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Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Media Bias or Think Tank Bias?


Via Econopundit, I learn about a new study, "A Measure of Media Bias," [234k pdf] by Tim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo, recently covered in BusinessWeek (see an excerpt here). Groseclose & Milyo find a liberal bias in the media.

Groseclose and Milyo find a media outlet to be unbiased if it cites the same type of think tanks that members of Congress do. The main problem with this method is that right-wing think tanks are much more extreme than the left-wing ones. A newspaper that cites liberal and conservative think tanks just as often as diverse members of Congress do isn't centrist: it's conservative. Liberals just don't have many strongly partisan, very liberal think tanks to cite, while conservatives have a whole "vast right-wing conspiracy." Also, the farthest-right think tanks aren't just farther right than liberal think tanks are left, they're also simply less accurate and honest. No wonder the media avoids them.

Don't believe me? Look at the table of think tank ratings at the end of this post. Groseclose & Milyo would rate a media outlet as almost perfectly centrist if they cited all the think tanks equally. I think a reasonable person, though, would find such reporting strongly conservative and inaccurate. The wonky and scrupulously accurate Center on Budget and Policy Priorities just doesn't balance the strident Heritage Foundation.

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Still don't believe me? Here's my argument in great detail.

The study rates media outlets using a two-step method. First they examine favorable references to think tanks by members of Congress. Each member of Congress has an Americans for Democratic Action (ADA) rating of their voting record (0=most conservative, 100=most liberal). The think tank's rating is then the average of the ADA ratings of the Members of Congress that mention them favorably. They use two different methods, that I'm not going to describe. The thinks tank ratings are in a table at the end of this post.

The second step is to rate each media outlet based on how many times they cite particular think tanks. This step is more complicated, but is essentially similar to the first. For example, a newspaper that cited each of the 20 think tanks on the list below would get (more of less) the average ranking (38 by method 1, 41 by method 2). Since the median Member of the House of Representatives has a 39 rating, this newspaper would be almost perfectly centrist and presumably unbiased.

In the end, Fox news gets a 26, ABC News a 55, and CBS and the NY Times are the most liberal at 65. Groseclose & Milyo report several variations on their method, getting generally similar results. Since most media organizations have scores above 39, the conclude that there is a "very significant liberal bias."

But, as progressives often lament, there isn't a liberal Heritage Foundation. The Brookings Institution is sometimes cited as the liberal equivalent, but the table below ranks it (accurately, in my opinion) as centrist. According to Eric Alterman, "liberals are finally starting to take the first steps" to create their own version of the conservative propaganda machine (he cites Moveon.org and the Center for American Progress). But these are very new, and there was little like them when Groseclose and Milyo conducted their study.

The Heritage Foundation's mission statement proudly announces its ideology: "to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense"

In contrast, the mission statement of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the 1st or 2nd most liberal think tank, downplays ideology, asserting that CBPP works on: "fiscal policy and public programs that affect low- and moderate-income families and individuals...Our materials are used by policymakers and non-profit organizations across the political spectrum."

Not only are the The Heritage foundation and its ilk much more ideological than their liberal counterparts, they are also a lot less credible. A report from a think tank like the Economic Policy Institute may have a liberal spin, but you can trust the numbers. I doubt the same is true of any of the think tanks to the right of the American Enterprise Institute (though I admit I'm not familiar with them all).

For example, look at Lott-watcher Tim Lambert's devastating series on the "Astroturf de Tocqueville Institute," which he charges has been hired by Microsoft to fight Linux, and by the Tobacco industry to fight cigarette taxes, using phony figures and misleading arguments. I think it's a very positive sign that this think tank doesn't get as much media coverage as the CBPP: it's just good journalism to favor sources that provide accurate information.

So perhaps that's why liberals think there's a right-wing bias in the media, and conservatives think there's a left-wing bias. Conservatives believe the lies of far-right think tanks, and want the media to report them. Liberals are frustrated that the media sometimes gets taken in by the "echo chamber" of the far-right's network of lobbyists and think tanks. The right-wing has a coherent storyline that sometimes gets through (but less often in the media than in Congress). The left just doesn't have the same infrastructure generating their own storyline, so it almost never gets through.

The closest the left has to the Heritage Foundation in the table below is the Economic Policy Institute, but they suffer the handicap of being honest, and they have one tenth the budget of Heritage.

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The 20 Think Tanks Most Cited By Members of Congress

Average ADA Score
Citation of Congressional Mentioners
Frequency ---------------------------
Rank Method 1 Method 2
16 Family Research Council 5.7 14.0
1 Heritage Foundation 6.2 13.8
10 National Right to Life Committee 7.2 15.2
17 Center for Security Policy 8.7 17.7
14 Nat. Fed. of Ind. Businesses 12.5 20.3
13 Alexis de Tocqueville Institute 14.2 13.0
7 Citizens Against Govt. Waste 18.4 29.5
6 National Taxpayers Union 21.0 27.5
8 American Enterprise Institute 24.9 29.8
12 Cato Institute 25.6 28.5
2 American Civil Liberties Union 35.0 42.7
3 Brookings Institution 50.0 46.2
9 RAND Corporation 53.6 52.6
15 Common Cause 54.5 61.3
5 Amnesty International 55.3 50.0
11 AARP 60.4 58.3
19 Economic Policy Institute 71.7 70.7
20 Children's Defense Fund 76.9 73.9
4 Cent. on Budget & Policy Priorities 80.1 80.0
18 Council on Hemispheric Affairs 84.2 76.8

Average 38.3 41.1

Source: Groseclose & Milyo, "A Measure of Media Bias."


UPDATE: This post has been getting a fair amount of attention, so I decided to correct the typos. Sorry for misspelling your name, Jeff!
 
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