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The Groseclose endgame: Getting from here to there.

A few years ago, I wrote the following regarding political scientist Tim Groseclose’s book on media bias:

Groseclose’s big conclusion is that in the absence of media bias, the average American voter would be positioned at around 25 on a 0-100 scale, where 0 is a right-wing Republican and 100 is a left-wing Democrat. . . .

In Groseclose’s endgame, a balanced media might include some TV networks promoting the view that abortion should be illegal under all circumstances and subject to criminal penalties, whereas others might merely hold that Roe v. Wade is unconstitutional; some media outlets might support outright discrimination against gays whereas others might be neutral on civil unions but oppose gay marriage; and on general politics there might be some newspapers that endorse hard-right Republican candidates (0 on Groseclose’s 0-100 scale) whereas those on the left would endorse the positions of Senator Olympia Snowe. . . .

I find it plausible that a Berlusconi-style media environment could shift U.S. politics far to the right, but given the effort it would take to maintain such a system (in Italy, Berlusconi has the power of the government but still has continual struggles with the law), it’s hard for me to think of this as an equilibrium in the way that it is envisioned by Groseclose. This just seems like a counterfactual that would require resources far beyond what was spent to set up Fox News, the Weekly Standard, and other right-leaning media properties.

I wrote that in 2011. Since then, the media landscape has changed, and Fox News has moved from far-right to center-right. By which, I don’t mean that Fox has moved to the left, I mean that the institutions in the center and the center-left have become weaker (declining readership of newspapers and broadcast TV networks), while Breitbart News etc. have become the new hard right, and there’s pressure on what remains of the center. So things really are moving in the direction that Groseclose was saying. I don’t see the voters as moving all the way to 25 on his scale—after all, the Democrats and Republicans are pretty much split fifty-fifty among the voters—but the political distribution of the news media has been changing fast. It’s all some complicated interaction of people’s political attitudes, what they find entertaining enough to watch or click on, and what are the efforts that various rich and powerful organizations want to pay for.

19 Comments

  1. David says:

    Fox has also lost viewership to MSNBC and CNN though.

  2. It might help to understand the role of audience ratings in all this. Not sure though. I find that couching issues in ways that can be interpreted differently has become stock and trade of punditry.

  3. Statsgirl says:

    Central tendency is just one part of the picture. There is also the distribution around that center, which may or may not be symmetrical.

  4. Cody L Custis says:

    To some extent, left versus right media slant may be nothing more than Hotelling’s law analogized through lemonade stands. Before Fox News, there were a bunch of ho-hum slightly to the left of center media outlets: New York Times, MSNBC, etc. Fox News came along to the right and gained the right wing half of the country, let the old guard media split the left wing half. Later competitors, such as Breitbart, came along and sliced at Fox News’ market share while the New York Times and the like moved over to the left, giving Fox News incentive to shift a bit leftward too.

  5. Jacob says:

    There seems to be a conflation of “taking the middle position in the distribution of opinions” and “unbiased.” To me, media bias is basically hopeless as a research question because it requires one to take a stand on what the truth is. If it’s true that abortion is the biggest moral outrage in our society, then indeed most media is biased in not treating it as such. If it’s true that Donald Trump is actually super competent and only different from his predecessors in the good ways, then the supposedly left-biased media is indeed biased.

    • Terry says:

      To me, media bias is basically hopeless as a research question because it requires one to take a stand on what the truth is.

      It may be even worse than that. For some individual issues, it may be possible to ascertain the facts and measure bias. But, a much larger problem is that media bias primarily manifests as the hyping of some stories and the neglect of others. So, even if the media’s reporting was 100% accurate on all stories, story-selection bias would still result in an enormous bias.

    • Kyle MacDonald says:

      Studying media bias is definitely difficult and maybe even hopeless, but I’m not sure that it requires you to take a stand on what the truth is on any particular issue — only whether a given media outlet is making a good-faith effort to discover and report the truth, which is generally far easier to determine. I don’t need to know, for example, whether floods are getting worse or more frequent, or, if so, why it’s happening or what we should do about it, before I criticize people who require substantially weaker evidence for claims that support their belief system than for claims that don’t. This kind of evaluation requires you to take a stand on which voices in the discussion are worth listening to, but that’s a much weaker requirement than actually deciding on the truth.

  6. Terry says:

    I don’t see the voters as moving all the way to 25 on his scale—after all, the Democrats and Republicans are pretty much split fifty-fifty among the voters

    Not sure this response refutes Groseclose. Isn’t Groseclose making a causative argument that media bias causes voters to be at 50, and absent media bias, voters would be at 25? If so, noting that the median voter is at 50 doesn’t contradict Groseclose’s argument. The quote says that *”in the absence of media bias”* the average voter would be at 25.

    Groseclose’s big conclusion is that in the absence of media bias, the average American voter would be positioned at around 25 on a 0-100 scale, where 0 is a right-wing Republican and 100 is a left-wing Democrat. . . .

    • Andrew says:

      Terry:

      I’m not saying the current data refute Groseclose’s theory; I just can’t picture the average voter moving to 25 on his scale. That’s just way too far.

      • Terry says:

        I see. I didn’t read the post carefully enough, so I misunderstood your argument.

        Is a shift from 50 to 25 plausible? I don’t know.

        To make the question more concrete, one could give examples of positions held by voters at 50 and at 25 to see if switching the median voter’s position from one to the other is plausible. To put it another way, could the minds of 25 percent of voters on a given issue be changed by a change in media coverage? Sounds possible.

        Time matters too. Could a systematic change in media coverage over *decades* sway 25 percent of voters on an issue? A lot of people don’t think much about issues and just go along with the group to fit in. How much does it take to sway such people?

        It would also helpful to know if such shifts have happened before. Attitudes on gay marriage have shown such a shift, but was it due to media coverage?

  7. Aaron G says:

    Please note that I have not read Groseclose’s book. With that caveat in mind, I find the conclusion that the American voter, in absence of media bias, to inch closer to a hard-right position to be hard to believe.

    Various independent polling have found that if one looks at issue by issue (e.g. same-sex marriage, Medicare for all, raise in the minimum wage, etc.) Americans generally take a centre-left position. Only when these particular positions are tied to a specific party (Democrat, Republican) would people then self-identify as conservative or liberal.

    • Terry says:

      I’ve seen these assertions before, and it seems to depend heavily on what issues are examined. More specifically, I’ve seen the opposite assertion made by looking at polling data with regard to immigration and affirmative action.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Immigration is the big one. The Establishment view is becoming ever more extremist on immigration. I call the new orthodoxy the Zeroth Amendment: that foreigners, especially if nonwhite, have a civil right to move to America if the please, and this Zeroth Amendment supersedes Americans’ First Amendment rights to object.

  8. Terry says:

    Another interesting angle: is the rise of identity politics changing all this?

    This debate is centered around voter’s arranging themselves by issues. But what if voters are coming to arrange themselves by identity instead? (Racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation identities.) What if media bias is morphing from issue-bias to identity-bias, and bias is all about glorifying “us” and denigrating “them” now?

    Identity politics has always been present to some extent, but what if we are seeing identity politics becoming dominant rather than just one factor? In the immigration debate especially, identity politics has become quite open.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      The driving engine of current politics is that the Democratic Party is a Coalition of the Fringes of American society that believes that through immigration and the process of Flight from White they can take over and achieve one party dominance. But to hold together their motley assortment of groups, they can only do that by eliciting hatred of core Americans: white, straight, male, cisgender, gentile etc.

      But this naturally elicits a counter-reaction as the demonized start to take it personally.

    • Andrew says:

      Steve:

      I suppose it is natural to consider yourself to be a core American and to label people who are different from you and who disagree with you politically as being on the fringes of society. To the extent that the structure of society is being characterized by economic and social ties, one could make a case for immigrants and ethnic minorities being on the fringes, and one could make a similar case that many Americans of all ethnicities, whites included, are on the fringes who live in small towns and rural areas. Or, even more generally, one could consider “fringe” as being people with fewer economic and social ties.

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