It is a well-told story that the mainstream media - at least to a small degree - have a liberal bias. It's surprising, then, that few people have examined, or even asked, a potentially more important question: Does the bias matter? If the media reports the news with a certain slant, how does it affect those who take in the content?
For the past several years, I have researched this question, trying to solve the following thought experiment: What if media bias were suddenly to disappear? In such a world, how would America look and act politically?
The answer is, approximately like Texas.
More specifically, if media bias were to disappear, according to the analysis, then America would think and vote like any region that voted around 56-43 percent for Republican John McCain in the last presidential election. Besides Texas, such regions include Kansas, North Dakota, Kentucky, Salt Lake County, Utah, and Orange County, Calif.
That the media has such an influence is a strong claim but is backed up by the science.
The conclusions draw upon recent studies by some highly respected economists and political scientists. For instance, one study, conducted by Yale researchers Alan Gerber, Dean Karlan and Daniel Bergan, is akin to a biology experiment. To one set of randomly selected voters in Northern Virginia, the researchers gave trial subscriptions to The Washington Post. To another set, they gave trial subscriptions to The Washington Times. After the subsequent election, the researchers polled their subjects and found that their Post-subscribing subjects voted for the Democrat at a 3.8 percentage higher rate than did the Times-subscribing subjects. That is, the more liberal newspaper truly seemed to cause people to vote more liberally.
After aggregating the results of this and similar studies, one finds an inescapable conclusion: Newspapers, television, radio and online media are extremely influential, especially over consumers' political views.
For example, the results imply that if the "slant quotient" of the entire media moved 34 points leftward - approximately the difference between Fox News' Special Report and The New York Times - then the "political quotient" of the average voter would move about 24 points leftward. The latter shift is approximately the difference between the average voter in Colorado or Iowa and the average voter in Rhode Island or Massachusetts.
If the analysis is right - that media bias really does change political views so significantly - then this no doubt has some important - and largely unrecognized - consequences.
One subtle consequence is that media bias actually affects how people judge media bias itself. For instance, if the media report with a liberal bias, then this causes us to think more liberally. In turn, thinking more liberally causes us to prefer more liberal news, which makes us less able to detect the bias. Despite all the discussion about media bias, though, almost no one seems to have recognized the diminishing of bias awareness.
It's time the public wakes up. Media bias is more significant, complex and pernicious than people realize.
Tim Groseclose is the Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of "Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind" (St. Martin's Press, 2011).
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