Max Boot, the Wall Street Journal, and liberal media bias

According to Tim Groseclose’s methods, the Wall Street Journal illustrates its liberal bias by publishing Max Boot’s rant in defense of football.

Today’s kerfuffle in Politico about whether Max Boot stole material from a fellow right-wing football fanatic for an op-ed in support of permanent brain damage reminded me of one of the more absurd aspects of Tim Groseclose’s absurd approach to proving “liberal media bias.”

Boot, you see, is at the Council on Foreign Relations, which (along with RAND) Groseclose counts as a “liberal think tank” because liberal Members of Congress like to cite it. So when the Wall Street Journal solicited and published Boot’s pro-football rant (whether or not it was original), it reinforced its position in Groseclose’s alternative universe as a liberally biased news source.* Wrong! See update below.

No, really. You can’t make this stuff up.

And the QJE, Megan McArdle, and Tyler Cowen should all be embarrassed about having been bamboozled.

*Update Megan points out that Boot’s op-ed piece wouldn’t have counted in Groseclose’s scoring system, which looked at only citations to news stories. That completely undercuts this specific example. But the same would have been true if a reporter for the WSJ had quoted Boot about the importance of invading Syria; because Boot is at CFR – as the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow – and because liberals in Congress cite CFR reports, that would have been an instance of “liberal bias” in the media.

Just to clarify: Of course I think that the average “objective” news story (as that term is defined by the community of reporters, editors, and media critics) is written from a perspective to the left of Megan’s or Tyler’s (and to the right of Paul Wellstone’s, or, on average, even mine). There’s a good book to be written about that. Groseclose didn’t write it.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

25 thoughts on “Max Boot, the Wall Street Journal, and liberal media bias”

  1. Sorry Mark, I’m going to call foul on this one. Your n = 1 argument isn’t very impressive, keep in mind also the years Groseclose studied and Op-Ed page vs. news page distinction. Why don’t you link to the so-called “bamboozling” committed by me? You can’t, because it doesn’t exist.

    1. Tyler, please read again: not bamboozlement by you; bamboozlement of you.

      I link above to two detailed critiques of Groseclose’s methods by Paul Waldman. If you have a refutation to offer, we’re all ears.

      But it’s simply and obviously absurd to say that RAND and CFR are “liberal” because liberal Congressmen cite RAND and CFR reports. The fact that by this metric the ACLU comes out as more “conservative” than RAND compounds the nonsense, and jumping from that absurdity to assigning “liberal bias” to outlets that cite RAND is nonsense on stilts.

      As Waldman points out, Groseclose ignores the entire media-studies literature in order to invent methods that reach his pre-determined conclusions. His cleverness consisted in submitting the result to QJE, where the editors lacked the craft knowledge that would have allowed them to smell the b.s.

      Of course you and Megan were hardly alone in having been taken in by this bit of nonsense; I single the two of you out precisely because I would have expected you to apply a more finely-honed critical sense.

      1. The Wall Street Journal news page is liberal. The op-ed pages are not. This was common knowledge in the industry long before Groseclose’s book, and the source of a great deal of humor. An assignment of the Wall Street Journal’s news pages as liberal is a validation, not a critique, of the methodology. Since Groseclose excluded the op-ed pages from his analysis, he is correct. Moreover, since Boot’s piece ran in the op-ed pages, Groseclose’s methodology would not, as you assert, have made any difference to the paper’s ranking in Groseclose’s system.

        Of course I agree that not every think tank, etc is 100% where I would assign them, but I think you are missing the point, which is not to test for liberally biased think tanks, but to see how closely the media match liberal preferences in talking points.

        1. ¨The Wall Street Journal news page is liberal..¨ Yes, it tries to be accurate.

        2. “The WSJ news page is liberal.” How many times did you have to stop and catch your breath while typing that piece of humor? Seriously, what alternate universe are you people living in?

          1. Until the Murdoch takeover, the WSJ news pages were indeed quite reality-based. There was a strong “separation of church and state” that allowed serious reporting on p. 1 to coexist with the lunacy further back. That’s changed to a considerable extent, but the gap remains.

            Still, that doesn’t seem to me to amount to “liberal bias,” and even if it did counting RAND as “liberal” would still be silly.

        3. Thanks for the correction about op-eds not counting. That completely undercuts this example. But the same would apply if a WSJ reporter quoted Boot – the Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow at CFR – about the utter wonderfulness of the Iraq war or the national-security threat posed by Obamacare: it would prove, according to Groseclose, that the WSJ is a liberal outlet.

        4. As I understand Waldman’s criticism, one of his major points is that Groseclose counts only cites to organizations, not to individuals. A story that cited a report from AEI, and acriticism of that report from Paul Krugman, would be counted as “conservative.” Similarly, a story describing a report issued by the Progressive Policy Institute attacked by Tyler would count as “liberal.”

          That makes no sense.

        5. Are you at all concerned that conflating “liberal” with “factual” may work out badly in the long term?

        6. “The Wall Street Journal news page is liberal. ”

          Megan, where the HE-double hockey sticks do you get that one?

  2. Max Boot lifted the title of Alastair Horne´s fine history of the Algerian War of Independence – ¨A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962¨ for his own ¨The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power¨. Since the phrase is from Kipling´s imperialist ode ¨The White Man´s burden¨, this isn´t strictly speaking plagiarism, but for me it´s enough to mark him out as a corner-cutter. It´s hard to believe he´s such a rank amateur as never to have read Horne, an essential source. After Iraq, the guy still has a reputation to lose?

    1. It may be somewhat, well, ungenerous, to use a book title very similar to another book title, but book titles (and song titles) cannot be copyrighted and are frequently duplicated. And, for that matter, he may not even have had final editorial control over the book title; at least with novels, the publisher often imposes a title. I say this not to defend Max Boot, whom I have no reason to endorse, and whose writings I usually find awful, but simply to suggest that using this as an example of plagiarism is not warranted. Even to use it as an example of corner-cutting is a stretch. (ABE gives me a third example, Anthony Kemp, “SAS: The Savage Wars of Peace, 1947 to the Present,” 1994. And a fourth, Robert Ramsey, “Savage Wars of Peace: Case Studies of Pacification in the Phipippines, 1900-1902,” 2007. And a fifth: Charles Allen, “The Savage Wars of Peace: Soldiers Voices, 1945-1989,” 1990. At which point, I’ll quit.)

  3. The research assistant Greg Roberts, was the only one who showed a smidgen of integrity, in his email to Max Boot: “The evidence is strong and only growing stronger by the year as more studies are completed; the risks are probably worse than anyone imagined, not to be dismissed or downplayed.”, which is exactly what Boot proceeded to do! There is “no evidence” for lasting effects of football head injuries sports editor Walker, obviously had found his perfect confederate for dismissing out of hand head injuries, “Not that I know might about it,”, Boot ingenuously admitted from Thailand. Since when did that ever deter either a conservative hack writer or their hack editors” from reaching erroneous conclusions based on false assumptions.

  4. As should be clear from the responses above by Cowen and McArdle, if the methodology by which Groseclose purports to prove liberal media bias is flawed, the answer must be to find a superior methodology that will prove liberal media bias. Or, failing that, to simply turn a blind eye to the flaws.

      1. Thanks for that pointer to the original D^2 classic 1m MBA. I have been looking for that link for a long time. Most people link to BDL’s summary.

        People! If you haven’t read this piece, it is one of the very great ones. Mark in particular could have used these techniques to great advantage back in the day.

        1. Originally, afaict, everyone mostly cited to the blogspot version of Davies’s post. I don’t know whether the wordpress site is an original blog that migrated to blogspot or whether it’s a mirror that stopped updating well before the blogspot version was closed to the public, but it hadn’t been in use for a long time when the blogspot site went down and there basically weren’t any lingering links to it. Davies’s post was so widely quoted, always linked to the blogspot site, that the wordpress site doesn’t turn up anywhere near the first page of google results for a search based on terms from the post. People cite to BDL’s summary because that’s the well-known source that turns up on the first page of many likely google searches. But once you know the wordpress site is there then a site-specific advances google search turns up an original source.

          I was really happy when I finally figured that all out and found the full original post.

  5. The conservative critique of the media is that the media isn’t sufficiently conservative. The liberal critique of the media is that it isn’t accurate.

    Liberals are unhappy with the nonsense on CBS, NBC, ABC and CNN all the time. The only time you’ll see a conservative complaining about Fox is if they think that network is giving too much time to liberals.

    1. The conservative critique of the media is that the media isn’t sufficiently conservative. The liberal critique of the media is that it isn’t accurate.

      Critics from the left and the right both complain about both bias and accuracy.

      A right-wing watchdog group calls itself Accuracy in Media. A left-wing group calls itself Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and has a page entitled How to Detect Bias in the News Media.

      Both organizations — as well as a number of others — use the same methodology: comb through thousands of news stories until you find one that shows the kind of bias that you are looking for. Then, point out where they get their facts wrong, or more likely leave something out that you think is important. They seem to be mirror images of each other. What they don’t do is point out examples of bias in their own favor.

  6. 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.

    1. That has been my experience as well, and then I found out that the so-called hostile media effect has some empirical validation. According to a Wikipedia article:

      The hostile media effect, originally deemed the hostile media phenomenon and sometimes called hostile media perception, is a perceptual theory of mass communication that refers to the finding that people with strong biases toward an issue (partisans) perceive media coverage as biased against their opinions, regardless of the reality. Proponents of the hostile media effect argue that this finding cannot be attributed to the presence of bias in the news reports, since partisans from opposing sides of an issue perceive the same coverage differently.

      Wikipedia goes on:

      In 1982, the first major study of this phenomenon was undertaken; pro-Palestinian students and pro-Israeli students at Stanford University were shown the same news filmstrips pertaining to the then-recent Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian refugees by Christian Lebanese militia fighters abetted by the Israeli army in Beirut during the Lebanese Civil War. On a number of objective measures, both sides found that these identical news clips were slanted in favor of the other side. Pro-Israeli students reported seeing more anti-Israel references and fewer favorable references to Israel in the news report and pro-Palestinian students reported seeing more anti-Palestinian references, and so on. Both sides said a neutral observer would have a more negative view of their side from viewing the clips, and that the media would have excused the other side where it blamed their side.

      Here’s a link to the paper itself.

      1. Yes, the hostile media effect is real. But that doesn’t end the argument. 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 rates 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 – 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 of support – higher alcohol taxation, for example – never get a hearing at all.

        Tyler and Megan read the newspapers and notice 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.

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