Left Turn: When hell broke loose

Tomorrow is the official publication date of Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind, by Tim Groseclose. Groseclose is the Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics at UCLA. He holds joint appointments in the political science and economics departments.

The publication of Professor Groseclose’s book — previewed here by Paul Bedard at USNews and here by Professor Groseclose himself — is a signal event. To the vexed question of media bias, Professor Groselose brings the methodology of the social sciences.

Professor Groseclose and his publisher have kindly granted us permission to publish the preface (here) yesterday, the introduction and the eighth chapter of his book (Tuesday through Friday), starring our friend Katherine Kersten, over the course of this week.

When Professor Groseclose published his findings with Professor Jeff Milyo in 2002, all hell broke loose. It is a revealing story with a few twists and turns as well as a happy ending. He tells the story in the introduction to the book. Here it is:

Discussions about media bias can really inflame people’s passions.

In the Spring of 2002, I began a research project with Jeff Milyo, who at the time was a public policy professor at the University of Chicago. Our goal was to create a method that would objectively measure the bias of the media.

The motivation was simple. In social science we have lots of precise, numerical devices that measure how liberal or conservative politicians are. There ought to be something similar for the media.

Three and half years later, after thousands of hours of gathering and analyzing data, we achieved that goal. For 20 major news outlets, we estimated a score, between 0 and 100, that described how liberal the outlet was. The beauty of the scores—which I now call Slant Quotients—is that they are directly comparable to Political Quotients. This means that they can answer questions such as: (i) “Is the New York Times to the left or right of Hillary Clinton?” or (ii) “Is Fox News to the left or right of John McCain?”.

The results generally agreed with the claims of conservatives. For instance, our method found that 18 of the 20 outlets were left of center. The only two that were not were the Washington Times and Fox News’ Special Report with Brit Hume.

Our findings, however, contradicted a few claims of conservatives. For instance, they showed that some mainstream news outlets are nearly perfectly centrist, albeit still left-leaning. Two were ABC’s Good Morning America and [PBS’s] The Newshour with Jim Lehrer. Also, we found that many supposedly far-left news outlets were not that far left. For instance, we found that National Public Radio was no more liberal than the Washington Post, Time, or Newsweek. And we found that it was less liberal than the average speech by Senator Joe Lieberman.

We thought that, maybe, people on both sides of the political spectrum would appreciate the study, that each side would say something like “finally, an answer to the age-old debate.”

We now realize how naïve that thought was.

We posted the results on my website. The public relations office at UCLA, where I work as a professor of political science and economics, wrote a press release that summarized the results.

Then came the firestorm. Our study was denounced by hundreds, and maybe thousands, of left-wing blogs, including Media Matters, the Daily Kos, and the Huffington Post. At one point if you googled “crap UCLA study,” most of the first ten listings would refer to our study.

On January 5, 2006, I appeared on CSPAN’s Washington Journal to discuss the study. That morning, the Daily Kos, made me the focus of an “action alert,” which encouraged readers to call CSPAN and force me to “answer some tough questions” about my and Milyo’s “highly flawed study.”

Many of the blogs attacked us personally and tried to insinuate that right wing groups had paid us to fudge our results.

The emails were even more vicious. “I’ve been in media relations for twelve years, and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Meg Sullivan, the UCLA publicist who wrote the press release and who was listed as the contact person. “Every other study that I’ve been involved with will get maybe a few emails. This one has gotten hundreds. And some are scary. I hope your home address is not public.”

A few people emailed the UCLA chancellor, insisting that I be fired. One of them noted on the subject line “Groseclose must be fired IMMEDIATELY,” as if simply firing me next week would a grave injustice.
Of the many emails that leftwing strangers sent me, the first one was representative of the anger and viciousness:

Dear Tim,

Sounds like that cockamamie load of bulls**t study of yours started with the results you wanted (i.e., that Fox News is “fair and balanced”) and then concocted the most ridiculous, asinine set of parameters you could think of to ensure the results you were after.

You’ve obviously never watched Fox News, [otherwise you’d realize how many people] will be laughing at your “study”.

Sorry man, sounds like a bunch of BS to me, and that’s from an independent. …

Xxxx Xxxx

One of my colleagues at UCLA, whom I’ll call Byron B. Bright, may be the smartest political scientist on the planet. He knows seemingly everything about politics, economics, math, and computers. And he’s the best person to ask if you need your car, refrigerator, or anything else fixed. Once, a statistical software package wouldn’t do what he wanted. So, to solve his problem, he wrote a computer program that would write a series of other computer programs, which would successively execute the statistical package—that’s right, he wrote a computer program that would write other computer programs.

At the same time, he’s a staunch liberal, approximately as staunch, maybe more staunch, than I am a conservative. Our first debate occurred only a few weeks after meeting each other, almost twenty years ago. He casually mentioned how the only people who listen to Rush Limbaugh are ignorant extremists. I quickly explained why he was wrong, and told him, in fact, that I had been listening to Limbaugh that day.

In a more recent debate, I told him, “No, it’s not true that liberals and conservatives are equally decent. Liberals have worse manners, they go to church less, they more often live in aggressive, urban environments, they shout people down at public speeches, and they use more vulgarity when they talk.” At first he didn’t respond. I think he decided that the best response was just to give me a look as if I had just claimed that the earth was flat. But then, just for good measure, he said “Funny how all of those well-mannered conservatives favor pre-emptive strikes against innocent Iraqis.”

So after I received the above email, I gleefully showed it to Byron. I responded to the email even more gleefully:

Dear Mr. Xxxx,

Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

Please keep in mind, however, that in creating the statistical estimation method and in designing the set of parameters for it, I have benefited greatly from the help and comments of Byron Bright, a colleague at UCLA. An argument could be made that he deserves to be a coauthor. His email address is [email protected].


At the University of Missouri, where my coauthor Jeff Milyo had just taken a job, the press office described our study in favorable terms and posted it on a prominent university web site.

Soon after the posting, the chairs of the humanities and social-science departments held a regular meeting with the dean. Although it was not supposed to be a topic for the meeting, our study soon became the focus of a heated discussion. The chairs of the departments of sociology, religion, and German and Russian languages were especially angry, and they called it “offensive” and “scandalous.” One said “The study isn’t research. It’s agitprop for the conservative blogosphere.”

After the meeting, one of the professors sent Milyo an email to reprimand him:

… In that lay part of my objection, and here I have to say that it’s not to your work qua research at all. Rather, its presentation on the website made a pretty categorical claim about bias that taps into a charged political environment. There are difficult issues that underpin the website headline, and your study is complex and sophisticated enough to treat many of them; far more subtle and nuanced than the journalistic reductio. There are of course issues outstanding or open to discussion (what’s included by way of news sources, whether conceptual categories like liberal and conservative have veridical legitimacy as identity markers, where and how one designates boundaries of same [i.e., you can call something X and cite as reason a widely accepted standard, but that in no way means that the thing really is X, or so a philosopher would say], how one categorizes constellations of dispositions, how one treats what Bakhtin called dialogism in discourse analysis, and so forth. …

Milyo and I couldn’t understand him either. But the fact that he would take the time to write such an email is yet another example of the passions that the study inflamed. It wasn’t Milyo’s idea to post a description of the study on the university web site. Also remember, Milyo had just moved to the University of Missouri. That was his welcome.

The most vicious response of all was by Eric Alterman, a writer at Media Matters. He insinuated that we were paid by rightwing think tanks to fudge our results. “Rigging the Numbers” was the title of his essay. The following were his concluding paragraphs:

Check the fine print and one finds this study—naively touted as both objective and significant by the UCLA public affairs office and published, inexplicably, by the previously respected Quarterly Journal of Economics, edited at Harvard University’s Department of Economics, was the product of a significant investment by right-wing think tanks. In 2000-2001, Groseclose was a Hoover Institution national fellow, while Milyo has been granted $40,500 from the American Enterprise Institute; both were Heritage Foundation Salvatori fellows in 1997.

And yet despite its shockingly desultory intellectual underpinnings and almost comically obvious ideological imperatives, we can be certain we will hear about this study over and over for the next decade—from the very people who have written off normative knowledge and scientific research as some sort of liberal plot to subvert the values of Heartland America.

Really, you just can’t make these people up.

At one level I can understand why so many leftwing strangers sent me angry emails, and why writers, like Eric Alterman at Media Matters, would say such false and vicious things about Milyo and me.

If people believe the results of our study, then they will begin to believe that they are not getting the whole truth from the media.

They might begin to think, “Maybe lower taxes are a better idea than I thought.” “Maybe government should scale back its involvement in the economy.” “Maybe affirmative action is not such a great idea.”

Larry Greenfield, a fellow at the Claremont Institute, has made a profound observation about the psyche of the far left: “They worship the god of Equality.” A corollary of his observation is the following: While other virtues, such as kindness and honesty, are important, they are secondary when they clash with Equality.

Our study, at least in small ways, harms the goal of Equality. In at least small ways, it works to make U.S. public policy less “progressive” and less consistent with “social justice.” If you are an advocate of “social justice” and “progressive” values, then, even if you believe that our study is true, you should hate it. Further, if you value Equality more than other virtues, then it would be appropriate for you to conclude, “Smearing Groseclose and Milyo’s study is justified, even if the smears are false.” You would also be justified in attacking us personally, even saying false and vicious things about our character. As the leftwing icon Saul Alinsky advised, “Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it [my emphasis], and polarize it.”

At this point, let me warn you, if you are such an advocate of “social justice” and “progressive” values, then you will hate this book even more than my and Milyo’s original study. I provide additional objective, precise measures that show that the media is at least as liberal as the original study concluded.

Plus, I provide evidence that the bias really does affect people’s views. As I will explain, the left does not yet understand that they should disagree with the latter fact. It implies that the present views of the average voter are distorted—that is, if it weren’t for media bias, then those views would be more conservative. While my original study found that the media is to the left of the (distorted) position of the average voter, the above fact means that the media is even further away from the natural, non-distorted position of the average voter. That is, not only is the media biased, it’s even more biased than people realize.

But before I describe that research, let me describe the most surprising response to our study—that of professors at elite universities.

First, before the study was published, several professors invited me to present the research at their universities. I gave presentations at Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Duke, as well as two presentations at Stanford. Although the audiences at those universities were overwhelmingly liberal, and often they raised methodological objections, not once did anyone attack me personally; nor did anyone ever suggest that I was anything but honest while conducting the research.

Next was the response at the University of Missouri. At the heated meeting of the department chairs, the chair of the economics department suggested, “Hey, we’re all scholars here. Maybe we should settle this like scholars—with a debate. Let’s allow Milyo to present his findings at a public forum, and we’ll allow others to have a chance to criticize it.” The dean agreed, and he set up such a forum. Not one of the professors who criticized the study showed up at the debate.

We submitted our paper to the Quarterly Journal of Economics. This is the oldest scholarly economics journal. It is based at Harvard University, and the three editors of the journal, all professors in the Harvard economics department, are almost sure to win Nobel prizes someday. All professional economists consider the QJE one of the top four economics journals, and some consider it the top journal.

One of the most wonderful aspects of the response to our paper is something that Milyo and I—and most other scholars—usually take for granted. This is that at no point in the review process did anyone at the QJE ask, “Are you currently, or have you ever been, associated with any conservative organization?” Many leftwing blogs, including Media Matters, denounced our paper because of our prior affiliation with conservative groups. Some blogs, for the same reason, even denounced the QJE for accepting our paper. The writers at these blogs should consider how much they sound like Joe McCarthy—once you substitute “conservative” for “communist.” The beauty of the review process at the QJE—and all other scientific journals of which I am aware—is that they don’t care about the political views and associations of the authors who submit papers. They judge the papers strictly by their merits.

It may surprise some people that a group of Harvard professors approved of a paper that concludes that the media has a liberal bias.

But if you think that’s strange, just wait.

A few months after the QJE accepted our paper, instead of firing me, UCLA promoted me—from Associate Professor of Political Science to “full” Professor of Political Science.

That one surprised me. Out of the many hundreds of professors at UCLA, I’m aware of only nine who voted for John McCain in 2008, and one of those nine asked me never to reveal that fact to anyone at UCLA. I am almost certain that not one dean, chancellor, or vice-chancellor at UCLA voted for McCain in 2008 or Bush in 2000 or 2004.

A few months later, the professors in the economics department at UCLA voted to give me a “joint” professorship in their department. Around the same time, Caltech invited me to be a Visiting Professor for a quarter.

Shortly after, the University of Missouri promoted Milyo—from Associate Professor of Economics to “full” Professor of Economics.
Then it got really, really strange. Yale University offered me a job … as a full professor. The average professor at Yale, I am certain, is even more liberal than the average professor at UCLA. Although I believe that Yale offered me the job in spite of, not because of, my media-bias research, Yale did not consider that research a reason to blackball me.

Soon after that, the University of Chicago offered me a job as a full professor with an “endowed chair.” UCLA responded with an endowed chair, plus a significant increase in salary.

But from a personal standpoint, the most wonderful response came from an email that I received one day. “Dear Mr. Alterman,” it began. Alterman, you may recall, was the writer at Media Matters who said that Milyo and I “rigged” our numbers and insinuated that we did it because rightwing think tanks had “invested” in us.

I was very disappointed to read your review of my colleague Timothy Groseclose’s paper on media bias. The lack of civility and the personal nature of your review struck a tone that I had not expected from you. …

As much as you and, indeed, I want to believe that the results of Tim’s study are false, they are not the result of cooking the books. Tim is nothing if not careful. Yes, he is a conservative and, yes, I am sure he is pleased with the way the results turned out. But, the method was laid out before the data were collected and I am confident that the paper would have been published regardless of the outcome.

For what it is worth, here is the truth about the paper from someone who does not share Tim’s politics. … It is academically honest research by careful and serious scholars who do not pursue a research agenda at the behest of any conservative patron.

Once I realized that the email was written by one of my UCLA colleagues, I quit reading and bolted down the hall. This deserved an immediate thank you.

But as I approached his door, it occurred to me that I might not be able to express my thanks without my voice breaking or eyes watering. So I slowed my walk, cleared my throat, and blinked my eyes. The reason the email was so touching was not so much its words but who wrote them … Byron B. Bright.

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

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