Why the Liberal Media Myth Persists - Part 2
In Part 1, I pointed out that, apart from the role played by the right-wing media (including columnists/bloggers), the liberal media myth persists largely because of the role currently played by four groups of people: academics, politicians on the left, influential left-leaning opinion columnists/talking heads in mainstream media (especially those who take journalism seriously), and honest front-line reporters and their editors in the mainstream media. In this part, I discuss the role of academics.
I consider academics to be the single most important group in terms of the influence they can exert in the media bias debate. Why?
First of all, they are the only group that does not depend on the media for their existence, success or failures. This provides them a high level of independence that is hard for any of the other groups to match.
Second, and equally importantly, they are often the media's go-to people when "expert" opinions are needed.
The second point is crucial. Science (of all kinds) plays a critical role in media narratives. I know we live in difficult times where radicals and frauds on the Right have gradually hijacked the media discourse on solid scientific constructs, but how much worse do you think media coverage of evolution (v. "intelligent design") would have been without the strong scientific backing for evolution? How much worse do you think media coverage of global warming and global climate change would have been without the strong scientific backing for global warming?
In other words, when there is a strongly established scientific basis for a particular position, the mainstream media (MSM) will find it far more difficult (but not impossible) to behave as paid or unpaid stenographers of the Right. So, if credible research is done by academics on media bias, it is my expectation (based on the data I am collecting at ICM) that such research will be unable to conclude that the U.S. media is biased liberal (overall). If anything, the bias arrow will point in the opposite direction. This alone would make it much more difficult for the media to propagate right-wing fabrications or charges that "the media is liberal."
Given that, it is certainly surprising to me that even the most informed progressives rarely talk about this aspect when discussing the media problem in the U.S. It is also disappointing that progressives have not hounded (figuratively speaking) professors and researchers to do serious and credible research on the topic of media bias. Indeed, the academic community, which has always realized the importance of policing the accuracy of media depictions or narratives on topics that have a scientific basis, should be most concerned with the liberal media myth, as a matter of scientific integrity. After all, media bias is subjective only in a minority of situations (where an issue has to do with opinions alone, rather than facts). There are a preponderance of issues where bias can be quantified and described with a scientific or at least quasi-scientific basis.
That's not all. The situation is actually much worse.
In my readings in the past month or two, I've discovered that even when academics decide to address the media bias problem, which is not as often as I would have liked, the approach used is often flawed, leading to unreliable conclusions. This is one of the things I have tried to provide a flavor for in my series How the Liberal Media Myth is Created - which is also one of the reasons why I published that series in the first place. As I reviewed multiple studies and papers, I discovered that every paper or study that seems to infer some kind of "liberal bias" really doesn't make its case when subject to a reasonable level of scrutiny. I don't mean that they make a weak case - I mean that they literally have NO case. Yet, other than the occasional debunkings of these studies on a few websites, the significance of these studies continuing to make it to print (so to speak) without being challenged critically by the academic community itself, should be a matter of serious concern to all of us.
Now, some conservatives may be tempted to ask me the obvious question: "How come you have no confidence in academic papers on media bias, yet seem to have so much confidence in academic research on global warming or evolution?" The answer is quite simple really. What I have confidence in is in the ability of the academic research and peer review process to eventually get to the truth. For example, prior to 1953, the published scientific data led even leading scientists to think that the building blocks of life were likely to be amino acids (proteins) and not DNA molecules. It took new discoveries (following a little noticed earlier study) pointing to DNA being the building block, that eventually led to the DNA revolution.
Put another way, the confidence in the scientists who have demonstrated that evolution is a fact and that global warming is a fact is based not on one or two studies, but on a scientific consensus formed from the publication of hundreds or thousands (or more) papers that have withstood the toughest scrutiny by critics. In contrast, papers on media bias are far far fewer and credible papers are uncommon - and many don't withstand even moderate scrutiny as of today. (Now, this is not to say that the researchers who produce such papers are incompetent. I don't think that is the case at all. I just think they are deeply mistaken because they haven't looked at the problem carefully enough - as I briefly discuss below. Scientists are not infallible. For example, Chemistry Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling, arguably a great scientist in his time, was one of those who initially believed in the amino-acid-building-block theory.)
Fundamentally, the most important reason why some of the academic papers on media bias, to-date, are flawed is what I have been saying for some time now - the implicit assumption made that the accuracy of media reporting is largely fine. Now, I understand that the media bias topic is complex to analyze, making it challenging to build a scientifically convincing case about bias, one way or the other. In science, the initial analysis of complex topics does tend to involve the use of simplifying assumptions. But the assumption on accuracy is one that has no connection to reality, and it is therefore no surprise that studies that make that assumption produce results that are untenable.
For example, here's an extract from the Groseclose-Milyo paper that I reviewed here (bold text is my emphasis):
Before proceeding, it is useful to clarify our definition of bias. Most important, the definition has nothing to do with the honesty or accuracy of the news outlet.
...we argue that our notion of bias is meaningful and relevant, and perhaps more meaningful and relevant than the alternative notion. The main reason, we believe, is that only seldom do journalists make dishonest statements. Cases such as Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, or the falsified memo at CBS are rare; they make headlines when they do occur; and much of the time they are orthogonal to any political bias.
Here's an extract from the Puglisi paper which I reviewed here (bold text is my emphasis):
As briefly anticipated in the introduction, the empirical analysis performed here and the interpretation of its findings are based on the following set of identifying assumptions:
(1) The issue ownership hypothesis holds.
(2) “All publicity is good publicity”.
Studies have also examined things like "tone" of coverage, think tank citations, public opinion, etc. - all of which I discussed in my series How the Liberal Media Myth is Created, showing how these kinds of metrics are rarely useful (taken in isolation) and cannot be used to assess bias without also knowing the accuracy and content of the news reports. Yet, because of the limited academic critique of such metrics, conservatives have been able to circulate the claims from studies like these, further propagating the false meme that the media is biased "liberal".
There may be another reason (beyond simplification) that explains why some academics make the assumption that the media is largely accurate: a general acceptance of the media's own narratives on its accuracy or lack thereof. This is what I have pointed out in my review of the chapter titled "The Mass Media and Voter Information" in the upcoming book "Analyzing Elections" by Rebecca Morton (NYU):
Morton's chapter attempts to provide a detailed review on the topic of media bias (as well as its possible impact on election outcomes) and I don't doubt her intentions. However, it largely suffers from the same problems that so many other academic studies of the media suffer from: a general lack of emphasis on the accuracy of media reporting. Morton and most of the other authors she cites also don't seem to have much exposure to the widespread media malpractice outside of what they hear from the media itself (e.g., CBS and Bush, Jayson Blair). This is problematic for two reasons. An independent examination of a subject should not rely overly on the subject's claims and underemphasize independent, critical analysis of the subject's claims (this is the cardinal law of any independent research). Further, considering that the media rarely, if ever, reports its own gross inaccuracies or malpractice when the targets are Democrats (see here for a small selection of evidence), this adds a clear bias to their analysis, which they don't seem to be cognizant of. All of these authors would benefit substantially by widening the scope of their research to include web sites like The Daily Howler, Media Matters, etc.
Academics, who can do a lot to reverse the rampant inaccuracies, biases and routine journalistic malpractice in the media are unfortunately too hooked into the media's own discourse to realize that they are missing the main problem with the American media. It is rarely accurate on controversial topics. That's where the search for media bias should begin.
This needs to be fixed and this is one of the areas I will be returning to when I discuss media reform.