Left Turn: A modest experiment, part 1

With Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind, officially published today, Tim Groseclose has written an important book. Professor Groseclose measures media bias with social-scientific methods and concludes that: (i) all mainstream media outlets have a liberal bias, and (ii) while some supposedly conservative outlets—such as the Washington Times or Fox News Special Report—do lean right, their conservative bias is less than the liberal bias of most mainstream outlets.

To measure media bias, Professor Groseclose examines the political content of news and converts the content into an SQ, or “slant quotient.” To determine bias, he compares SQs of news outlets to the PQs, or “political quotients,” of voters and politicians.

Professor Groseclose contends that the general leftward bias of the media has shifted the PQ of the average American by about 20 points on a scale of 100, the difference between (i) the current political views of the average American and (ii) the political views of the average resident of Orange County, California or Salt Lake County, Utah. Over at NRO today, Nat Brown usefully summarizes the book. We posted the preface and the introduction to the book earlier this week.

The book also contains several lively anecdotes about how media bias gets perpetrated. These include several facts and stories that conservatives would want to learn about or disseminate yet the mainstream media chose (and choose) to ignore. Chapter 8 of the book (An “Alien” Conservative Injected In a Liberal Newsroom and the Topics She Might Cover) is a case study featuring our friend Katherine Kersten, who may have been the only conservative reporter or columnist at the Minneapolis Star Tribune during her tenure at the paper. Formerly a twice-weekly Star Tribune metro columnist, Kathy is a senior fellow at the Center of the American Experiment contributing a twice-monthly Sunday op-ed column to the paper. With Kathy’s departure as a metro columnist in late 2008, the Star Tribune appears to lack any political reporter or metro columnist with a conservative bent.

Professor Groseclose interviewed Kersten for the book in connection with her work as a metro columnist on the “flying imams” story. As an exclusive to Power Line, Professor Groseclose and his publisher have granted us permission to post the chapter over the course of this week. Professor Groseclose examines how an “experiment” at the Star Tribune led to Kersten’s hiring as a columnist and to her contribution to the “flying imams” story (footnotes omitted).

On November 20, 2006, six Muslim imams boarded US Airways Flight 300, traveling from Minneapolis to Phoenix. According to many accounts, the imams acted suspiciously as soon as they boarded the plane.

For instance, as the Washington Times reported: (i) They left their assigned seats and instead sat in a pattern associated with the 9-11 terrorist attacks. (ii) Some of them asked for seatbelt extensions, yet none were fat enough to require one; nor did any of them actually use the extensions. (iii) Although the imams claimed that they never spoke about politics and only spoke in English, witnesses contradicted that, noting they said they discussed al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and that they criticized the Iraq War and President Bush. Witnesses also said that part of time the imams talked in Arabic.

After several passengers complained, US Airways removed the imams and refused to reschedule them on another flight. The imams retaliated with a lawsuit against US Airways.

More interesting—and outrageous in my view—the imams also sued some of the passengers on the plane. Specifically, when they filed the lawsuit, they made accusations against a number of “John Does”—passengers, whom they planned to name during the discovery part of the trial.

This story, that the imams were suing the passengers on the plane, in my judgment is a conservative one. One reason is that it is a case where it was perhaps reasonable and rational to engage in “racial profiling,” an exercise that liberals tend to oppose more strongly than conservatives. Another reason is that the story suggests that terrorism is still a threat within the U.S. Liberals often claim that the threat of terrorism is not so large, even at times making fun of the phrase “war on terror.”

The journalist who broke the story, Katherine Kersten of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, as you might suspect, is conservative.

Suppose you could peer inside her head at the time she chose that topic. In what ways, if any, did her conservative views give her extra motivation to pursue the story? In what ways, if any, did her conservative views give her any special knowledge or expertise to pursue the story?

Now consider the “corporate media” view of journalism—that the personal views of journalists are unimportant; instead, what are most important are the personal views of the journalists’ corporate bosses. If that’s true, however, consider a liberal reporter, who perhaps has a conservative corporate boss. Could that reporter serve as an adequate substitute for Kersten? That is, is it really possible for a liberal to don the skin of a conservative, muster similar motivation and knowledge as Kersten, and pursue the same story that she pursued?

An Alien Conservative in a Liberal Newsroom

Katherine Kersten, it turns out, obtained her job at the Minneapolis Star Tribune because of a special “experiment” at the newspaper. Brian Lambert, writing in The Rake magazine, described the experiment:

When the tinny tinkle of “Joy to the World, the Lord is Come” begins playing on the cell phone, everyone in range in the Star Tribune newsroom knows who’s getting a call. It is Katherine Kersten, the paper’s unapologetically religious and fiercely conservative metro columnist.

Since May 2005, the Star Tribune has been engaged in what its top editor freely describes as “an experiment.” The test has Katherine Kersten, a fifty-five-year-old former banker, and think-tank denizen, now an opinion writer, playing the role of an alien element injected into a tradition-bound newspaper culture.

Long battered by conservative critics as the “Red Star” for its alleged knee-jerk liberalism … the Star Tribune decided it had to answer. For the last twenty months, Kersten has been a one-woman solution, applying a decidedly different, and perhaps revolutionary, face to the role of big-city reporter and metro columnist.

Personality Traits, Worldviews, and Other Factors that Influence the Topics a Journalist Pursues

“Oh, that just happens all the time,” said Kersten when I asked if her conservative views ever influence the topics that she covers. “I’d only been on the job a few weeks when I told [an editor], ‘You know, you guys are missing half the stories out there.’ [The liberal reporters at the Star Tribune] don’t know the people I know. They don’t have the same sources. They all move in the same circles. Many of the stories that I’d just jump on wouldn’t interest them at all.”

Brit Hume, in an interview on C-SPAN’s Q&A, echoed her sentiment:

[If you are willing to pursue the stories that traditional, liberal reporters aren’t interested in,] it gets to be like picking up money off the street…

We had a wonderful example last week, when the report came out from the [George W. Bush] Administration … that fifteen of the eighteen political benchmarks were now showing satisfactory progress in Iraq. And you say, well, that’s just the Administration. Well maybe so. But a year earlier the same administration had said that satisfactory progress had been made only on eight of eighteen.

Something had obviously happened. … That’s a big story. We’ve made it a big story. I led my broadcast with it. And it was virtually ignored everywhere else. Everywhere else.

From Left Turn by Tim Groseclose, PhD. Copyright © 2011 by the author and reprinted by the kind permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC. All rights reserved.

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