Tim Groseclose's Theory of Liberal Media Bias Remains Shaky
Better take your nitroglycerin pills, bypass boy, your arteries are
clogging up again...
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"At my age, I don't need balls. I'm done with the procreation stuff."
"I've been around pimps before (as a "slumlord")..."
While the editorial page of The Wall Street Journal is conservative, the
newspaper's news pages are liberal, even more liberal than the New York
Times. The Drudge Report may have a right-wing reputation, but it leans
left. Coverage by public television and radio is conservative compared
to the rest of the mainstream media. Meanwhile, almost all major media
outlets tilt to the left.
These are just a few of the surprising findings from a UCLA-led study,
which is believed to be the first successful attempt at objectively
quantifying bias in a range of media outlets and ranking them accordingly.
"I suspected that many media outlets would tilt to the left because
surveys have shown that reporters tend to vote more Democrat than
Republican," said Tim Groseclose, a UCLA political scientist and the
study's lead author. "But I was surprised at just how pronounced the
"Overall, the major media outlets are quite moderate compared to members
of Congress, but even so, there is a quantifiable and significant bias
in that nearly all of them lean to the left," said co‑author Jeffrey
Milyo, University of Missouri economist and public policy scholar.
The results appear in the latest issue of the Quarterly Journal of
Economics, which will become available in mid-December.
Groseclose and Milyo based their research on a standard gauge of a
lawmaker's support for liberal causes. Americans for Democratic Action
(ADA) tracks the percentage of times that each lawmaker votes on the
liberal side of an issue. Based on these votes, the ADA assigns a
numerical score to each lawmaker, where "100" is the most liberal and
"0" is the most conservative. After adjustments to compensate for
disproportionate representation that the Senate gives to low‑population
states and the lack of representation for the District of Columbia, the
average ADA score in Congress (50.1) was assumed to represent the
political position of the average U.S.voter.
Groseclose and Milyo then directed 21 research assistants — most of them
college students — to scour U.S. media coverage of the past 10 years.
They tallied the number of times each media outlet referred to think
tanks and policy groups, such as the left-leaning NAACP or the
right-leaning Heritage Foundation.
Next, they did the same exercise with speeches of U.S. lawmakers. If a
media outlet displayed a citation pattern similar to that of a lawmaker,
then Groseclose and Milyo's method assigned both a similar ADA score.
"A media person would have never done this study," said Groseclose, a
UCLA political science professor, whose research and teaching focuses on
the U.S. Congress. "It takes a Congress scholar even to think of using
ADA scores as a measure. And I don't think many media scholars would
have considered comparing news stories to congressional speeches."
Of the 20 major media outlets studied, 18 scored left of center, with
CBS' "Evening News," The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times
ranking second, third and fourth most liberal behind the news pages of
The Wall Street Journal.
Only Fox News' "Special Report With Brit Hume" and The Washington Times
scored right of the average U.S. voter.
The most centrist outlet proved to be the "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer."
CNN's "News Night With Aaron Brown" and ABC's "Good Morning America"
were a close second and third.
"Our estimates for these outlets, we feel, give particular credibility
to our efforts, as three of the four moderators for the 2004
presidential and vice-presidential debates came from these three news
outlets — Jim Lehrer, CharlieGibson and Gwen Ifill," Groseclose said.
"If these newscasters weren't centrist, staffers for one of the campaign
teams would have objected and insisted on other moderators."
The fourth most centrist outlet was "Special Report With Brit Hume" on
Fox News, which often is cited by liberals as an egregious example of a
right-wing outlet. While this news program proved to be right of center,
the study found ABC's "World News Tonight" and NBC's "Nightly News" to
be left of center. All three outlets were approximately equidistant from
the center, the report found.
"If viewers spent an equal amount of time watching Fox's 'Special
Report' as ABC's'World News' and NBC's 'Nightly News,' then they would
receive a nearly perfectly balanced version of the news," said Milyo, an
associate professor of economics and public affairs at the University of
Missouri at Columbia.
Five news outlets — "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," ABC's"Good Morning
America," CNN's "News Night With Aaron Brown," Fox News' "Special Report
With Brit Hume" and the Drudge Report — were in a statistical dead heat
in the race for the most centrist news outlet. Of the print media, USA
Today was the most centrist.
An additional feature of the study shows how each outlet compares in
political orientation with actual lawmakers. The news pages of The Wall
Street Journal scored a little to the left of the average American
Democrat, as determined by the average ADA score of all Democrats in
Congress (85 versus 84). With scores in the mid-70s, CBS' "Evening News"
and The New York Times looked similar to Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn.,
who has an ADA score of 74.
Most of the outlets were less liberal than Lieberman but more liberal
than former Sen. John Breaux, D-La. Those media outlets included the
Drudge Report, ABC's"World News Tonight," NBC's "Nightly News," USA
Today, NBC's "Today Show," Time magazine, U.S. News & World Report,
Newsweek, NPR's "Morning Edition," CBS' "Early Show" and The Washington
Since Groseclose and Milyo were more concerned with bias in news
reporting than opinion pieces, which are designed to stake a political
position, they omitted editorials and Op‑Eds from their tallies. This is
one reason their study finds The Wall Street Journal more liberal than
conventional wisdom asserts.
Another finding that contradicted conventional wisdom was that the
Drudge Report was slightly left of center.
"One thing people should keep in mind is that our data for the Drudge
Report was based almost entirely on the articles that the Drudge Report
lists on other Websites," said Groseclose. "Very little was based on the
stories that Matt Drudge himself wrote. The fact that the Drudge Report
appears left of center is merely a reflection of the overall bias of the
Yet another finding that contradicted conventional wisdom relates to
National Public Radio, often cited by conservatives as an egregious
example of a liberal news outlet. But according to the UCLA-University
of Missouri study, it ranked eighth most liberal of the 20 that the
"By our estimate, NPR hardly differs from the average mainstream news
outlet," Groseclose said. "Its score is approximately equal to those of
Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report and its score is slightly
more conservative than The Washington Post's. If anything,
government‑funded outlets in our sample have a slightly lower average
ADA score (61), than the private outlets in our sample (62.8)."
The researchers took numerous steps to safeguard against bias — or the
appearance of same — in the work, which took close to three years to
complete. They went to great lengths to ensure that as many research
assistants supported Democratic candidate Al Gore in the 2000 election
as supported President George Bush. They also sought no outside funding,
a rarity in scholarly research.
"No matter the results, we feared our findings would've been suspect if
we'd received support from any group that could be perceived as right-
orleft-leaning, so we consciously decided to fund this project only with
our own salaries and research funds that our own universities provided,"
The results break new ground.
"Past researchers have been able to say whether an outlet is
conservative or liberal, but no one has ever compared media outlets to
lawmakers," Groseclose said. "Our work gives a precise characterization
of the bias and relates it to a known commodity — politicians."