The Closet Moderate: Media Bias?

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Media Bias?

So, my one of my somewhat more rabid Republican uncles e-mailed me with a rather lengthy complaint about bias in the media. His central thesis, which I suppose has been iterated on many times, is that in non-opinion pieces in the MSM Obama-Biden is given a pass and McCain-Palin is trotted into the street. 

So, my question is: If there were media bias, how would we measure it? Clearly, the media is an imperfect instrument for this - they are the supposedly biased ones to begin with. Just asking whether there is fair coverage isn't reasonable: If the Ds ran Cynthia McKinney and the Rs ran Ronald Reagan, it seems to me that even handed coverage of the candidates would not be reasonable. There doesn't seem to be any particularly good numerical metric: any kind of measure could easily conflate public opinion with unfair bias. My uncle seemed to think a laundry list of bad, supposedly underreported things about Obama would count as evidence. To this I reply: data is not the plural of anecdote.

I pointed out that if there were very strong media bias toward Obama, you might expect pundits to call the debates, a famously spun result, against McCain. In fact, though, the pundits seemed to think that McCain did a lot better than the electorate thought he did (if you believe those biased pollsters, but that's another conversation). This is clearly also a tainted metric - the debates are a very particular kind of comparison, wherein the pundits and electorate may have very different measures of success. But I'd claim if the reverse were happening, some that see 'liberal' media bias would be crying bloody murder. 

It has been mentioned before that the MSM tends to be more educated than the populace they are addressing. And indeed, there is a well-documented correlation between being exposed to the liberal-elite professor class and becoming a dirty pinko. Or learning and becoming a dem, if you prefer. But perhaps it isn't a question of the messenger as much as the message. At least in the last few elections, it seems the Rs have been trading mostly on emotion and intuition and the Ds mostly on pragmatism and logic. So is it true that the MSM will naturally lean toward the dems in these elections because their message is better tailored to the medium? 

One last rambling point: as a scientist, I am very irked by the idea that a group of people in fierce competition with each other are somehow colluding to confuse the public. People are always leveling this accusation at scientists: group think or cover-up. But as we all know, the guy who disproves evolution or global warming or the gal who finds aliens or some kind or some new secret energy source would get a nobel prize in a heartbeat. Similarly, the reporter who breaks the story about how Obama actually is a Muslim would get plaudits six ways from Sunday. I think this concept that good ideas are being kept just defies the logic of self interest.


Silent Cal said...

Your last paragraph makes a good point: news people are, above all else, out for blood. If one of them had a terrible story about Obama, he would run it in a minute and not think twice. Tearing people down is their m├ętier.

Where a bias emerges, I think, is in their belief that there is far more to tear down about right-wing politicians than there is about left-wing pols. Survey after survey shows that journalists tend overwhelmingly to vote Democratic; is it not natural that they see more newsworthy flaws in the Republicans?

Fake Steve Hawking said...

I guess one has to believe their left-leaning ways dominate their will to get the most potent story. I mean, when runs the headline 'Breaking news: Joe Biden having sex with donkeys', you better believe I'm gonna click on that. And they know when we click on stuff, and they run more of that. So it's possible that newspaper writers aren't investigating Obama's deep links to ACORN b/c they are in the tank, but it's also possible that I'm gonna click on 'RNC spends 150K on Palin duds' first.

How you figure out which of those things is going on, I don't know.

Silent Cal said...

A lot of this stuff is not quantifiable. Politics is alot about how people feel about things, or how they perceive things. Equations aren't of much value in measuring feelings, not that economists don't try.

At least economists can measure actions, though. Since we vote in secret and for reasons sometimes even we don't understand, there aren't many facts to go on. That's why I hate the term "political science." Politics doesn't have reproducable results; it's different everytime, and no two people see it the same.

Waldorf said...

Here's a paper that quantifies media bias. BITCHES.

Ruth said...

I do recall the days when Ronald Reagan was clearly the "Teflon President"--somehow nothing he did or didn't do was ever cast in a bad light, or followed up. Ditto for George Bush for about five years of his "reign." Maybe the press is biased in favor of winners? A kind of positive-feedback-loop effect perhaps?

On a completely different subject, there's a YouTube item today that identifies your homepage illustration, and shows how that tradition is being maintained today.

"Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Status Quo) stood idly by as one of his congressional staffers whacked one of Democratic opponent Judy Feder’s campaign aides with a metal cane. It’s been 152 years since Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Senator. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with his cane on the Senate floor, but perhaps Rep. Wolf is so tied to the past that he has embraced the violent tactics of 19th-century pro-slavery fanatics."

Sorry, I don't do the click here link, but I got this from The Daily Beast.

Silent Cal said...

The idea of the press liking a winner rings true. Everyone likes to be right, after all, and the press have the added consideration that cosying up to the candidate they think wll win might help them get access to stories when he's president.

It reminds me of Ambrose Bierce's definition of Manicheism: MANICHEISM, n. The ancient Persian doctrine of an incessant warfare between Good and Evil. When Good gave up the fight the Persians joined the victorious Opposition.

Fake Steve Hawking said...

Waldorf: The article is really interesting, even if your link is broken. I like the methodology. But is it a red flag the the NYT is second place for most liberal ... a ways behind that pinko rag, the WSJ?