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Tim Groseclose's Theory of Liberal Media Bias Remains Shaky

Neither AIM nor anyone else in the right-wing media are going to call Groseclose on the flaws in his work -- the end result is all that matters.
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Back in 2005, Tim Groseclose and Jeffrey Milyo -- who have a history of receiving grants and fellowships from various conservative foundations -- published an article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics that claimed to demonstrate "a strong liberal bias" in all news outlets it examined except for the Washington Times and Fox News' "Special Report."

The most informative critique of it came from Paul Waldman at Media Matters, who pointed out the basic problems in Groseclose and Milyo's methodology, which involved rating news outlets by the political slant of the think tanks and advocacy groups cited in their news reports. That analysis turned up similarly strange rankings of the think tanks themselves, ranking the American Civil Liberties Union as slightly conservative and the National Rifle Association as only slightly more conservative than the ACLU.

Groseclose returned earlier this year with a new book based on his and Milyo's work, called Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind. In the book, Groseclose expands upon the original work to claim that Americans would be more conservative if the media wasn't so liberal -- even though he continued to rely on the original flawed analysis and takes potshots at its critics.

Groseclose vs. Alterman

In the introduction, Groseclose attacks liberal media critic Eric Alterman for criticizing his 2005 study for seeming to have developed a methodology that guaranteed that he would find liberal media bias, repeatedly identifying Alterman as being with liberal watchdog group, Media Matters. Groseclose made the same claim in an appearance on Fox News' "Fox & Friends" in which he helped to forward Fox's longtime war on Media Matters' tax-exempt status.

But Alterman wasn't affiliated with Media Matters at the time he wrote the column in question, which was published in January 2006 by the Center for American Progress. As Alterman himself explained, he did not become affiliated with Media Matters until September 2006, when it began hosting his "Altercation" blog; that affiliation ended in 2008.

Alterman continued:

So why the irrelevant and inaccurate Media Matters identification with an organization with which I was so briefly affiliated? Perhaps Mr. Groseclose is simply lazy and unconcerned with accuracy. Or perhaps, as Mr. Groseclose surely knows, the words "Media Matters" act as a kind of dog whistle for the far right, implying "bad person" perhaps for its work in exposing the lies of Fox News.

Truthfully, I don't profess to know. Certainly if Mr. Groseclose had said, accurately, "Eric Alterman, a senior fellow of the Center for American Progress," or "Eric Alterman, a CUNY Distinguished Professor and author of eight books," it would not have had the same effect on his desired audience.

Dismissing and ignoring critics

Another clue that Groseclose is more interested in trying to forward a conservative agenda than objective research is his dismissive attitude toward critics of his earlier work.

Groseclose ignores Waldman's analysis at Media Matters, instead painting all critics of his work as "left-wing blogs" and musing that "It may be a bit pointless to try to respond to these critiques." Groseclose went on to note "the high standards that exist at top-tier academic journals" like the one his original study was published in, adding that "none of the left-wing bloggers has even attempted to publish such a piece" criticizing him in a peer-reviewed journal, which must mean that "the bloggers themselves do not believe that they have discovered a major problem in our article."

"Partial-birth abortion"

Groseclose devotes an entire chapter to complaining that reporters won't use the term "partial-birth abortion," which he defended as a "plain-language term." But he also admits that it's "the language of conservatives" and claims that its usage by the media "would have helped persuade people to oppose the procedure" -- something an objectively presented news report shouldn't be trying to do.

Groseclose also insists that the term "is used, at least occasionally, as a medical term." His endnote for this assertion refers readers to the medical definitions section of the Free Dictionary website. But the link he provides redirects to a page on "intact dilation and extraction," the actual medical term for the procedure, which goes on to refute Groseclose's contention that "partial-birth abortion" is a medical term.

Right-wing media loves it

Despite such logical holes, Groseclose's thesis is catnip for the right-wing media since it confirms their own worldview on media bias. NewsBusters touted his 2005 findings, and it conducted an interview with Groseclose when the book came out. In June, Groseclose was a speaker at a right-wing gathering where his fellow speakers included WorldNetDaily managing editor David Kupelian.

Media Research Center chief Brent Bozell wrote a review of Groseclose's book for the Washington Times (reposted at NewsBusters). Unsurprisingly, Bozell mostly praised the book. His first complaint about it, though, is self-aggrandizing and petty:

I confess that at the outset I wasn't too keen about doing this review. The Media Research Center, which I head, has conducted more studies on this subject than any other institution on the planet over the past quarter-century, so I turned to the Left Turn index out of curiosity to see which ones were chosen for citation. (Clear throat here: Ahem.) Not a one. Worse, where the index cites the MRC, in one instance it misidentifies the group; and in the other, allegedly over three pages, it's a phantom citation -- the MRC isn't there at all.

People who aren't Bozell would reach two other conclusions by this time: 1) the MRC's research is so horrible that even a biased researcher like Groseclose wouldn't touch it, and 2) there's a lack of attention to detail in Groseclose's book that raises questions about his larger conclusions. But since Groseclose's larger conclusions are the same as Bozell's, he won't be raising those questions, even as he found more things wrong with the book.

Indeed, Bozell concluded his review by stating: "Still, I like the book and recommend it."

Groseclose also appeared on the Oct. 5 edition of Accuracy in Media's web radio show. AIM's Roger Aronoff cues up Groseclose to repeat claims from his book, and he signs on to the largely unexpressed goal of AIM and the MRC to discredit the "mainstream media:"

Now, what you say about these groups such as AIM that's pointing out this bias, if these groups could make people perfectly aware of them and make voters more skeptical of the media -- whenever they read something, always be on guard, say, "Ah, maybe they're not telling us something" -- if you make people skeptical and very rational about when they read newspapers and when they watch television, then this would allow them to discount the bias much better, and that would do -- have the same effect as eliminating the bias. And so if I lie -- so if you guys could be perfect at your job, make everyone skeptical and rational, then that would have the same effect, it would make America change from kind of a purple nation to all of a sudden voting and thinking something like Texas or Kentucky.

Neither AIM nor anyone else in the right-wing media are going to call Groseclose on the flaws in his work -- the end result is all that matters.

(A longer version of this article appears at ConWebWatch.)