Thursday, June 10, 2004

How liberal is Fox News? 

(How's that for intentional irony?)

I had just read Mitch's post on some of the biased reporting surrounding the Reagan funeral when I took the latest Business Week to the "think tank" (note: has running water). Robert Barro's column is always something I want to read, and his latest (subscribers only) describes some research by Tim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo. The research has already been summarized by Alex Tabarrok last year. Tabarrok has posted the paper as well, which does a great service to those of us wanting to understand what the authors have done. Using a linkage from politicians' ADA ratings (which are commonly used for assessing the ideology of a congressperson through their voting records) to their citation of 200 prominent think tanks, and from there to the use of these think tanks in news (not editorial) reporting, Groseclose and Milyo conclude that Fox News is about as conservative as Charlie Stenholm. Rep. Stenholm is a Texas Democrat. The median member of the House is only 12 points to the left of Rep. Stenholm (on a 0-100 scale, wherein Ted Kennedy is 100 and Phil Gramm is 0.) On the other end, Newsweek comes out 33 points more liberal than the median of the House of Representatives, more liberal than Joe Lieberman. Ditto the New York Times, Time magazine, USA Today and the CBS and NBC nightly news broadcasts. Jim Lehrer's NewsHour on PBS and Good Morning America rank pretty much down the middle.

What has been missed in the reporting on this is that, to an economist, this is puzzling. Groseclose and Milyo explain:
The idea is that if there were a systematic bias, then an entrepreneur could form a new media outlet that does not have a bias. This outlet would drive the others out of business. This is a compelling argument, and even the libertarian Cato Journal has published an article agreeing with the view: In this article, the author, Daniel Sutter (2001), concludes that, although it might be possible for a systematic bias to exist in the network news (since, before cable television, there were strong barriers to entry in this industry), such a bias is impossible, or at least very unlikely, for the newspaper, radio, or magazine industry.
(Link added.) And yet they do. As Barro notes, this study's methodology has yet to be applied to talk radio, where I think it will find more conservative think tanks cited (and guests booked) than liberal. So perhaps that's the margin on which the competition has occured. Nevertheless, it's curious.