Confusion about “rigging the numbers,” the support of ideological opposites, who’s a 501(c)(3), and the asymmetry of media bias

One of my left-wing colleagues pointed me to this Fox TV interview in which UCLA political scientist Tim Groseclose expresses displeasure with having his research criticized by liberal advocacy group Media Matters for America.

My colleague thought it was irresponsible and unprofessional for Groseclose to get all indignant about the criticism. But I understood. I remember how after the state Attorney General’s office released the study Jeff Fagan and I did on police stops (see here for the research-paper version), we were viciously attacked. Some creep from the NYC Law Department sent a nasty letter full of accusations that were . . . I’d say “bullshit” but I don’t want to say that because “bullshit” contains the word “shit” and I don’t want to use profanity on this blog . . . anyway, this lawyer creep sent us an aggressive letter with bogus claims about our research competence. He could’ve just said: Yes, the NYPD stops ethnic minorities at a rate disproportionate to their crime rates, but we need to do this for reasons X, Y, and Z. Or he could’ve said: We appreciate the work the Attorney General’s office put into this report and we’ll have to look at it more carefully before commenting. But nooooooo, he had to do that asshole-lawyer shtick and say that we were biased and did our statistics wrong. Unfortunately I have the actual letter in my other office and so I can’t quote from it here, but let me assure you that the guy was a real dick.

Anyway, nobody likes to be criticized. If, after receiving this letter, I would’ve gladly gone on to Fox or Al-Jazeera or any other network to complain. So I can understand where Groseclose was coming from.

That said, although the criticism from Media Matters was harsh, describing the findings of Groseclose and his collaborator as “next to useless,” I don’t think they were nasty. Groseclose said that he responded to the criticisms in his forthcoming book, which seems like the right way to go. I guess what I’m saying is that I agree with my friend that Groseclose went overboard in his attack on his critics but I can understand how it can happen: Groseclose certainly isn’t the first writer to take criticism personally.

Just as a minor point: Groseclose appears to have been mistaken when said that the Media Matters criticism of his work was headlined, “Rigging the Numbers.” I googled “groseclose rigging the numbers,” and what turned up was this piece by Eric Alterman on the website of the Center for American Progress. The Media Matters report is a bit more even-tempered than the headline that was placed on Alterman’s article (see Brendan Nyhan’s comment). So it appears that some of Groseclose’s indignation comes from his conflation of Media Matters’s sober criticism with an unfortunately-titled follow-up. If someone wrote a column accusing me of “rigging the numbers,” I’d be pretty irritated too.

“One of my left-wing colleagues”

One thing that did seem odd to me, though, was when Groseclose mentioned the support he received from “one of my left-wing colleagues.” The implication was that the Media Matters people must be pretty extreme, if even a “left-wing” person disagreed with them.

I have a problem with this reasoning, which might be called “endorsement by an ideological opponent.” Let’s look at it from Groseclose’s perspective. Why should he trust what his “left-wing colleague” thinks about a liberal advocacy group?

This reminds me of when liberal econ-blogger Brad DeLong cited “the impeccably right-wing Thomas Sowell” for support on his views about The Bell Curve. If DeLong doesn’t trust Sowell when he writes on economic policy, why should he be citing him as an authority on education research?

My general rule is, if someone says, “So-and-so who disagrees with me on everything, agrees with me on this one point,” not to take this as evidence of anything. If you have a conservative idea that’s good, show me directly, don’t tell me that “even the New Republic” approves. And if you have a liberal idea to peddle, don’t tell me that actually it’s ok because Milton Friedman said it was a good idea.


Groseclose said that Media Matters is “violating the spirit of the law” in doing political advocacy while being classified as a tax-exempt group under IRS Code Section 501(c)(3). But according to this source (which was the first link when I googled “groseclose fox”), Groseclose and his Fox interviewer are wrong on this one. Other 501(c)(3) groups, all of which fall under the “educational” category of the 501(c)(3), include the Heritage Foundation (right), Cato Institute (libertarian), American Family Association (right), Family Research Council (right), Family Research Institute (right). If Media Matters is violating the spirit of the law, so are all these other groups.

The research itself

I look forward to seeing Groseclose’s new book; in the meantime I can point you to political scientist Brendan Nyhan’s comments on the paper with Milyo back when it came out in 2005.

And here’s a summary of my reaction at the time:

Brendan’s criticisms seem valid to me; notheless I’m a bit more positive than Brendan is about the paper, I think because the problem of studying media bias is tough, and I’m impressed about what Groseclose and Milyo did manage to do. Perhaps just my own bias in showing an affinity with quantitative researchers . . . I do agree, though, that “bias” isn’t quite the right word to discuss what Groseclose and Milyo measure, since “bias” implies a deviation from some unbiased position or truth, which I don’t see them measuring.

I think the Groseclose and Milyo study is interesting, especially if you step back and don’t try to treat it as a measure of bias. As I noted a couple months ago in a discussion of a paper by Riccardo Puglisi, I’ve often thought there is an asymmetry in media bias, with Democratic reporters—a survey a few years ago found that twice as many journalists identify as Democrats than as Republicans—biasing their reporting by choosing which topics to focus on, and Republican news organizations (notably Fox News and other Murdoch organizations) biasing in the other direction by flat-out attacks.

I’ve never been clear on which sort of bias is more effective. On one hand, Fox can create a media buzz out of nothing at all; on the other hand, perhaps there’s something more insidious about objective news organizations indirectly creating bias by their choice of what to report.

But I’ve long thought that this asymmetry should inform how media bias is studied. It can’t be a simple matter of counting stories or references to experts and saying that Fox is more biased or the Washington Post is more biases or whatever. Some of the previous studies in this area are interesting but to me don’t get at either of the fundamental sorts of bias mentioned above. You have to look for bias in different ways to capture these multiple dimensions.

P.S. I guess the 30 days really are over now!

P.P.S. Brendan Nyhan adds:

If you’re interested in the issue of how to measure media bias, I [Nyhan] much prefer the Gentzkow and Shapiro approach:

We [Gentzkow and Shapiro] construct a new index of media slant that measures the similarity of a news outlet’s language to that of a congressional Republican or Democrat. We estimate a model of newspaper demand that incorporates slant explicitly, estimate the slant that would be chosen if newspapers independently maximized their own profits, and compare these profit-maximizing points with firms’ actual choices. We find that readers have an economically significant preference for like-minded news. Firms respond strongly to consumer preferences, which account for roughly 20 percent of the variation in measured slant in our sample. By contrast, the identity of a newspaper’s owner explains far less of the variation in slant.

10 thoughts on “Confusion about “rigging the numbers,” the support of ideological opposites, who’s a 501(c)(3), and the asymmetry of media bias

  1. As a "left-wing" colleague of Groseclose I don't endorse the research and agree I don't believe it proves media bias. He oversells the claim and is overly indignant about criticism. But of course, that's what you do when you are on a crusade. What I find interesting is much of the literature on media has now moved to the importance of framing. For example a positive story about the President that frames the current budget problem as about crushing debt is received by viewers as a story that bends toward a Republican answer to the problem. We all remember those wonderful nuggets like "the death tax", or "Obamacare" that are repeated by the so-called liberal media but are generally framing language from the right. Groseclose's research also fails to deal with changing demographics in America. The fact that the US demographics are changing is not adequately accounted for. I could go on but glad he's getting some air time I guess.

  2. This seems to me to be wrong. 

    The logical structure of my argument was "even Milton Friedman–a guy opposed to even small government–agrees that the government needs to stabilize aggregate demand" and "even Thomas Sowell–a guy predisposed to disbelieve in sociological causation–thinks that culture and not genes are what is going on here".I could go on and note that there is a difference between Sowell doing empirical research into early twentieth-century claims of Jewish feeblemindedness and reporting that research and Sowell as knee-jerk right-wing economic theorist, but I should be doing my day job right now…

  3. I think your "even the New Republic" rule makes some good sense and probably represents the high-ground from a standpoint of rigorous epistemology. However, I also believe that "even the New Republic" arguments are persuasive and this is why people employ them. I would argue that very little political debate is grounded in rigorous epistemology. It's simply not practical for every person to develop expertise in every topic and roll their own formal chain of proof for every opinion they hold. Instead, we reference experts and then make appeals to authority. Debates often devolve into "my" experts versus "your" experts, and this is the context in which the "even the New Republic" argument gains some heft. Here is another current example of the form:
    The approach seems rational and effective to me. To argue against this is to argue that people shouldn't allow their opinions to be shaped by experts they trust.

    • Rob:

      I agree that it's worth thinking about the appeal of the "even the New Republic" style of argument.  My quick thought is that it is a form of pre-statistical reasoning, something on the order of Aristotelian syllogisms.  It can work in some extreme cases (where everyone is perfectly aligned on a single left-right scale) but generally isn't up to the task of serious reasoning.

  4. First, Groseclose is a very good guy.  But the study has serious problems.  He presented to a bunch of conservative finance professors at UT, and they came away quite unimpressed.  The new research is weaker than the study with Milyo.  But it is very difficult to study this, so you can't be too hard on him.

  5. Now come on. Groseclose is just acting it out in order to get a bit more attention. He really tries to appear outraged

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