Cut on the Bias


Jeff Friedman, of Critical Review, gets deep about media and academic bias:

It is those who object to bias as if it were scandalous who are the inadvertent relativists. The notion that bias is bad and that "balance" is good presupposes that all biases are equally valid opinions, and that the role of the media or of the academy is not to seek–and convey–truth, but to present a menu of opinion-options among which news or education consumers can choose. But choose, according to what criteria? Their uneducated "preferences"? What, then, is the point of education, or of media that are supposed to "inform"?

A bias that distorts the truth is simply a flawed lens on the world. If one thinks that the journalistic or professorial biases discussed here are erroneous, one is contending that the journalists or professors who hold these biases, being human, have erred. The prevalence of error may be lamentable, but that's the way it is with people: they make mistakes, and that is hardly a scandal. It is certainly not an offense that should, for example, call forth bills of rights that would protect students from being taught what their professors think is true. Given that all professors, like all journalists, think that their opinions are true, they must think that alternative points of view are flawed. Therefore, attempts to force them to "balance" their opinions with those alternatives would simply make them produce biased accounts of "flawed opinions" with which they disagree. This form of bias occurs already, and should not be encouraged through the false notion that there is some way to get a "fair and balanced" view of the world that skips the hard part: listening to divergent viewpoints advocated by their best proponents, even if one must, oneself, come up with better arguments than the best proponents have made.

If you're interested in bias–media, academic, or otherwise–check out the latest issue of Critical Review (part of which is available online here). Every paper worth reading on bias from the last year or two is included, and there's a great literature review of everything before that, too. You've got a 44:1 ratio of Democrats to Republicans in college sociology faculty, Fox's Special Report as the most balanced mainstream TV news source, overwhelmingly Democratic social science departments, and more. Thanks to NBER and increasingly easy access to academic working papers, little in the issue will be completely new to those who have been tracking the topic, but it's great to have everything lined up back to back, with a sharp interpretive essay by editor Jeff Friedman (excerpted above) to boot.

For lots from (biased?) Matt Welch on bias, go here and here.

NEXT: Ladies Against Women (SE Asian Edition)

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  1. “Given that all professors, like all journalists, think that their opinions are true”

    Not in philosophy departments.

  2. The first example–that the press voted overwhelmingly against GWB–proves nothing.

    There are many conservative and libertarians who claim that GWB is a terrible president. That would suggest that perhaps the press was simply better informed than the average voter.

    You need to use examples like GHWB or Reagan to demonstrate anything significant.

  3. More on biases…

    This study chose 50/50 for a current preference for Gore vs GWB as a sample. But it’s unlikely 50% of the people would vote for Bush over Gore knowing what we know now. It’s more likely that Gore would win in a landslide.

    The people that would vote for Bush today are a very different sample from the original 49% who did vote for Bush.

  4. mac, there was a study of voting by the Washington press in the 1992 race. I think something like 89% of Washington journalists voted for Clinton over GHB. I did a brief search for a link, but that was almost in the dark ages. Still, shouldn’t be too hard to find.


    It was a Freedom Forum study of the 92 election conducted during the 1996 race. Numbers since then have not been so lopsided. This is presented as an indication of the one time nature of the unusual result vs. evidence of bias. IMO, journalists were caught off-gaurd but have since learned to lie. (how cycnical of me)

  6. IMO, journalists were caught off-gaurd but have since learned to lie. (how cycnical of me)

    Even I, a critic of media bias before it was cool, think this may be too harsh. I think that journalists have leared to be more careful. The media isn’t as biased as it used to be, IMHO. Bias is still slanted leftward over in major news outlets– some more than others. But since the early nineties, the number and variety of news outlets has exploded, really giving the consumer much more choice in his bias. Plus, now that the cat is out of the bag, I think we can all return to our corners and just admit that ‘x’ news source is biased in ‘y’ direction- accept it and move on. I do. Hell, I listen to NPR every day.

    Aside: Fox news is great for one reason, it’s great to watch leftys froth at the mouth when confronted with clear, rightward bias. Plus, it finally gave them something to point at and say “see? it’s not all us!” I love Fox for that reason alone. For the record, I’ve never actually watched fox news (I’ve never believed the answer to bias is more different bias). Everything I know about Fox I’ve learned from the left.

  7. Um, seems to me even our torturer-in-chief wouldn’t be so cruel as to force a Republican to undergo a sociology education in order to even have the credentials to become faculty, let alone force a Republican to join a sociology faculty.

    I bet there’s also a notable lack of morbidly obese ballet teachers.

  8. ” I think something like 89% of Washington journalists voted for Clinton over GHB”

    But was that due to preferring Clinton’s policies? Or his personality?

    They may well have voted for him because they were bored with the Reagan/Bush administrations after 12 years, and thought randy ol’ Clinton would provide better sport, along with a zillion new faces to deal with.

    The point being – Washington journalists are in a very different situation than the vast majority of Americans.

  9. I used to really harp in “liberal bias” back in my college days (umm…4 years ago?), but I remember the precise moment where I changed. I was talking to my political media professor after class and he said…

    “Ok, let’s assume there IS bias. So what? Your legal solutions include either censorship or prior restraint, and your personal solution is to think for yourself and either ignore it or challenge it.”

    I just stared at him, as all my cares flew out the window.

  10. “Given that all professors, like all journalists, think that their opinions are true, they must think that alternative points of view are flawed.”

    Teachers do have a professional duty to avoid bias, because their students can’t debate on even grounds when their grades are at stake. It’s standard for school to require objective grading criteria so professors can’t mark a student down for his skin color or failure to kiss up. Requiring the same objectivity for students with different political views is just as easy.

  11. So the media bias is interesting, but I find the academic bias more interesting. If people who study society, communities, economies, and how they operate are overwhelmingly Democratic, and tend moderately towards the left, what is the cause?

    Given that these people study the arena that politics acts in, isn’t it possible that they are democratic because they are better informed, take a wider more sophisticated view of the issues, or just generally know more about the issues? This would imply that the more you know about how large groups of people interact, the more likely you are to be a democrat. Many here will assume that this bias shows that social science is inherently biased, but it is possible that it is the unbiased science that is coloring the political views.

    Climate scientist are biased to believe that there is a human element in global warming not because they have faith but because they have evidence. The same could be true to the political science, sociology, and economics.

    I also find it interesting that economics, which claims to be the most rigorous of social sciences has the least consensus on policy matters involving the economy. . . and are also more likely to be democratic. Given the stance that republicans and libertarians take on economic issues, and their claims that they are based on sound economics, I find this particularly interesting.

    A nice set of articles worth reading.It will be interesting to see how those in the academic minority characterize the cause of this bias in academia.

  12. When we’re done rehashing this argument, does anyone have any theories about why the military is full of conservatives?

  13. When we’re done rehashing this argument, does anyone have any theories about why the military is full of conservatives?

    Conservatives tend to think war (and other forms of violence) is caused by one party thinking that it has something to gain by using force, and that it can win. They also tend to think that, in the event that someone starts a war that involves the U.S., the U.S. is unlikely to be the nation that is the aggressor. Therefore, the best way of avoiding war is to build up the military to be as strong as possible, so no one dares to attack the U.S. or its interests. Conservatives believe in deterrence as both a just and pragmatic approach to violence. Conservatives are therefore more likely to support the military and military spending — it is a noble thing that ultimately helps keep the peace.

    Left-liberals, on the other hand, tend to think that no one really wants war or can gain from it, and therefore war mostly happens by mistake or desperation. (Paradoxically, they are also less likely to trust the U.S. goverment to not start a war, and that rich businesses might profit from war and push the government into it.) They see the primary causes of war as poverty, injustice, misperceptions of threats, miscommunication, poor understanding, and having too many weapons lying around waiting to be used. (And paradoxically, greed — but greed on the part of the U.S., almost never by opponents of the U.S.) Left-liberals think it is possible to repair the “root causes” of violence, and they prefer to do this rather than “deter” violence, which they see as a less reliable, if not unright unjust, approach to conflict.

    Therefore, having too strong a military is both provocative to other nations and a dangerous temptation to ourselves. Therefore, left-liberals are less likely to support the military and its mission, and less likely to join it.

  14. Stevo, I disagree with your hypothesis: Left liberals tend to be very violent, but empahsize advocacy over personal involvement in the violence.

    The U.S. entry into both World Wars, and the War Between the States had as their primary and most persuasive champions “progressives” who desired to remake the world into a more moral one through violence. Witness the calls for the U.S. to send troops in Darfur, witness the bombing of Yugoslavia.

    My subjective impression; many conervatives see themselves as “guardians” of society, and gravitate toward professions were they can act as guardians including politics, military work, policework, prosecutorial law, or church work. Many left liberals see themselves as visionaries who wish to remove “oppression” from society, and fail to understand the connection between government action and violence. In my experience they tend to gravitate towards positions where they can propagate this vision, charities, churchwork, politics, teaching, and both kinds of law, prosecutorial and defensive.

    Both conservatives and left liberals tend to want to use the state to coerce their enemies. The left liberals tend not to like to get their hands dirty with pointing the guns (they have plenty of conservative leaning guardians willing to point guns for them). If the U.S. military were stoppping the atrocities in Darfur, you’d see lots of left liberals cellebrating the violence and feteing the soldiers.

  15. Leftists don’t predominate in academe because they are smarter or more on the beam than conservatives, libertarians, populists or whoever. The reason they and their views are overrepresented is mainly an artifact of self-selection. The academic life is very appealing to them, wheras other careers – entrepreneurship, the military, engineering – are sought out, at the margin, more often by those we label “right-wing.”

    Read Lichtman, Rothman and Lichtman’s The Media Elite and their follow-on research on academics. Certain disciplines are far more leftish than others, but those entering them usually have those attitudes from the get-go.


  16. Kevrob,

    I think you are probably right that selection bias plays a major role, but it is interesting that the trend reported is towards more interventionist attitudes the longer they are in academia…

    You could posit that this is just group think, but I don’t see a lot of that among scientists who spend there days looking at data.

    Also, there is the question of why the number of left leaning faculty increases as you get closer to political science and the study of group behavior. Why would those disciplines attract more left-leaning folks? Why does studying these issues lead to more left-leaning attitudes rather than moderating those attitudes?

    Given that one of the best ways to make a mark in academia is to challenge the status quo with a good data set and a coherent theory, why are there not more academic mavericks proposing a clear right-leaning theory with appropriate data?

    Full disclosure. My personal politics are firmly in the middle (or more accurately, pragmatically driven, which makes me a lefty on this site), so I don’t have a particular dog in the bias fight.

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