Everyone Thinks There’s a Media Bias, Against His Own Position

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.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

Mark Kleiman

Mark Kleiman is a professor of public policy at the New York University Marron Institute.