Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The media and politics

In talking about the media and politics, two questions come up all the time. Is the media biased? If so, is the bias influential, does it change the way people think? The November 1 issue of The Economist, to which I cannot link, reported on some recent economic research that bears on these questions.

If you start from the assumption that readers and listeners like to have their beliefs confirmed, as two economists did, you end up with the conclusion that the media slant their reporting right and left in order to increase market share. Two other economists, according to The Economist, have recently added evidence to support this conclusion. They measured political slant by indexing key phrases (“estate tax” vs “death tax”) used in Congressional debates and their frequency in the media and correlated this with readership bias as determined by voting patterns in media markets and contributions to Democratic or Republican organizations.

The economists concluded that “newspapers tended, on average, to locate themselves neither to the right nor to the left of the level of slant that [the economists] reckon would maximise their profits. And for good commercial reasons: their model showed that even a minor deviation from this “ideal” level of slant would hurt profits through a sizeable loss of circulation.”

This economic analysis adds to the evidence that, stated simply, the media does not influence public opinion as much as it reacts to it (to make money) and that public opinion or at least the terms of our political discourse are set by opinion makers, in this case, congressmen and senators.

Discussions - 8 Comments

Did the article speak about "media" or "newspapers"? If we are discussing newspapers, I would point out that they HAVE lost circulation and many newspapers in America are in trouble. If that article extrapolates "media" from "newspapers" then I would quarrel that you cannot define a genus by a species.

I think you are wrong about this. Generally, people know far less about what their congressman or senators think about whatever is happening than they do about whatever their favorite news source spouts. For adults our age, that might be from television, or for some us, articles from favorite magazines. For my students, the few that pay attention to the news listen to radio, usually Rush Limbaugh, or watch TV, usually Steve Colbert or Jon Stewart. What is profitable in any of those media cases? I would not say the profitable position on any issue was a matter of maintaining a centrist position, unless you take a broad view of what is the center of political opinion.

Of course, I am not reading that article, either, but only parsing what you say above. I am happy to argue.

A common perception, at least among those on the right and within the indifferent middle is that the media is liberally-biased, "liberal" of course defined as anyone to the left of Dick Cheney and being blurred together with "the Left".

I'm constantly wondering why our supposedly leftist "MSM" (mainstream media) is continually ignoring events that many people who are left of center think are important and worth covering. Maybe the liberals are just lazy? I've heard Claremont Statesmanship Award-winner Rush Limbaugh characterize them as such, so that must explain it...

Kate -- the account spoke of media, but I don't see why it would not apply to radio, for example, or any other media that is local or regional. By extension, it would apply to national media as well. Did not Mucrdoch see a market niche that he filled with FOX news?

That newspapers are losing circulation overall does not mean that they would not suffer even larger declines if they did not tailor their views to their demographics.

The analysis does not imply that center of the road opinions are most profitable. In some markets they might be, but in others, left or right bias might be more profitable.

The analysis does not assume that the average American spends time monitoring what senators and COngressman say on C-span. It suggests, as other studies have, that the media do not set the agenda but pass on to the rest of us what other people say (death tax vs estate tax). Colbert may well be an opinion leader for some people. That would fit the argument.

Is it hard to completely miss the point of things?

The media is the gatekeeper of reality. How do I know what is going on outside of my home if they don't tell me? I doubt many people are part of fax networks passing info tips around. The little slants and bias are small compared to the ignoring and hyping of things. They own reality. The modern Mass media is the greatest propoganda machine in history. How can this point be missed, if the media does not tell us we don't know and what we don't know will hurt us. I don't have a intrinsic newsticker in my head that says ten dead in Hamas attack, Israel retaliates by bombing XYZ. If the media does not tell me this I never would know it happended, and the inverse is true and even more troubling. Now, can someone tell me this is not more important and why?

Brutus -- How does the media know what is going on in the world? Who tells them? Do you think they have some super eyes and ears that allows them to see all of reality and then they select what they tell us? Why do they look where they look? Bias is one answer but they have other motives as well. Also, they follow opinion leaders. No US media (so-called prestige press) was reporting about starving children in Somalia in 1992 until Senator Kassebaum held a news conference and reported what she had seen on her recent trip. But again, the issue is not whether the media is biased (in how they report and what they report or don't report) but whether that bias has influence and how much.

Senator Nancy Kassebaum went to Somalia to investigate what she read about Somalia in the news.

To sell TV time or papers or magazines the people who run those various types will report on just about anything. Wires services stay in business pulling in information from all over the world. What voices speak to us through those medium of communication are not self-determined. David Tucker has our ear (or eye, rather) through NLT. He does not garner a great audience. The governor of his state would speak at me in my living room, if I had a TV in my living room. But he speaks to people through the various media, because he is of interest - to whom? An elected official has a better chance of speaking to any of us than any of has of speaking to one another. His bias counts, but to get elected, he had to be allowed a voice in the first place and most of us not in that position wonder how the heck he got it. Sometimes he seems no brighter than the possessor of one of this first 2000 names in the phone book.

Brutus has a point in that if someone, or lots of someones, did not consider what any given one of us has to say as news, no one would know what you or I said. David's governor can try to pull my opinion one way or another on any issue, because the people of that state elected him to office.

That actually makes sense. The wonder of modern media are the various speakers who are not elected to office, but can catch the eye and ear of the public and pull opinion. They make money for the companies they work for and for themselves. I truly can't get over the number of people who think this or that MUST be true because someone who exists electronically in their living room or automobile said so. The influence of television is much the strongest of many other medium of communication, because of the imitation of conversation. I tend to go on about that, but resist the temptation here, today.

I see in #5 that we are accepting media bias, but questioning the influence of that bias. That people listen to what they want hear, tuning in to the voices that say agreeable things; this is probably true, although it it is not what I do.

However, real voices clamor for my attention, and I can't edit. I hope I made sense today.

Kassebaum held her news conference and then TV coverage, for example, occurred. She was the chair of a sub-committee on Africa and had just returned from a trip there.

The issue in this discussion has never been about whether the media is biased. All the evidence indicates that it is. The issue is how influential is that bias. As I mentioned in my first post, how public opinion gets formed and the role of the press or media in that is complicated. For example, one way that politicians and opinion makers judge the public mood and therefore what they should say is what the press reports about the public mood. But politicians, for example, have other ways to judge the public mood. The media do have influence but the evidence is that it is not controlling or even close to controlling. One of the best accounts of all of this put it this way with regard to the decision to go to Somalia: “journalists worked closely with government sources in deciding when to cover Somalia, how to frame the story, and how much coverage it deserved. The lesson of Somalia is not just about the influence of television on Washington; it is equally about the influence of Washington on television.”

Perhaps the more interesting points in all this is why people on the left (talk radio) and right (MSM) think the media is so powerful and why those who make this argument believe everyone else falls under the power of the media but they do not.

Yes, all right, it is complicated. And seeing bias in media that holds one opposite to yours is like the illusion of diagonal lines in perspective - your own bias makes the other bias seem more extreme. Which suggests Matthew 7:3, "Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but don't consider the beam that is in your own eye?" It's only human.

Why did Kassebaum take the trip to Somalia? Hadn't Somalia been in trouble since the late 80's? She was not there doing her holiday shopping and suddenly noticed children in the streets, starving. Who brought her attention to the problem? And who did not know that civil war and competing war lords might mean a disruption of society, that family life would be a mess and that children would be in trouble? Besides, what African country does not have a problem with starving children? How many children do you suppose are starving in Zimbabwe right now? Yet, no one goes and makes a fuss. Perhaps the public is not in the mood to care about them? Just because there is not constant news coverage of the fact does not mean that problem disappeared, nor that other problems do not exist. Politicians respond to what is in the news, sometimes because it is the right thing to do and sometimes because it is expedient and useful, politically. They are surely as responsive to what is in the news as anyone else.

I found your quote in this piece and maybe it is right. I don't remember when I knew what about Somalia. I remember knowing when Barre was deposed and thinking it was a good thing. Then it was not a good thing when nothing good seemed to come of it.

Finally, "influence, but not control." I can accept that.

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