A very timely new book from America, Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind by Tim Groseclose, confirms what many feel to be the reality: the media throughout the Western world appears to have a permanent and pervasive soft left-liberal interpretation of almost everything, be it cultural, political, or social. The degree to which this left bias has become entrenched has been convincingly measured by Groseclose.
This reality has become an increasingly sore point now that the federal government’s ‘independent’ media inquiry, headed by Ray Finkelstein, recommends the establishment of a government-funded News Media Council. Over and above all the well-understood reasons for being concerned about media regulation, like free speech in a democracy, what is particularly galling is the self-evident wrongheadedness of where the problem of bias lies.
At the outset, it is important to note the degree of difficulty in proving bias, particularly because of the acute and bitter polarisation of political views both in America and Australia, but also because inevitably the idea of bias, or the study of competing points of view, appears to defy an objective treatment of the subject. Before we look at what Left Turn argues about the United States, it would be instructive to see what has been done in this country.
Here in Australia there is a long tradition of accusations of bias in our national broadcaster. Over 30 years ago in 1981, The Dix Report, a Committee of Review of the ABC, strongly recommended that current affairs programs would be ‘most arresting, informative and effective, and attract wider audience patronage, if more efforts were made to open the programmes to a wider range of viewpoints.’
Following this report, the Institute of Public Affairs published a first attempt at media analysis by Ken Baker in 1983. His aim was to ‘look at the range of ideas being discussed in selected ABC programs over a period of time to see whether they appear to favour any particular political philosophy.’ To his credit, Baker’s emphasis was based on the understanding that the ‘range of issues’ covered in the media should be related to ‘the views of the community’.
In 1998, the IPA established a Media Monitoring Unit headed by Kate Morrison from Canada’s Fraser Institute. Its project, ‘Election ’98: TV News in the Spotlight,’ critically examined TV news coverage of that year’s federal election campaign. The Unit’s research was very successful and attracted enormous media interest. It was the first study of its kind in Australia to scientifically and objectively measure the lack of balance often apparent in political news coverage on television news. The major finding of this first study was that metropolitan TV news coverage of the election focused more on the Coalition government than on Labor and, in most cases, was more critical of the Coalition’s policies. ABC News was the most pro-Labor of the four news services. However, by releasing the Unit’s findings each week throughout the election campaign, this added scrutiny from the IPA Media Monitoring Unit is believed to have contributed to a dramatic change in the ABC’s coverage in the last week of the campaign. At the very least, the success of this study suggested there was nevertheless a conscious sensitivity by the ABC to bias.
The Unit subsequently went on to do another successful study involving the ABC’s coverage of the MUA/Patrick waterfront dispute. At the time, Senator Richard Alston had accused the ABC of bias. In a defensive reaction, ABC management commissioned Professor Philip Bell, Foundation Chair of the Media and Communications Unit of the University of New South Wales, to investigate the claims. Based primarily on a measure of the sources interviewed for the nightly news reports, Professor Bell found, not surprisingly, that the ABC had not been biased in its handling of the dispute.
Bell’s report, however, overlooked a few very important factors. First, journalists provide the vast majority of commentary on television news reports, but Bell focused his report on the balance of comment between the major players in the dispute. Second, a TV report may ‘balance’ the sources interviewed, but at the same time present a very biased report overall. That someone’s position is being presented on TV does not necessarily mean that the position is being presented in a favourable light. These flaws in Bell’s report flowed from a very simplistic notion of balance—namely, equal time given to each side.
In that same year, the IPA Review reported on two groundbreaking studies by Professor John Henningham of Queensland University: ‘Journalists’ perception of bias’, and ‘Ideological differences between Australian journalists and their public’.
In his first study, Henningham surveyed Australian journalists themselves to ascertain their own impressions of the spectrum of Australian media outlets from left to right. What is striking about the study is that the journalists themselves clearly rated the ABC as pro-Labor, indeed as the most proLabor of the major media outlets. The 7.30 Report, followed by ABC News, 4 Corners, SBS News and The Age were considered the most left-leaning, whilst the Adelaide Advertiser, The West Australian and the Northern Territory News were considered the most right leaning. The mid-point of balance centred around the then Telegraph-Mirror and the Sydney Morning Herald, whilst the Financial Review, The Australian, and the Melbourne Herald Sun were just to the right of centre.
However, this raises a question. Where would this mid-point of political balance be if it were considered by the general public? In the second study, Henningham measured the ideological gap between Australian journalists and the public they served. The survey included 173 journalists and 262 members of the public in metropolitan Australia. Not surprisingly, there was an enormous difference between these two groups, with journalists consistently having much more ‘progressive’ views than the general public.
Combining these two results, an estimate of where the general public’s ‘mid-point’ would lie could be made. It turns out that the most representative media outlet at the time-that is, at the centre of mainstream Australian opinion-was the Herald Sun, with The Australian well to the left of centre. We have to remember that this estimate is based on mid 1990s attitudes and press disposition at the time, but it is nevertheless very suggestive of the problems in measuring media bias.
Indeed, the concept of ‘media slant’ is developed in Left Turn and it strongly underlines the work already undertaken in Australia by the IPA and Professor Henningham. Groseclose is able to demonstrate exactly how news is transformed from factual content into a point of view. He is at pains to point out that political bias ‘does not mean not being truthful, or reporting facts honestly or even objectively.’ If there is one lesson to be learned-and many of us have been saying this for years-it is about the selectivity of issues and therefore the bias that is formed by the things that are not reported, and by the people who are not interviewed. In Australia, the most glaring present example on information not reported is the topic of global warming. Beyond that, examples are endless.
Left Turn provides a detailed discussion of the difficult nature of bias, what it actually means, and how it is achieved. Michael Kinsley, founding editor of the left-wing online magazine Slate, is quoted with agreement: ‘But-for the millionth time!-an opinion is not a bias! The fact that reporters tend to be liberal says nothing one way or another about their tendency to be biased’. Groseclose explains. ‘Although the personal views of journalists, in general, pull their reporting to the left, countervailing forces pull their reporting the other way-towards the centre’. The only way to answer the question of bias is to examine the content. Groseclose does this by evaluating the experts relied upon by journalists, knowing that many seek out interview subjects who will give them the answers or opinions they want, so that they can convey their view without appearing to give their own opinions. One only has to see the selection of panellists on Tony Jones’ Q&A, or Fran Kelly’s ABC Radio National Breakfast to get the idea. Groseclose uses this obvious fact to provide objective, rather than subjective, evaluations of bias.
And what Left Turn shows is that American media outlets have an overwhelming left bias with a vast majority of news outlets producing a left slant. The fact that an estimated 93 per cent of Washington press correspondents vote Democrat is indicative of this.
The author is very open, if not defensive, in explaining just why commentators and academics from the left hate what he does and why they refuse to accept his findings. He points out that his results are supported by eight years of his own research, state-of-the-art statistical methods, and other independent economic and political science research. In particular, Groseclose has scrupulously used measures based on criteria selected by the left as hedge against potential criticism.
So where does this leave Australia with its proposed News Media Council?
Thankfully, there has been some loud opposition to the very idea of media control and censorship implied in the recommendations of the Finkelstein report. But statements by senior government figures leave cause for concern. For example, ALP Senator Doug Cameron’s statement that ‘the Murdoch press are an absolute disgrace, they are a threat to democracy in this country and we should absolutely be having a look at them’ runs contrary to the important role we know News Limited performs by contributing balance to the media.
Worse, if the evidence from research on media bias-whether Henningham, the IPA or Groseclose-is even half true, the Finkelstein report only further reinforces the suspicion that media ‘reform’ is really about government-sponsored control of anything critical to its agenda. Chris Mitchell of The Australian sums up the heart of this dilemma of bias, ‘Like many on the left they [the academics] love scrutiny of conservative governments but completely reject scrutiny of the Greens and the Green-Labor coalition.’ Certainly, the dangers of media reform based on untenable assumptions and suspect intentions is clear from the findings and rigorous methodology of Groseclose’s Left Turn.