officiating, you can’t just say “Everyone believes that” and let it go. He might be right.

In that case, I can imagine doing a study using independent analysis of game films to determine whether a given official, or the officiating in a given game, actually showed bias against one team.

Studying the political biases of the media – and it would be flat-out silly to say that no such biases exist – is hard both because there’s no neutral third party to judge and because the underlying facts are themselves in dispute, with only a few of those disputes resolvable the way the question of whether a player stepped outside the field is resolvable.

Of course it’s true that both libertarianism and Scandanavian-style social democracy are disfavored in American political reporting. Of course it’s true that “free trade” gets a good press and labor unionism gets a bad press. Of course it’s true on specific issues – e.g., welfare or education policy or public pensions – one side sometimes claims the mantle of “reform” and has that favorable label applied uncritically to its proposals by the media. Of course it’s true that proposals with very strong expert support but without strong organizational or economic bases – higher alcohol taxation, for example – never get a hearing at all. Other issues – whether smoking causes lung cancer in the reporting if the 1960s and 1970s, whether football damages brains and whether anthropogenic global warming poses a major threat to human welfare today – are treated as “controversial” even though the controversy is largely manufactured and the fact of the matter not subject to much legitimate dispute.

Megan McArle and Tyler Cowen read the newspapers and notice that that the viewpoint they favor doesn’t get a fair hearing, and in fact is often presented in such distorted form that they barely recognize it as their own. This is a source of huge frustration. When someone makes an academic-sounding noise that seems to vindicate their daily observation, it’s not surprising that they should eagerly embrace that finding.

Nor is it unreasonable, once that attempt has been discredited, for them to continue to seek out academically acceptable evidence that will convince those who don’t hold their viewpoint of what’s bloody obvious to anyone who does.

What is unreasonable, it seems to me, is to treat the positions of the contemporary Republican party and the positions of the contemporary Democratic party as the only two positions that deserve a hearing, to assume that they are equally valid, and to demand that the media be “neutral” as between them. Any analysis based on those three choices – Groseclose’s, for example – can only produce a nonsensical result.

Comments

  1. calling all toasters says

    Determining bias is almost an impossible task. Since, an Stephen Colbert famously noted, “reality has a liberal bias,” the question is really: do you report reality, or what makes conservatives feel good? This is why Sunday morning shows have mostly conservative guests to serve as a counterbalance to reporters. Those who traffic in facts must not go unanswered.

    • Brett Bellmore says

      Fancy that, noted liberal Stephen Colbert thinks, “reality has a liberal bias”. Libertarians think it has a libertarian bias, conservatives think it has a conservative bias.

      I don’t think reality has any bias, but we all have confirmation bias, and tend to notice when reality agrees with us, (Even when it doesn’t!) and overlook where it disagrees with us. That’s human nature.

      And I don’t ask for an unbiased media. Who are we going to get to staff it? Arisians? I ask for a media with a mix of biases, so that nothing gets systematically omitted from my news coverage. That’s where our media falls down badly. Forget questions of liberal “bias”, you’ll never get liberals to admit that the media agreeing with them is bias. Ask instead if the media is remotely representative of this nation’s political spectrum.

      The answer is, no, it isn’t. And that’s not a situation that the people out in the cold can be expected to tolerate indefinitely.

      • CJColucci says

        And that’s not a situation that the people out in the cold can be expected to tolerate indefinitely.

        Well, that’s a grammatical sentence, and it seems as though it’s supposed to mean something, implying, perhaps, a whiff of the torch and the gleam of the pitchfork. But what, exactly? When the chilly folks stop chillin’ and express their lack of toleration, what will they do? Cancel their non-existent subscriptions to the centrist-Democratic-leaning New York Times and start reading most newspapers published in most places? Invent a whole new network or two to provide news-like products and commentary from a more congenial viewpoint? Start up their own publishing outlets? Patronize blowhards and blondes on cable TV and talk radio who tell them what they want to hear? Been there, done that; now what?

        • Anonymous says

          Um, decide that a media which is functioning as an extension of the Democratic party no longer gets to run their debates?

          Start creating an alternative media, so stories they find interesting won’t be shut out?

          You know that when the 1st amendment was adopted, essentially all media outlets were extensions of political parties? It’s still reflected in the names of a lot of old newspapers. We had a period there where the media pretended to be objective, above partisan bias. Predictably, this created the idea circumstance for partisan bias to reach it’s maximal expression.

          So the old media model is going to come back.

    • RW (the other) says

      “Determining bias is an almost impossible task”? So much for research methodology and critical thinking: Why are we even here?

      NB: Positing that “conservative guests to serve as a counterbalance to reporters” requires the assumption that reports are critical rather than stenographic; is there any evidence this is so vis-a-vis contemporary reportage?

  2. navarro says

    john cole’s meatphor of going on a dinner date where you want italian and your date suggests a meal of tire rims and anthrax– http://www.balloon-juice.com/2009/02/05/youll-never-get-this-21-minutes-of-your-life-back/ –may have been posed for a somewhat different context but almost all debates and discussions of media bias remind me of it. as a person to the left of pretty much every elected official on the federal level with the possible exception of bernie sanders i find pretty much all media reporting of political issues to have a distict right wing bias. my mom’s satellite package gets “democracy now with amy goodman” and i do find that to be more in line with my own persoanl biases but i’d never mistake that program for mainstream media. i think setting up a study that would take a truly multidimensional picture of the nature and types of media bias would be a remarkably complex challenge. it would also be a challenge that would never get any federal funding so long as tom coburn has anything to say about it.

  3. Herschel says

    A colleague of mine and I were talking about the shape of American politics, and he made the conventional but absurd observation that the Republicans are far too right wing and the Democrats are far too left wing (which is why nobody can compromise and yadda yadda yadda). I remarked that the Democratic Party establishment is certainly to the right of the Canadian and UK Conservatives, and asked for an example of a far-left-wing Democrat. His example? Nancy Pelosi! This is obviously the result of media indoctrination that “Democrat” means left wing, which is an often-stated and often-unstated subtext of a lot of mainstream media political reporting and commentary. If Democrat means leftist, strongly partisan Democrat means super-duper leftist. Since this media framing is largely fair enough with respect to Republicans, who mostly are (or at least pretend to be) extremely right wing, and utterly ridiculous with respect to Democrats, who are mostly center-right at best, I find it hard to see how the mainstream media do not objectively exhibit a right-wing bias.

  4. Warren Terra says

    Megan McArle and Tyler Cowen read the newspapers and notice that that the viewpoint they favor doesn’t get a fair hearing, and in fact is often presented in such distorted form that they barely recognize it as their own.

    To be sure, this may be inevitable for libertarians, and especially glibertarians: they have such a distorted and unrealistic notion of idea of their own goals and policies that any description of them by someone who hasn’t drunk their Kool-Aid should be expected to inspire this response.

    • koreyel says

      What follows that Warren is the meat of the post:

      Nor is it unreasonable, once that attempt has been discredited, for them to continue to seek out academically acceptable evidence that will convince those who don’t hold their viewpoint of what’s bloody obvious to anyone who does.

      Isn’t this nearly belly-to-belly with the very definition of intellectual dishonesty?

      Is Mark saying it is not unreasonable because it is so often manifested? And so can be viewed as one of those endearing human traits that no other species on Earth possesses?
      If so he is correct: There are other animals that keep harems, that display jealously, that rape, that launch wars, that farm, that use tools, and that bark phrases at each other…
      But clearly Man is the only creature on earth that lies to itself with so much zest and zeal.

      Which puts me up against this idea I’ve been playing with lately:

      Why are human beings trying so hard to build a computer that emulates the kludgy and error-ridden human brain?
      That’s got to be the greatest bit of vanity at play in our local universe.

      But then again:
      Vanity is another of those endearing human traits that no other species possesses…
      In fact if I recall correctly: We tend to scorn animals who don’t recognize themselves in the mirror with a little more zeal an zest than those few animals that do recognize themselves in a mirror.

      Nice creatures you guys….
      It’s a wonder you trust each other to pilot planes and trains and cars.

      • J. Michael Neal says

        Vanity is another of those endearing human traits that no other species possesses…

        You clearly haven’t watched cats very often.

    • Anonymous says

      “Megan McArle and Tyler Cowen read the newspapers and notice that that the viewpoint they favor doesn’t get a fair hearing, and in fact is often presented in such distorted form that they barely recognize it as their own. This is a source of huge frustration. When someone makes an academic-sounding noise that seems to vindicate their daily observation, it’s not surprising that they should eagerly embrace that finding. ”

      I’d like to point out that McArdle was posting bad reporting on the ACA at The Atlantic while her fiance, Peter Suderman, was working at a fraud tank (astroturf ‘think tank’) opposing it. In the sports analogy, she’s a crooked ref complaining about the refereeing.

      Mark, you forgot Tyler Cowen’s title, ‘General Director, Mercatus Center’. Which is funded by the Koch Brothers. He’s another crooked ref complaining about the refereeing.

  5. says

    OK, I will take it one step further. Yes, in theory, you can still carefully study media bias. In practice, I don’t see how. The comparison to umpiring gets at this– you can simply watch an instant replay of a biased call and establish that it was incorrect.

    Media bias is both more subtle and more value-laden than that. Indeed, a lot of things seem like “bias” to one person and fair to another, based on their ideological priors.

    As I said, the most important thing about this conversation is it is UNINTERESTING. Nobody ever comes out and says “hey, on this one, the press was biased in favor of my side!”. It’s just a restatement of substantive differences as process arguments, which is useless and boring.

    • K says

      On same-sex marriage, the press is biased in favor of my side.
      On the anniversary of the March on Washington, the press was biased in favor my side.
      On press freedom, the press is biased in favor of my side except for journalists outside the Village.
      On whether crime and violence are legitimate subjects of art, the press is biased in favor of my side.
      On the equal worth of men and women, the press is biased in favor of my side.
      On whether taxation of income is oppressive, the press is biased in favor of my side.
      On the feasibility and likelihood of a proletarian revolution, the press is biased in favor of my side.

      And yet I tend to agree with Dilan Eisper — so what? You can’t report without some sort of frame of reference, and you can’t give all dissenting voices equal weight in limited attention space. It wouldn’t even be morally right to do so if it were possible. Bias arguments are really substantive arguments about the proper location of the Overton Window, not about whether there needs to be one.

    • Barry says

      “OK, I will take it one step further. Yes, in theory, you can still carefully study media bias. In practice, I don’t see how. The comparison to umpiring gets at this– you can simply watch an instant replay of a biased call and establish that it was incorrect.”

      Let’s see – look for lies about proven factual matters as a start.

      • K says

        Sure. But that’s substantive wrongness. What does it add to call it “media bias”? The press is biased top to bottom because it’s filtered through corporations — OK, and? Accurate and wrong are interesting categories.

        • byomtov says

          But if the factual errors themselves tend to favor one side or the other, rather than being evenly distributed, that might tell us something. If we looked at factual errors made by Fox, say, what do you think we would find?

          • K says

            Who knows, I’m just some random dude. But I already know I don’t trust Fox, what indeed would I learn? And I agree with Mark’s “of course it’s true” paragraph. In 30 years of paying attention, I have yet to learn anything from “media bias” studies other than (1) some in the media tell more lies, and tell them more consistently, than others, and (2) the media writ large reflects the worldview of corporate, cosmopolitan, celebrity-obsessed centrism. If you look at the list of topics on which “the press” is biased in favor of my side, you could say the opposing views don’t get a “fair hearing.” That’s because those opposing views are marginal and gauche. Some views will always be that way. “Bias?” MEGO. Let’s talk about the accuracy of specific factual claims and validity of particular world views.

  6. James Wimberley says

    It would be useful to have a sharp hard-left journalism – reporting, not just commentary -that would shed red-shifted light on the news. There seems to be no hopo of that. The only candidate to fill the outsider slot is perhaps Al Jazeera, but it´s hard for non-Muslims to make the appropriate corrections.

    • Warren Terra says

      Have you tried Democracy Now, and the various journalists they interview? There’s no slick, wealthy, mass-market message machine analogous to Fox News or to the many right-wing newspapers, let alone the top-down unified messages and poll-test propaganda they deliver, but left-wing journalists are out there, if mostly scattered and writing for outlets no one has heard of, and they get aggregated on the web.

  7. rachelrachel says

    Dilan and rachelrachel think that ends the argument. I disagree.

    I don’t think it ends the argument, and I don’t think I said that I thought it did.

    There are matters of fact to study; it’s just that studying them is very hard.

    I agree with you there on both points.

    But I also agree with Dilan that media bias arguments tend to be pretty dull and silly. Most participants in such arguments do not do the hard work that you favor, choosing instead to cry out, “Not fair!”

    • Barry says

      “But I also agree with Dilan that media bias arguments tend to be pretty dull and silly. Most participants in such arguments do not do the hard work that you favor, choosing instead to cry out, “Not fair!””

      Really?

      You see liberals doing thing on AGW? Or do they talk to scientists, and look at the facts on the ground?
      Economics?
      War?

      • rachelrachel says

        You see liberals doing thing on AGW? Or do they talk to scientists, and look at the facts on the ground?

        I’m talking about debates over whether the media are biased, and if so, in what direction.

        I am not talking about substantive policy debates, which is a different matter entirely.

  8. J.m.g. says

    If our host wasn’t so relentlessly hostile to Noam Chomsky, this would have been a great place to notice Chomsky’s work as a coauthor of Manufacturing Consent, where there is actual social science developed before the readers’ eyes, with a phenomenon observed, a theory propounded, testable propositions made, and illustrations presented tending to support the theory.

    As the bumper sticker says, accurately enough, The Media are as libel as the multinational corporations that own them.

    • says

      Outstanding point, J.m.g. Chomsky’s analysis itself did not come out of thin air. He actually read Lippmann, who used the phrase “manufacturing consent,” and read Lasswell and Bernays and simply tested their theories and policy ideas for how a mass communication system could operate to over come the “problem” of democracy. It obviously fools Mark when he attacks Chomsky as someone other than reliable or even darkly hinting there is something unAmerican about Chomsky…

  9. says

    Bravo to Mark for demanding concrete examples of where media bias is detected.

    I have long called the media that we see so often the corporate owned media because if we go through each concrete example of a public policy subject we do see a pattern. And the pattern is the world view of a corporate executive who believes people should not be overtly discriminated against on the basis of race, religion or sexual orientation, worries a bit about environmental issues but doesn’t want to pay too much for it or demands a change from fossil fuels (which costs in advertising and therefore requires “balance”), finds labor unions to be no longer needed or helpful to society, loves trade deals as currently negotiated (currently means over the past 25 years), supports the foreign policy establishment long in power in the Boston to DC corridor and believes in the duopoly of the Republicans and Democrats, and makes sure to give something to both.

    Think of Jack Welch, the former president of GE, or Jeff Immelt his successor. Each really could go around a cocktail party at MSNBC, FoxNews and CNN, and the general news division at CBS, NBC and ABC and feel at home in all these places for the most part. Each may have to deal with a Sean Hannity or an Ed Schultz for a time during the party, but really, his world view is very well represented at each party. Or take Ms. Sandberg at Facebook and walk her around each of the networks. She might as a woman be a bit appalled at the cultural politics enunciated at Fox, but she and Neil Cavuto would bond quite nicely, too.

    And when there is not a bias on issues there is a mass set of diversions that may best be described as “gossip.” Whether it is Lindsay Lohan’s latest melt down or arguing over whether Hillary has the momentum and strength to cruise past a Democratic Party primary, or whether Rand Paul and Ted Cruz will battle for the souls of libertarians, etc., these are all examples of gossip, not a discussion of issues. If people believe in the corporate media to drive what they themselves think is “important,” we never step out of the bubble that is created, and we get Groseclose’s so-called “analysis.” Garbage in, garbage out.

  10. Barry says

    K says:

    “Who knows, I’m just some random dude. But I already know I don’t trust Fox, what indeed would I learn? And I agree with Mark’s “of course it’s true” paragraph. In 30 years of paying attention, I have yet to learn anything from “media bias” studies other than (1) some in the media tell more lies, and tell them more consistently, than others, and (2) the media writ large reflects the worldview of corporate, cosmopolitan, celebrity-obsessed centrism. If you look at the list of topics on which “the press” is biased in favor of my side, you could say the opposing views don’t get a “fair hearing.” That’s because those opposing views are marginal and gauche. Some views will always be that way. “Bias?” MEGO. Let’s talk about the accuracy of specific factual claims and validity of particular world views.”

    Perhaps you could condense this into something which made more sense; I’m parsing it as ‘blah, blah, blah, claims vary, he said-she said, how can we know anything?’.

    • K says

      Close. All agree that (1) lies and factual errors are bad and (2) all journalism starts with some axioms and priors. Mark lists reasons why it is so hard to reach and support [interesting] scholarly conclusions about media bias. (“Fox, wrong again” is reliably true but uninteresting.) My $.02 perception as a consumer is that scholarly resources would be better spent trying to bring the “right” things into the conversation than trying mightily to measure the bias against those things.

  11. Ralph says

    I have noticed a recent and disturbing (to me) trend: MK keeps finding ways to talk about Megan McArdle.
    Why?

  12. says

    OK, let’s try another exercise. Every study I’ve seen says the media is “biased” in favor of free trade.

    And yet, the public doesn’t support it despite all that elite opinion and all that bias. And never has.

    Everyone whining about media bias is just ASSUMING that all of Noam Chomsky’s theories in “Manufacturing Consent” are right and the media is this all powerful monster that dictates how we think. In fact, people filter out supposedly biased media coverage all the time.

    Here’s a hint– if you are whining about media bias, it may be that your arguments aren’t persuasive enough instead. Maybe the great and good American people just think you are an idiot. (And yes, they certainly think I’m an idiot on enough things.) But that isn’t the media’s fault, even if the media is biased.

    Again, the discussion is simply uninteresting. Substance is so much more important.

    • says

      You’re evading the point. The point I made is that corporate owned media reflects the opinions of the corporate executives who run the corporations that own the media outlets. That’s a substantive point. It is not uninteresting in the least.

      Also, you say that the public opposes trade agreements, while elite opinion supports it. But politicians vote for these treaties without any real push back from the same voters. Why that is has to do with people being conditioned by propaganda to not do so. People are therefore manipulated to that extent–unless you are going to tell me trade issues are not fundamental. If you do, then I would say you are without substance.

      If you won’t take Chomsky’s word, how about Al Gore’s “The Assault on Reason”? Gore woke up, I’ll give him that.

      • says

        I am saying that there is no proof that public opinion is changed by the “opinions of corporate executives”. That claim is extremely under-evidenced, and in fact I gave an example of an issue (free trade) where it has clearly not been. Want another? How about immigration reform?

        Politicians vote for trade treaties because you need institutional opposition to fight elite opinion, and unions (who were the institutional opposition on trade issues) have declined in power. It has nothing to do with the media.

        Meanwhile, it’s really easy for someone who is incompetent at persuading others to agree with his or her point of view to just blame the biased media.

        • says

          So wait. There is no countervailing institution and the media operates unimpeded. And people buy into that. And your point is that somehow talk of media bias or manipulation is irrelevant?

          • says

            No, there is no countervailing institution to corporate power, which exists independent of the media (campaign contributions, etc.).

            We could close down all the newspapers and television networks, and pro-union legislation would still not pass the US Congress.

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