Groseclose’s Methodology

Tim Groseclose’s methodology is an ideological contrivance (Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind). Consequently, his results are unsound. For example, Groseclose categorizes the right-wing pro-military RAND Corporation as liberal. This begs the question: what does that word “liberal” mean?

If we grant the classification, then just about everything to the left of RAND is liberal. It will follow that journalists more often cite liberal sources than conservative ones. In other words, Groseclose’s measure is designed to find liberal bias. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. And not a very clever one.

Here’s another example of squirrelly methodology: Using Groseclose’s criteria, we can rank the American Civil Liberties Union as conservative, with the National Rifle Association as only slightly more conservative. Self-evidently, this is a useless metric.

The statistic given that 93 percent of Washington DC reporters vote Democratic may be correct, but meaningless in light of the way institutions actually work. Journalists are workers. Like most workers, managers and owners dictate their work, designing the product and telling them when and in what amount to make it.

In the media, the managers are editors. Editors control the hiring of reporters and the news that is reported. Studies consistently find that the editors’ bias in these matters reflect the sensibilities of the owners and advertisers (see Michael Parenti’s Inventing Reality to learn more about this).

But the 93 percent figure is misleading. What studies consistently find is that roughly 40 percent of journalists across the nation describe themselves as being liberal (around 30 percent describing themselves as just “a little to the left”), which means that 60 percent describe themselves as “middle of the road” or leaning towards the political right. Groseclose not only leaves out the political character of journalists across the country as determined by scientific polling, but he uses Washington DC journalists to illustrate a general media bias. This is a choice driven by ideology.

Even if we were to suppose that party loyalty represented actual bias (a case of the prisoners running the prison), the claim of a left-wing bias on account of support for Democrats is misleading because the claim assumes, first, that the Democratic Party represents a left-wing politics and, second, that liberalism is a left-wing philosophy. If the Democratic Party is a center right political organization, and if liberalism is a center-right political philosophy, then 100 percent of journalists can vote Democratic and self-identify as liberal and there will be zero left-wing bias in the media—unless the editors and owners are leftists, which would be an absurdity in a capitalist society.

Socialism is an example of a left-wing political philosophy. Support for the social democratic Green Party would indicate left-of-center orientation. What was the degree of attention given to the Green Party by the corporate media during the last election? Slightly greater than zero? What mainstream journalists are socialists? I cannot think of any, but a handful would hardly prove the claim.

What scientific studies of media bias generally find is that journalists, while relatively liberal on social policies, are significantly to the right of the public on domestic economic and foreign policy issues. Why? Because this is a capitalist society. There is no mainstream left-wing journalism in the United States. Claims of left-wing bias is rhetoric designed to dissimulate right-wing corporate power.

Groseclose doesn’t hide his right wing ideology very well. Consider his prediction that eliminating left-wing media bias (by which he must mean social liberalism) would shift the political spectrum to the right. Obviously he desires that collective American thought move from right-of-center to far right. He also admits that the corporate media is an effective tool of thought control.

* * *

Van Jones has never denied, indeed he has always been quite open about the fact that he, like a lot of young Americans, tried out various ideologies during his early political development before settling on his current pro-capitalist stance. A number of influential conservatives began their political lives as Marxists (a fact conservatives never seem to find troubling). David Horowitz, a favorite among conservatives, is a case in point.

However, the claim that the mainstream media did not cover the Jones scandal is false. I recently performed a search of LexisNexis (a database of all major media) and it returned more than sixty hits on the story. To be sure, the mainstream media didn’t dwell on it like rightwing radio, but they covered it extensively.

For the sake of accuracy, we should note that Groseclose’s desire to red-bait Jones overwhelms any obligation to get the controversy right. What Jones actually resigned over was for having called Republicans “assholes” and for having signed a petition calling for an investigation into 9-11, complaints that hardly seem resignation worthy.

For the record, Van Jones’ comments regarding environmental racism are well-founded. Blacks tend to live in poor parts of the city, and elites do in fact steer land fills and other toxic repositories away from their neighborhoods and into the poorer neighborhoods, which disproportionately affect blacks. As a consequence, the impact of environmental pollution is substantially greater in the majority black neighborhoods than in majority white neighborhoods. This is true for a range of social facts, from how food is distributed to how the police operate.

* * *

The video uses a standard trick typical of conservative anti-tax rhetoric. The pie chart shows the percentage of income taxes paid by the rich as a proportion of all taxpayers. If the rich have more money as a result of a tax cut, then they will pay a greater proportion of the income taxes by virtue of having a greater share of the income.

By every measure, the Bush tax cuts benefited the wealthy more than other classes. They also wiped out the largest budget surplus in history. Combined with military spending, this resulted in a massive fiscal deficit. Who finances the national debt? Rich people. Who collects the interest?

I expect most mainstream media outlets refrained from reporting this “fact” because the corporate media tries, for the most part, to appear objective and fact-minded. To present a meaningless chart would be self-discrediting. However, plenty of guests interviewed by the mainstream media made the spirit of this argument and their hosts did not object. Conservatives did the same thing during the Reagan years. It’s not a new story.

As for debt creation, this is intentional on the part of Republicans. It’s called “starving the beast.” By ramping up the debt, they can then justify cutting social programs for ordinary people. It’s part of the neoliberal privatization scheme. Does the “left-wing” media dwell on this? Not at all. Mainstream media is largely supportive of the privatization of everything. Why? Because they also are mega-corporations that benefit from the extraction of public wealth.

* * *

I have to say something about the source of the video. Groseclose is a real professor (of Economics at George Mason University) but Prager University is not a real university. It’s a right-wing propaganda site run by conservative Dennis Prager.

Among the secular leftists Prager says are conspiring to undermine America’s alleged Judeo-Christian foundations are labor unions, which have almost disappeared from the American scene, the ACLU, a libertarian organization defending the Constitution from authoritarian state policy, and civil rights organizations, that is, those organized groups of oppressed minorities trying to make America a more just country. 

We find a useful instance of Prager’s bigotry in his demand that authorities prevent Keith Ellison from swearing his oath to office on the Quran, the Muslim holy book. Such a remark should lead conservatives to wonder how committed Prager is to the US Constitution. (The Constitution states: “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.”)

In defending his position, Prager claimed that every president since Washington took the oath on the Bible. This is a false claim. Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, did not swear his oath on the Bible when assuming office in 1901. John Quincy Adams also did not swear his oath on the Bible when he assumed office in 1925 (he used a law book). In fact, there is no hard evidence that any president from John Adams to John Tyler used a Bible.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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