Thursday, August 7, 2003

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Media Bias(?)

Tim Noah links to a July 2003 Michael Tomasky paper put out by the Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center study to argue that the conservative media is more doctrinaire than the liberal media.

From the paper's executive summary:

This study of the partisan intensity of the nation's agenda-setting liberal and conservative editorial pages finds that while the pages are more or less equally partisan when it comes to supporting or opposing a given presidential administration's policy pronouncements, the conservative pages are more partisan-often far more partisan-with regard to the intensity with which they criticize the other side. Also, the paper finds, conservative editorial pages are far less willing to criticize a Republican administration than liberal pages are willing to take issue with a Democratic administration.

The methodology used in the paper is pretty solid. It compares editorial responses for two liberal papers (the Washington Post and New York Times) and two conservative papers (the Wall Street Journal and Washington Times) on matched sets of issues -- the Zoe Baird and Linda Chavez nominations, for example. Noah rightly quibbles with labeling the Post as a liberal paper but concludes:

Tomasky's findings hold up when you compare just the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The Times supported Clinton 37 percent of the time and opposed him 37 percent of the time. The Journal, meanwhile, supported Bush 75 percent of the time and opposed him 3 percent of the time. The Journal opposed Clinton 83 percent of the time while the Times opposed Bush 68 percent of the time. The Journal praised Clinton 5 percent of the time while the Times praised Bush 8 percent of the time.

Tomasky is going to be the new executive editor for The American Prospect, so the right half of the blogosphere might be tempted to dismiss the study's findings. Some of them are probably not as generalizable as Tomasky thinks they are -- for example, Noah points out that editorial civility is likely to be a function of editorial page editor's personality rather than ideology. However, the final graf of Noah's piece has the ring of truth to it:

When the Brock piece came out, Chatterbox (then writing a media column for U.S. News) interviewed the conservative commentator David Frum about its thesis. Frum basically agreed with it. "What happens with the liberal press is that there are loyalties to causes," he said. That's correct. In Tomasky's study, the Times editorial page supported Clinton on policy matters 52 percent of the time, a mere 7 percentage points less than the Journal supported Bush. But, Frum added, "[w]ith conservatives, I suspect there is much more of a loyalty to people."

UPDATE: Let the debate commence!! Andrew Cline, Jim Miller, Jay Manifold, and PowerLineBlog all thake their whacks at the study. Their criticisms amount to:

a) Tomasky's own rhetoric is biased and nasty;
b) The sample size is too small;
c) The ten "matched" cases are not really matched; and
d) Tomasky is not on the cutting edge of rhetorical analysis.

(a) is correct but irrelevant -- what matters are the comparison of cases, not Tomasky's presentation style. (b) makes little sense -- obviously, one would prefer as large an N as possible, but controlled comparison -- which is what Tomasky does here -- is perfectly appropriate. (c) is a judgment call. I looked at the cases, and they seem pretty comparable to me -- but I'm sympathetic to arguments that some of the cases are not parallel. I have no doubt (d) is correct, and it's probably the best critique, but it doesn't necessarily vitiate his results.

posted by Dan on 08.07.03 at 03:14 PM


"The methodology is pretty solid"? Well maybe compared to most studies of media bias, which are pretty awful. I dismissed it on my own site, and linked to others who did the same.

And, you missed a wonderfully ironic point. Noah's article, explaining how media conservatives are nastier than leftists, called them "Stalinists" in the title. Now that's civil discourse!

posted by: Jim Miller on 08.07.03 at 03:14 PM [permalink]

Also, I think another really big problem is that editorial criticism of GW was (continues to be?) notably muted by 9-11. His overall popularity since that time has been extremely high, and I'm pretty sure that popularity is reflected in apparent bias these numbers seem to reveal. Meanwhile, any articles from the last third of Clinton's presidency are likely to be skewed in a negative fashion due to his..ahem..problems. I'd be very interested to see the results broken down over time.

(Also, I don't think the authors rhetoric is completely irrelevant in a study like this where subjective evaluations are an inherent part of the study.)

posted by: patrick on 08.07.03 at 03:14 PM [permalink]

The report makes clear that it's about EDITORIAL PAGES.

Very clear, right?

So I go to Jim Miller's site to see what he has to say. He tells us that the WSJ is not conservative because its news section is as liberal as the WP (whatever that means).

Meanwhile he recognizes that the WSJ has a conservative editorial page, WHICH IS WHAT THE REPORT IS ABOUT! So what's his point?

Jim, you seem to have a problem understanding what is being debated. You made a mistake with the Guardian article and the BBC and now this?

posted by: GT on 08.07.03 at 03:14 PM [permalink]

I thought the Powerline refutation was devastating; and by the way, you have the wrong link to it.

The gist is this: Though Tomasky claims to have a sample size of 10 issues, 2 issues received 60% of the weighting. One was the treatment of Janet Reno v John Ashcroft in their first years; on that, all the moderation at the liberal papers was due to expressed reservations about her conduct in the Waco disaster. The other was a comparison of Bush's large tax cut with Clinton's tiny "stimulus" package, which had $15 billion of tax breaks that the liberal papers objected to. So the supposed liberal "moderation" is due to opposing tax cuts and embarrassment over the killing of 80 American citizens by the Justice Department.

posted by: pj on 08.07.03 at 03:14 PM [permalink]

What if the Bush administration was just better and thus more difficult to criticize?

posted by: Jean on 08.07.03 at 03:14 PM [permalink]

GT - My point about the newspapers is simply that you can not match the newspapers as Tomasky did, that the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Times are too different from the New York Times and the Washington Post to make the comparison valid. I mention the split between the news and editorial sides at the WSJ simply as one obvious example of the differences; there are many others.

Since you made a more general attack on me--best done by way of private email, in my opinion--let me mention some of the predictions where I have been correct on my blog: Low casualties in the war with Iraq, progress on free trade under Bush despite steps backwards at the beginning, majority support for short war by Iraqis, and my skepticism on the exaggerated claims about the looting of the Baghdad museums. Check them out.

BTW, is no one besides me bothered by the "Stalinist" in Noah's title?

posted by: Jim Miller on 08.07.03 at 03:14 PM [permalink]

I fail to see the point Jim. If the issue is to compare conservative vs liberal editorial pages why does the news section have anything to do with it? How would that affect the outcome in any way? How would an editorial page be more or less conservative depending on what the news section is?

Not to mention that you have provided no definition of what a liberla news section is.

As for your predictions I think they complement well what I posted. Your "mistakes" and your predictions all share that they are "conservative " or right of center". By this I mean that you consistently seem to predict or interpret what fits a conservative viewpoint.

It's as if I always predicted that the liberal position will win. Over time I will be able to point to a lot of successes. But since there is no method to it, other than ideological bias, it does not help me predict the future.

This, btw, is not something that is specific to you but to all of us (myself included). We view the world through our own biases and preferences and when things go our way we think we have been vindicated but whe they don't we tend to forget.

If the Guardian article had been about how well the BBC was doing and how badly Blair was seen, and had a clear error in it but of an opposite sign, I bet you would have caught it in a second and some liberal blogger somewhere would have made the mistake you made here.

posted by: GT on 08.07.03 at 03:14 PM [permalink]

I'll make my point clearer: suppose Tokarsky's work compares editorials about the Wilson administration and the Roosevelt administration. The Democrats have just won the election, so it won't be too much of a surprise to find out that the new administration is more popular than the old one, and that might be reflected in the editorials' content. Republican editorials might be more on the defensive, trying to find arguments against the new administration but not having found them for the time being.
My point is that Tokarsky's method seems to assume that all administration are equally deserving, and therefore, that any difference of appreciation can only result from a preconceived bias on the part of the media.
I don't know much about American politics, being not American, but it seems to me that conservative and liberals are alternatively more or less on the defensive, and that right now, the liberals - who have just lost the mid-term elections - are more on the defensive.
Thus it is logical that liberal editorialists are playing the game of honesty and objectivity. I suppose the conservative would do the same in other circumstances.
By the way, are Krugman's editorials taken into account in Tokarsky's study???

posted by: Jean on 08.07.03 at 03:14 PM [permalink]

Hilarious. Conservative media? WSJ editorial page, the NY Post, FOX News (sometimes), Washington Times, a couple of magazines with limited readership, a handful of radio talk shows. Did I forget anything? Probably not.

Liberals media? All other newspapers, magazines, TV & radio news, academia, entertainment industry, education biz, publishing companies, judiciary. Did I forget anything? Probably.

The left is nuts. Rush is right (again) when he says that the left is much more fun when they're out of power. They become like frenzied, angry, buzzing yellow jackets at the end of the summer when it's clear their day is over.

posted by: erp on 08.07.03 at 03:14 PM [permalink]

This seems to be another attempt to use "science" to buttress one ideological side of the spectrum. Coupled with the Berkeley study that "conservatives" from Hitler to Rush are mean and don't like ambiguity, and we are seeing one side's prejudices buttressed by imitating the one religion that every American has complete faith in: science.

posted by: A. Pease on 08.07.03 at 03:14 PM [permalink]

Just a note:
Many conservative complaints about the media are about opinion pieces masquerading as news coverage. Not about the opinion/editorial boards, but about left-wing slants in how the media reports news in the news section (or in neews programs).

One expects people who write opinion columns like editorials to have opinions. One also expects reporters to put their opinions aside and report the facts.

Thus, the principal problem with comparing editorial pages is that it is completely irrelevant to the typical conservative complaints about media bias, which are far, far more often about reporting.

posted by: Craig on 08.07.03 at 03:14 PM [permalink]

thanks daniel for not making excuses.
it made my day.

posted by: markus on 08.07.03 at 03:14 PM [permalink]

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