Monthly Archives: October 2009

Fox News, Media Bias and the Obama Attack Strategy, Part II

I want to continue the discussion from my last post regarding media bias and the Obama administration’s decision to take on Fox News.  At a minimum, as Jason suggests in his comments on my last post, we expect a news organization to accurately report the news.  Jason argues that Fox’s record in this regard is dubious.  He may be right – but I have no evidence regarding the relative accuracy of different news outlets beyond the occasional anecdote.   Here liberals and conservatives trot out their pet examples (see, for example, Dan Rather, CBS and the Bush-National Guard story vs. Fox News and Obama’s support for “death panels”.)  Nor is Jason the only one to critique Fox News – Jacob Weisberg at Slate is among many who argue that there exists persuasive evidence that Fox is not a legitimate news organization (see here.)  Evidently, the Obama administration has calculated that by building on these sentiments,  they have more to gain than they have to lose in publicly taking on Fox News.   I think this is a mistake, in large part because the strategy risks distracting from the coverage of their major policy initiatives.  The more coverage devoted to the Fox news controversy, the less time spent on the details of health care. In this respect they are stepping on their own story.  More problematic, however, I think they risk alienating the moderate middle of this country, particularly independents that worry less about partisan point scoring and more about whether the Obama administration has effectively addressed their concerns.

To see why Obama may be making a mistake, and to more systematically address the question of media bias, consider the following study, published in 2005, of news coverage by the major U.S. news organizations, including Fox News (actually, Brit Hume’s old Fox news show). This study, by Tim Groseclose and Jeff Milyo is one of the few (maybe the only) efforts of which I know that tries to measure media bias in a more systematic fashion. (I urge you to read the original article here.)  Essentially, what they do is create a measure of media bias for several major media outlets, including Fox, across a 10-year period.  (More accurately, they select an observation period for each media outlet that yields 300 observations – enough to draw valid conclusions.) They do so by counting the times that a particular media outlet relies on particular think tanks (for example, Brookings, or the Heritage Foundation) or policy groups (such as the ACLU or the NRA) as a source for their story, and then they compare that to the number of times that members of Congress cite those same sources in their public comments.  Since we have reasonable measures for the ideologies of members of Congress, we can use this data to place the news outlets that cite these think tanks and other sources on an ideological spectrum.  For example, we would expect the liberal Ted Kennedy to rely more on research from the left-leaning Brookings Institution than on studies from the conservative Heritage Foundation.  If the New York Times, in its stories, also relies on Brookings more than Heritage to the same degree as Kennedy, Groseclose and Milyo code the Times as having a similar bias as Kennedy.  The underlying logic of this measure rests on the idea that journalists rely on their sources to write their stories, and if those sources tend to represent one side of the ideological divide, then their stories will tend to reflect that bias. The authors assume that the public, ideologically speaking, is located somewhere at the middle of the Congressional spectrum.

Using this methodology, what do Groseclose and Milyo find?  On the whole, they show that the major news outlets in the United States do show a consistent liberal bias.  In their words,

“Our results show a strong liberal bias: all of the news outlets we examine, except Fox News’ Special Report and the Washington Times, received scores to the left of the average member of Congress. Consistent with claims made by conservative critics, CBS Evening News and the New York Times received scores far to the left of center. The most centrist media outlets were PBS NewsHour, CNN’s Newsnight, and ABC’s Good Morning America; among print outlets, USA Today was closest to the center. All of our findings refer strictly to news content; that is, we exclude editorials, letters, and the like.”

The following table, taken from Groseclose’s website, provides a graphical representation of their findings.  (Note that the Wall St. Journal rankings refer to their regular coverage of the news – not their editorials!).  The higher the ranking on the table, the more liberal the views/coverage.  The “average” U.S. voter is placed at about 50 on the ADA scale, located on the left of the table. It runs from zero (most conservative) to 100 (most liberal).

The table suggests that Fox News (more specifically, the Fox News Special Report with Brit Hume) is more conservative than the other major news outlets – but it is also closer to the “average” American voter/member of Congress than are most of those other news outlets.  In short, there is evidence to support both liberals’ claims that Fox is out of step with the mainstream media, and Fox defenders who argue it provides news coverage that is more in synch with the views of most Americans.

The study is not without critics (see, for example, here and here).  But it is one of the few efforts made to develop a measure for bias that is replicable by other political scientists, and which goes beyond the commonly cited anecdotal evidence that so often characterizes the often heated debate regarding media coverage.  As such, it’s a welcome step forward in trying to put this debate on more systematic footing.

I should add that it is consistent with Bert Johnson’s comments at the end of my last post. Bert took my structural bias argument a step further to suggest that the major news outlets give their audiences what they want to hear – the key word being “audience.”  In an era of dwindling audiences, news organizations are struggling to maintain readers (or viewers), and to do so they are increasingly trying to differentiate their product in a way that distinguishes their news coverage from that of their competitors.  That means pitching their content toward the attentive audience, rather than simply the “average” U.S. voter.  As Bert notes, the attentive audience typically has more ideologically extreme views than that of Mr. and Ms. Sixpack from Palooka, USA.  It follows, then, that in an increasingly segmented news industry, cable outlets and other news sources will abandon any pretense of ideological “neutrality”  in a rush to stake out an unocccupied spot on the ideological spectrum of attentive viewers.   The Groseclose/Milyo study suggests this is precisely what is happening; news outlets are differentiating themselves by catering to the more opinionated and attentive portion of the news audience.  They do so for structural reasons related to market share and profits, and not because they are in the hip pocket of the Democratic (or Republican) party.

The danger, of course, is in their rush to stake out a position along the ideological extremes, the news media may exacerbate the polarization of political discourse in this country.  Even worse, they may ignore the interests of the moderate middle spectrum of Americans who care very little about the purity of partisan politics, and instead simply want a government that works well, regardless of ideology.

Obama, Fox News and Media Bias

To the delight of both liberal and conservative pundits, news outlets  reported in recent weeks that the Obama administration has decided to go on the offensive against what it perceives to be “biased” news coverage by the Fox News network, (see, for example, here and here.)  Administration officials argue that Fox has crossed the line from reporting the news into advocacy, and they have decided to push back by, among other tactics, excluding Fox from some news events and boycotting the Fox Sunday news show.

What are we to make of the decision by the White House to engage in a media war with Fox News?  I’m going to devote at least two posts to what is a somewhat complicated topic.  But to anticipate the punchline:  Obama and his senior aides are making a classic rookie mistake.

To see why, we need to address two main points. First, is it the case that Fox News is “biased” and, second, should the Obama administration engage in a tactic of singling out a news network for what it believes to be biased coverage.

Let me address the issue of press “bias” first. I can’t possibly do justice to this topic in a single post, but let me at least get the discussion started. To begin, we should note that the Obama administration’s claim of unfair coverage is nothing new among presidential administrations.  In one form or another, it is a charge that has been raised by every presidential administration, Democrat or Republican, going back to at least the Nixon presidency (and probably before – I just don’t have much data going back before the 1970’s).  To be sure, the charge of news bias has been more frequently leveled by Republican administrations against what they perceive to be a liberal bias in the news.   But if the ideological battle lines have changed, the belief by a president that elements of the media are out to get him has not.

In assessing the accuracy of these charges, we need to be careful to clarify two issues. What do we mean by the news media?  And how do we measure bias?

Let me first take up the second point – how do we measure bias?   If, by bias, we mean do members of the national news media hold political views that are not representative of the broader public, the indisputable fact is that they are biased: journalists working for the major news dailies, magazines and major television networks hold views to the left of the public’s across a range of issues.  Similarly, members of the news media are much more favorably disposed to the Democrat party than is the general public and are more likely to support Democrat candidates. The evidence on this point is overwhelming, and it has held true dating back to the 1970’s when political scientists first began systematically measuring the media’s policy views. (Whenever I present this claim to working journalists, their response is invariably some version of, “Oh yeah?  How do you explain Britt Hume?!”)  (If readers are interested, I can devote a separate post documenting how pervasive and enduring this left-leaning personal perspective among working journalists is.)

However, why should we care what journalists think?  What we really want to know is what they report.  Is there evidence that their left-leaning personal views influence how journalists report the news?  The short answer is no, at least not consistently across the range of national news stories on television and in the print media. Most efforts to uncover evidence of ideological bias center on journalists’ coverage of elections, and here there is not much evidence for a consistent left-ward tilt in reporting. Indeed, if there is any bias in campaign coverage at all, it is toward an increasing emphasis on negative news coverage – stories about controversy, personality disputes and candidate strategy, at the expense of simply reporting what candidates do or say.  And rather than favoring the liberal candidate, news coverage instead tends to adopt an anti-incumbent bias; journalists generally treat challengers in presidential elections, regardless of party, more favorably than incumbents or the better known candidate. A version of this seemed to be at play in the 2008 Democratic primary, when Barack Obama initially received much more favorable coverage than the better known Hillary Clinton.  Once Obama’s candidacy gained momentum, however, he began to receive more negative coverage. In the end, as the table below indicates, Clinton and Obama received about equally positive coverage (see a discussion here.)

Looking at the general election, one might again argue there was a liberal bias. As the table below from the Pew Center summarizes, Obama received more favorable coverage than John McCain at least through mid-October (for a discussion, see here.)

Note that the variation in coverage did not necessarily follow some underlying real world change in the relative position of the two candidates; as the chart below indicates, the tone of Obama’s news coverage did not seem to track his actual support in the polls so much as it varied according to events (Lehman brothers crash, the debates) deemed newsworthy by the press.

It is possible, then, to argue that Obama’s generally favorable news coverage reflects the ideological biases of a left-leaning press.  But it is equally plausible  that what we are seeing is a structural bias in which news coverage is slanted toward what is new and therefore newsworthy. In this case, Obama was by far the more newsworthy candidate – he was young, had “upset” Clinton in the primaries, was an African-American who seemed to have rallied heretofore underrepresented voters to the campaign.  McCain, in contrast, was old news.

By structural bias, I mean to suggest that news coverage is driven primarily by the nature of the news business – the need to attract an audience and sell advertising in an increasingly competitive and financially sketchy news environment. In this environment reporters are increasingly driven to define newsworthy stories as those that involve controversy or disagreement, to emphasize the negative and to view elections in terms of the horse race narrative.  Issues tend to get personalized (see “Obamacare”).  But they also latch onto stories that are deemed newsworthy for other reasons – in this case, the first viable run for the presidency by an African-American.

Of course, this data refers to election coverage. What about news coverage of Obama’s presidency?  Does it reflect an ideological bias?  At least initially, it was generally favorable, when compared to the coverage received by Clinton or Bush.

But this data covers the period before the health care debate, the Town Hall meetings, and the inexorable slide in Obama’s popularity.  My guess is that the percent of favorable stories on Obama has decreased since his first two months in office.

It may seem somewhat incongruous, given this data, for Obama’s aides to be charging the news media with bias. Of course, they aren’t targeting the entire media –they are accusing Fox News of  biased coverage.  In making this claim they aren’t necessarily accusing Fox of slanting the content of a news story in a particular direction.  Instead they are criticizing Fox’s agenda-setting role.  Fox was particularly aggressive in covering the Town Hall health care meetings, the past statements and affiliations of the White House “green” adviser Van Jones, and the allegations of corruption within the Acorn community activist group.  Apparently what most concerned the Obama administration were reports that editors at other news outlets, such as the NY Times, were admitting that they were slower than Fox to cover some of these stories.

But there is a second component to the charge of media bias, and that’s identifying what we mean by “the media”. Part of the Obama administration’s problem, I think, is their inability to separate the Fox network’s news commentary from its news coverage division – a problem that extends to left-leaning pundits and bloggers more generally. Major Garrett reports the news; Glenn Beck is paid to comment on the news.  They serve different functions – a distinction often lost on Fox News’ critics. In defense of the Obama administration, however, it has become more difficult to separate the news reporting from news editorializing during the last two decades.  There has been an increased tendency, for example, for newspapers to include columns titled “news interpretation” or “news analysis” which blur the line between reporting and editorializing.  (Long time readers will recall that much of my election year blogging was spent dissecting the many mistakes in data interpretation contained in these election year news “analyses”).  And cable news outlets are increasingly divvying up the potential news market in an effort to establish a niche audience.  In this hot-house media environment of 24-7 news coverage, amid a backdrop of dwindling revenues and declining audiences, it is not surprising that news organizations are increasingly intent on developing a specific news brand.

Given these structural, as opposed to ideological, biases that drive media coverage, it is little wonder that most presidential administrations sooner or later believe the media is out to get them.  In this respect, the Obama administration fears are no different from that of previous administrations’. This year the target is Fox News cable network. Under previous presidents, during a different news era when the traditional news outlets dominated coverage, the target was the New York Times, the Washington Post, or CBS broadcast news.

What is different, however, is the speed and openness with which the Obama administration has leveled these charges. All presidential administrations believe portions of the media are biased. Few, if any, since Nixon’s presidency have taken the offensive so publicly.  Obama and his aides may have calculated that in this new media environment, they have more to gain by going on the offensive and targeting that spectrum of the news media that they believe to be politically out of step.  If so, I think they are making a mistake, one that reflects the relative inexperience of the president combined with the prominent role played in his senior White House staff by former campaign strategists such as communications director Anita Dunn.  They are making the common error of conflating campaigning with governing.   I believe this will likely erode Obama’s public standing, increase unfavorable press coverage, and ultimately undercut his efforts to pass his legislative program and to create a more bipartisan tone in Washington, DC.  I develop these points more fully in the next post.

Did He Deserve It? Obama, the Clash and the Nobel Peace Prize

Let me begin with the question on everyone’s mind: did Obama deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?

That’s not a question political science can answer.  Or at least I can’t (other political scientists may feel otherwise.)  But in considering the unanimous decision by the five Norwegian committee members to award the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama, I think two points have been underplayed.  First, most discussions have centered on the domestic reaction to the announcement, and the complications accepting the award may pose for the President. This has led to much media speculation regarding the Committee’s motive in giving Obama the award, with many pundits arguing that rather than a reward for any accomplishment toward a more peaceful world, it is meant instead to pressure Obama into moving more quickly to embrace the more internationalist foreign policy approach he promised in the presidential campaign. From this respect, the award is as much a rebuke of the Bush foreign policy as it is a reminder to Obama that he is expected to repudiate his predecessor’s unilateral approach to conducting foreign affairs. I think there’s much truth to that argument. In fact, I would put it more directly. The Nobel Prize Committee is trying to influence Obama as he grapples with the most difficult decision facing his presidency to date: how to deal with the deteriorating situation in Afghanistan. His administration is clearly divided on this issue, and both sides have skillfully leaked policy proposals designed to swing political support behind their preferred course of actions.  Obama has hinted that he may try to split the difference between the Biden withdrawal wing and the Gates double-down supporters (story here) – a choice consistent with his pragmatic tendencies, but one that I believe is the worst possible option (I’ll issue a separate post on why I believe this to be the case.)

And yet, I think we ought not to reject the Committee’s ostensible reason for giving Obama the prize – that it is a reward for “his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons” (full statement here).   Because of the way the national media works, we tend to view the Obama presidency through a domestic prism.  From this perspective, Obama’s foreign policy appears so far to have largely continued the Bush approach on everything from the use of state secrets to secret renditions to military commissions to domestic eavesdropping.  Even in areas where he has explicitly repudiated Bush-era  policies – closing Guantanamo Bay and establishing limits on the use of some interrogation techniques – the differences have been more symbolic than real.  I’ve addressed this point before, and explained why Obama – despite his campaign rhetoric to the contrary – was never likely to veer very far substantively from Bush’s conduct of the War on Terror.

But if one gets outside the White House media bubble and begins to look at Obama from an international perspective, the differences with the Bush administration are a bit more tangible.  Polls suggest that Obama’s – and the United States’ – standing abroad has improved, a feeling that is shared by many foreign policy leaders.  For example, consider data from this compilation of Gallup polls comparing Bush and Obama-era surveys on perceptions of U.S. leadership:

And these polls don’t include European countries that have, to date, shown enthusiastic support for Obama’s presidency.  Yes, this is more a reflection of hope and the prospect of what Obama may accomplish than it is of any specific substantive progress.  And it may yet dissipate. But it is a real difference, and I think the Nobel prize is at least partly an acknowledgment of that difference.  Obama has made a positive impact abroad in how people view the United States.  Is that difference worthy of a Nobel Prize?  I’ll let you judge.

This is not to discount the importance of domestic considerations.  And it leads me to the second issue: How should Obama react to winning this award?  Rejecting it was never a possibility – it would be bad form and would have its own damaging political repercussions. And Obama can certainly use the prize money as previous presidential recipients have done. Theodore Roosevelt and Jimmy Carter both donated their winnings  to charitable causes. (Woodrow Wilson – worried about his shaky financial position – kept his in a bank to earn interest.) But there are ways of accepting the Prize while minimizing the potential political costs.  In the media discussion regarding previous presidential recipients, what has gone unmentioned as far as I can see is that neither Roosevelt nor Wilson – the two previous sitting presidents who received the honor – accepted it in person. Theodore Roosevelt, who won the award in 1906 for mediating a resolution to the Russo-Japanese conflict, sent an envoy in his place (see here).  Woodrow Wilson, who won in 1920 due to his efforts in 1919 to establish a League of Nations, was too sick to personally receive the award, and instead sent the U.S. minister to Norway to pick up the hardware (see here.)  Both cases are somewhat instructive when it comes to advising Obama. In Wilson’s case the U.S. Senate had already rejected Wilson’s effort to get them to sign the Treaty of Versailles and to ratify membership in the League. Roosevelt, of course, is perhaps remembered more for wielding a “big stick”  (see the U.S. role in creating both Panama and the Panama Canal) than for speaking “softly” when it came to foreign affairs. In neither case did the award seem to bolster the presidents’ domestic standing.

Come December, then, my advice is for Obama to decline to personally receive the award, and instead send an emissary.  He will likely be knee deep in some policy crisis which will make for a convenient diplomatic cover story.  But everyone will understand what he is signaling: the prize is nice, of course, but he’s calling his own foreign policy shots.  If he takes my advice, who should go in his stead?  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, of course.  Let her be the public face who is photographed receiving the award, and who has to make the public acceptance speech!

So, what’s your advice (with apologies to The Clash – see here): Should he go or should he stay?

ADDENDUM: The instant analysis I posted above ignores the issue of timing; if the Nobel Peace Prize committee made their choice of Obama say, 10 days after his inauguration as president, then it is obvious that it couldn’t be a deliberate attempt to influence the particulars of the current debate ignited by McChrystal’s request to escalate the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.   Someone with more expertise than I regarding the Nobel selection process should set me straight on this, if possible. But my broader point, I think, remains, although it may say more about the timing of the announcement than the choice itself: the Committee has an interest in shaping Obama’s foreign policy deliberations, and awarding him the prize should be seen, at least in part, as an effort to do so.

ADDENDUM TWO!  So much for the importance of timing – somewhat belatedly, I realized that the announcement of the award (at least as far back as I can remember!) is always made about this time.   So, I leave it to someone who knows to clarify for me exactly when these choices are made.