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Friday, August 31, 2007

Cause or effect of Fox News?

I have pretty much stopped watching all television news, but I know the angst that many have for Fox News on the one hand and for the "liberal" media on the other. I say pox on all their houses, but I am only one guy.

The Media Research Center (for what it's worth) has a report in which they claim the big three broadcasters are, wait for it....liberal (or at least favoring Democrats, which might not be the same thing)!!

I have read most of the report and I suppose the data are relatively easy to confirm so I won't question their data. I do wonder if the results are somewhat driven by when the data were gathered.

Nevertheless, there is one interesting graphic:

Assuming the data are correct, two questions remain. Is the "bias" toward Democrats a supply-side or demand-side effect? Perhaps GMA asks Republican candidates to come on the air and the Repubs turn down the request (that would be a supply side effect). Perhaps GMA doesn't ask the Repubs to be on the air (that would be a demand-side effect). The data provided by MRC cannot disentangle the two influences.

However, there is another question that would be useful to answer. Is the "bias" toward Democrats a new phenomenon since the advent of Fox News (arguably the conservative news network). If it is a new trend, which I bet it is, the question then remains whether the big three are truly "liberal" or trying to make money in the face of a new competitor.

The big three might naturally lean more toward Democrats if the median voter NOT watching Fox News is further to the left of the median voter who would be watching television in the absence of Fox News. In other words, it might be profit maximizing or audience maximizing (is that the same thing?) for the big three to have more Democrats than Republicans on their shows.

Alberto Gonzales swept in abruptly and mauled with suede gloves!
I'm not necessarily questioning that the "Big Three" are biased towards Democrats, but I have a hard time making the connection between more coverage and biased coverage. There are more questions that need to be answered. I share your concern that the timing of the study largely affects the expected coverage. There is also a question of the content of the coverage. Surely, if CNN spent 70% of its time bashing Democrats and 30% of its time glorifying Republicans, one could not make the case that CNN was biased toward Democrats. This study, as far as I can see, does not make a distinction. Unfortunately, this is also the hardest variable to measure objectively and arguably the most important.

Furthermore, the time frame of January to July 2007 should be expected to yield more Democratic coverage in the primaries regardless of bias. This year’s Democratic primary election is unique in that both leading candidates would make history by winning the primaries. If Clinton won, she would be the first female to win a major primary. If Obama won, he would be the first black person to win a major primary. Never mind that both are terrible candidates and both have little chance at winning the general election (in my opinion). This dynamic makes the Democratic primary more interesting to watch, and therefore, the Big Three have the incentive to offer more coverage in order to maximize their audience. If Rice and Keyes were somehow the front-runners in the Republican primaries and Kerry and Edwards were the front-runners in the Democratic primaries, there is no doubt in my mind that Rice and Keyes would get more coverage.
The MRC is too biased to take any of their research seriously.
Rich leaves an interesting comment and one that seems a little too flippant. I wonder if the data the MRC report is wrong? Perhaps their interpretation is incorrect, which is what the original post was essentially saying. However, just because the agenda of the group is clear doesn't indicate that the data are wrong.

I agree with Paul that the implicit claim is that "any press is good press" from the Big Three, which may or may not be true.

In my opinion it is better to ask questions than to dismiss data because of the individual or group who gathered the data. If qualifications for the accuracy of data are the characteristics of who gathers the data, then we are all in trouble.

If the data can be refuted, then they should be and the MRC can thereafter be dismissed as a data fabricator rather than an activist group who gathers data and interprets them to their advantage.
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