Politics & Policy

The Economics of Media Bias

It may soon be too costly to lean left.

A new poll from the Pew Research Center has again raised the issue of liberal bias in the media. A growing body of academic research at top universities supports it. Unfortunately, those in the major media still don’t get it and are unlikely to change their behavior, resulting in further declines in ratings and circulation.

#ad#Liberal bias is a tiresome subject, I know. We have been hearing about it for at least 30 years. Although those who work in the media continue to deny it, they are having a harder and harder time explaining why so many viewers, readers, and listeners believe it.

This is the point of the Pew study. Whatever the media think about themselves, there is simply no denying that a high percentage of Americans perceive a liberal bias. The credibility of every single major media outlet has fallen sharply among conservatives and Republicans, while falling much less among liberals and Democrats.

This has affected viewing habits. Conservatives have drifted away from those outlets they perceive as most biased, which has contributed heavily to an overall decline in viewership. Among all Americans, those who watch the evening network news regularly have fallen from 60 percent in 1993 to just 34 percent today. Among Republicans, 15 percent or less report watching the evening news on ABC, CBS, or NBC.

One consequence is that conservatives are gravitating toward those outlets that are perceived as exhibiting less liberal bias. These include Fox News, talk radio, and the Internet. Ironically, academic studies view these not as conservative, but as objective. Apparently, the effect of having a rightward tilt only has the effect of moving “conservative” outlets to the middle, owing to the extreme left-wing bias of the dominant media.

An interesting study in this regard was recently done by Tim Groseclose of UCLA and Jeff Milyo of the University of Chicago. They devised a method of measuring press bias based on the way members of Congress cite various think tanks. By looking at their rating on a liberal/conservative scale based on votes, they were able to determine which think tanks were viewed as conservative or liberal. They then looked at how often these think tanks were cited in the media.

The conclusion of the Groseclose-Milyo study is unambiguous. “Our results show a very significant liberal bias,” they report. Interestingly, they found that the Internet’s Drudge Report and “Special Report” on Fox News were the two outlets closest to the true center of the political spectrum, despite being widely viewed as conservative.

Groseclose and Milyo also look at the political orientation of journalists relative to the population. They note that just 7 percent of journalists voted for George H.W. Bush in 1992 versus 37 of the voting public. This means that journalists are more liberal than voters in the most liberal congressional district in the U.S., the 9th district in California, which contains the city of Berkeley. Even there, Bush got 12 percent of the vote, almost twice his support among journalists.

The curious question is why the media remain so persistently liberal. Economic theory says that conservative news outlets should have come into existence to serve that market. However, Prof. Daniel Sutter of the University of Oklahoma points out that there are severe barriers to entry into the news business that make it very difficult to start a new newspaper or television network, thus allowing liberal bias to perpetuate itself.

Another answer comes from a study by Prof. David Baron of Stanford. He theorizes that profit-maximizing corporations tolerate liberal bias because it allows them to pay lower wages to liberal journalists. By being allowed to exercise their bias, they are willing to accept less pay than they would demand if they were in a business where bias was not tolerated. Conservatives are perhaps less willing to pay such a financial price.

Writing in the summer issue of The Public Interest, Prof. William Mayer of Northwestern suggests that conservatives have adopted talk radio, which is overwhelmingly conservative, as an alternative news outlet. In other words, a key reason for the popularity of people like Rush Limbaugh is that they provide news and information not available elsewhere, not just conservative opinion.

This helps explain why liberal talk radio has been such a dismal failure. Listeners are not getting much they can’t already get in the dominant media. In Prof. Mayer’s words, “Liberals, in short, do not need talk radio. They already have Dan Rather, Peter Jennings, and Tom Brokaw — not to mention NPR.”

The dominant media is finally starting to realize that it has an economic problem from having a perceived liberal bias, even though it steadfastly denies any such bias. Editor & Publisher, an industry publication, is so alarmed that it has begun a study of the problem.

– Bruce Bartlett is senior fellow for the National Center for Policy Analysis. Write to him here.

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