The mainstream media has been flogged like a peasant’s nag in a Dostoevsky novel by critics on both sides of the political divide. For those of us who drink the nectar of abject cynicism, the situation is as sweet as it could be. The left complains of media bias; the right complains of media bias; and both are convinced that the majority of our woes stem directly from that hideous old beast, the MSM, that refuses to pull.
While it is easy to assume that the slimy tentacles of Rupert Murdoch’s ideology or the latte stains of the Grey Lady are to blame, what if that isn’t the case?
The Economist (Nov. 1st – 7th, 2008; “Economics focus: A biased market”, p. 88) implies that We the People might be the maker of media bias. A 2005 study by S. Mullainathan and A. Shleifer suggests that readers want neither “fair” nor “balanced”; they want their beliefs confirmed by the news. Market principles are counterproductive to truth because media seeks profit, and it will print what sells. In an homogeneous market, then, there is good reason to slant coverage. Furthermore, slanting is easy. A rise of 0.2% in unemployment figures could headline as “Recession Fears Grow” or “Turnaround in Sight”, depending on how you want to look at it.
In 2007, M. Gentzkow and J. Shapiro took the idea further. First, they analyzed Congressional debates to identify phrases that were used disproportionately by Democrats or Republicans. They then analyzed more than 400 newspapers to determine how often newspapers used partisan language. With a measure of slant established, the authors next compared newspaper circulation with vote share in the 2004 presidential election and the likelihood of people within the market to contribute to political causes. Not surprisingly, they found that circulation did correspond to prevalent political views in a given zip code. Going one step further, they calculated what amount of slant would maximize newspaper profit in its market and compared that to the actual slant. The two slants showed a striking congruence.
Both studies concentrated on newspapers, but I would suspect that their findings would be amplified when applied to radio, television, and the internet. There may be only one newspaper directly serving a local market, whereas the consumer has nearly unlimited choice beyond print media. If your first instinct when checking the news is to visit The Huffington Post, then you’ve already made a choice about what news you want and how you want it. Furthermore, the editors of such a site have even fewer reasons than print editors to include differing views or to attempt unbiased coverage. The rapidity of the news cycle and the nature of the web-market almost certainly create a feedback loop that produces more and more slant with less and less exposure to differing opinions. Print media, which has fallen on the hardest of times, would then be likely to increase slant in an effort to compete with media that gives the consumer exactly what he wants…a political reflection.
Mullainathan and Shleifer found that a heterogeneous reader can obtain an unbiased version of the news; they did not suggest, as I will, that the heterogeneous reader is also likely to be an abject cynic. What else could you be if you have to cross mountains of slant to find something as simple as hard news? Whether you roll around in the mud by choice or not, you’re still dirty.
So is the dreaded MSM innocent? Is it all our fault for being so neurotic and insecure that we need our personal views confirmed in such a way that we can call them facts? Can we still blame our network of choice for ruining everything? If I accept responsibility, does that mean that I have to do something about it? Or, can I just keep blaming everything on all the politicians in Washington that I didn’t vote for?
Obviously, variations on the “chicken or the egg” motif are possible here, and neither study goes so far as to state that ownership ideology has no influence. These studies do, however, make interesting additions to the debate. And if nothing else, when someone starts bitching about media bias you can respond, “Whatever, it’s all your fault anyhow.” Still, I have to wonder: if you beat the nag to death, what will pull the cart?