How Biased Is the Media? Bring Your Questions for the Author of Left Turn

Tim Groseclose is a political-science professor at UCLA (and an occasional co-author with Steve Levitt) who has spent years trying to systematically and empirically study media bias. He has a new book out called Left Turn: How Liberal Media Bias Distorts the American Mind. Here’s what Levitt had to say about it recently:

As the title suggests, it has a definite conservative slant. It is not, however, a right-wing rant by any means. Rather, it is a carefully researched and amusingly written book by a highly regarded academic.

Groseclose’s core argument is that the U.S. media overall has a strong liberal bias, and that this bias strongly influences how Americans vote and how they think about the issues of the day. He reached this conclusion by constructing a “political quotient” (PQ), which is meant to measure political views in a “precise, objective, and quantitative way.” The average American voter, he argues, has a PQ of 50. Liberal Democrats Barney Frank and Nancy Pelosi both have a PQ of approximately 100; conservative Republicans Michele Bachmann and Jim DeMint have a PQ of approximately 0. If we could “magically eliminate liberal media bias,” Groseclose writes, the average American would have a PQ closer to 25, and would be more in line with people like Ben Stein, Dennis Miller and Bill O’Reilly.

Groseclose also concludes that media bias helps Democratic candidates by about 8 to 10 percentage points in a typical election — and that if media bias didn’t exist, John McCain would have defeated Barack Obama in the 2008 election by 56%-42%, rather than losing 53%-46%.

Groseclose has agreed to field questions from Freakonomics readers, so please post them in the comments section below. As always, we’ll post his answers in short course. BTW: we may also make a Freakonomics Radio program on the topic of media bias, so please write some questions that are good enough for me to steal when I interview Groseclose and others.

To prime the pump, here’s the table of contents from Left Turn. Ask away! Which you did. And here are the answers to some of your questions.

Part I: Political Quotients and the Science of Politics
1. What Are PQs and How Do They Reveal Media Bias?
2. Caught in a Trap: Problems in Judging Media Bias
3. But I’ve Been to Oklahoma
4. Ps and Qs of PQs
5. Defining the “Center”

Part II: A Distortion Theory of Media Bias
6. Lies, Damned Lies, and Omitted Statistics: A Case Study in Distortion Theory
7. Hidden Under a Bushel
8. An “Alien” Conservative Injected into a Liberal Newsroom and the Topics She Might Cover

Part III: Evidence of Liberal Media Bias
9. Political Views in the Newsroom: Viva Homogeneity
10. The Second-Order Problem of an Unbalanced Newsroom
11. The Anti-Newsroom: Washington County, Utah
12. Walk a Mile in the Shoes of a Centrist
13. “Wise Men from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Say…”
14. The Language of Journalists and the Special Case of Partial-Birth Abortion
15. The Language of Journalists and Gentzkow-Shapiro Measure of Media Bias
16. Facts About the Bush Tax Cuts: Another Way to Measure Media Bias Objectively and Quantitatively
17. The Media Mu

Part IV: Effects of Media Bias
18. Measuring the Influence of the Media I: Many Methods False and Spent, and One That’s Not
19. Measuring the Influence of the Media II: Two More Groundbreaking Experiments
20. The Media Lambda
21. Rendezvous with Clarity
22. Walk a Mile in the Shoes of a Centrist… Whose Mind Has Not Been Distorted by Media Bias
Epilogue: Small Steps Toward a Better Media



Without giving away the whole book, how about a short explanation of how a PQ is computed?

Mike B

There is no point is engaging a propagandist in any sort of reasoned discourse. Questions will be instantly deflected to their talking points and anyone who disagrees will be singled out for hostile or uninformed.

Of course his point about the average American being more conservative if all media resembled Fox News is almost a tautology. A population will tend to reflect the ideas of media they are exposed to. Look how much the North Koreans continue to love Kim Jong Il.

Jeremiah Stanghini

While I'm not familiar with the years that Groseclose used to conduct his study, I think it would be important to have just as many years where Republicans were in power as those where Democrats were in power. Meaning, if he used 2000-2008 in his study, it would be important to use 1992-2000, as well, as the media slant in the different decades may be different. Beyond that, and this may be a bit too difficult, it would be interesting to see the particular slants when Congress is Republican-controlled vs. Democrat-controlled (and even if the President is R/D). I wonder if we would see differences in the media bias in the different iterations.

It'd also be interesting to see how Groseclose explains a book like The Spirit Level, which, to my recollection purports that as countries strive for equality on all levels, the health and well-being of the country increases. [I am aware of the counter-arguments in The Spirit Delusion.] The research from The Spirit Level, if I may extrapolate, may suggest that the planet, on the whole, is moving towards a more socialistic ideology. As such, wouldn't it be fair to assume that the range of the media bias would also move slightly to a more socialistic (and liberal) viewpoint?

With Love and Gratitude,




Why does liberal media bias exist in the first place? What would you suggest as a way that a) journalists could be more aware of their own bias and limit it in their reporting, or b) the profession of journalism could attract a more unbiased (or merely more representative) cohort?


Is it true that certain media organizations assigned interns to monitor certain political figures and watch for gaffs and missteps? Was this practice limited to a particular party?

Carl Natale

I'm a recovering journalist so I'm not a believer in the left-wing media conspiracy. But the 2008 presidential election made me wonder.

During the GOP primaries, Sen. John McCain was constantly asked to defend his conservative credentials. There was even a GOP debate that seemed dedicated to finding out who was the most conservative. ("If Ronald Reagan were alive today, would he think you were conservative enough?")

At one point in the campaign, McCain had to declare himself more conservative than George W. Bush. Since not yet President Obama ran against Bush, it was a gift from heaven.

I know McCain had more problems than that. But I feel like the Republicans were set up. How crazy is that?


it seems to me that most of that pressure came from the conservative side of the spectrum.


How can you seriously argue that without the "liberal media", the average American would closely resemble the conservative media giants? Wouldn't your argument basically boil down to that if the "liberal media" went away, then people would form their opinions based entirely on the "conservative media"?

Furthermore, how do you account for the filter bubble effect -- that liberals and conservatives alike listen to media that doesn't challenge their views?


I think this is a good question, but I think that the answer would that the manipulation in the study is to look at relative levels of all media engagement. If you take away all media and people tend to be more conservative, then that would be evidence for there being more liberal media than conservative media.

Caleb b

Without reading the book, it would seem to me that self-selection would push people with a high interest in social issues into the media workforce. Just like all, and I do mean all, the staff at my local Big Brothers/Big Sisters office are self identified democrats.

Self-selection isn't bad for society, in fact, it's part of being rational maximizers.

My question is this: is self-selection at work in media companies (both the liberal and conservative medias)? And, where other occupations have strong political self-selection? Are bankers more likely to be conservative? Are artists and actors more likely to be liberal?

Also, what about a person whose occupation conflicts with their political party? Like a republican abortion doctor, or a democrat prison executioner.


The "Media" - a large group of well-educated and highly-informed people. Well-educated and highly-informed people are liberal? Shocker.


do you know who owns and funds the mass media outlets?- are these owners/funders liberally biased?- if not, how do you explain the contradiction that corporations control the mass media yet produce a bias against their own interests?


Liberal...or socially liberal?

Socially I think it's pretty clear that the media leans that way, and I'm not sure too many people, even liberals themselves, would disagree too strongly about that.

But fiscally, I'm not convinced. The companies that control the media are some of the largest companies in the entire world. They would have no incentive to promote fiscially liberal policies. And corporation, like people, presumably respond to incentives (which if you're on this website, you already know).


I must admit, I haven't heard more than the barest outline of Mr. Groseclose's thesis, but I am intrigued. My question is the following:

"Do you believe that there are institutions within the country which provide a conservative bias? What are they and how does their impact compare with the media in your analysis?"


How in the world of shareholder owned media companies could a liberal newsroom exist ?

- Unless that was what the market demanded. Surely these companies would pander to either their shareholders (by slanting news for increased market share) or to the public (by slanting news for increased market share) or perhaps by marketing news to a specific - presumably profitable niche (Christian, gay, liberal, conservative, spanish-speaking etc). Indeed, Fox news clearly shows that there is only a finite market for news with a specific (conservative) bias - and you can make the same arguement about mother jones and the liberal media.


Isn't the idea of unbiased news an oxymoron? In American history, I understood that news sources had a proclaimed bias that was as obvious as their name (e.g. The Arizona Republic or The Tallahassee Democrat). Do you know when the general media outlets began to proclaim "non bias", and has a true unbiased news source ever really existed?


Give me a break.

Brennan Young

1) Any "highly regarded academic" would take care to bring in related works on this topic. How do you relate your research and findings to "Manufacturing Consent" by Herman and Chomsky, and "Flat Earth News" by Nick Davies? Both of these works are thoroughly researched, rather definitive studies of the influence of PR on, and the mechanisms of propaganda in the free press. They illustrate that the more common scenario is conservative - or more correctly - 'corporatist' bias.

2) Given that the politics of the USA is significantly more conservative than most other developed nations, how applicable are your findings to an analysis of the mass media in other countries?

3) Aren't there other - perhaps more important - ideological axes than liberal/conservative? (e.g. statist vs. grassroots)


I'm surprised at the statement that the typical american PQ is 25. How does PQ vary by age and education? If more education is correlated with higher PQ, does that explain media bias since most journalists are required to have a college education?

How do the various outlets stack up via PQ? NPR, MSNBC, Fox, etc.


Right.... Like Fox isn't the most viewed network on TV. They love posted that statistic. If it is in fact true (many polls, facts, comments, etc. are actually false), then the media would certainly be skewed to the right, not the left. It's all relative to what channels/outlet people watch or read. Obama still wins in 2008, even though it turns our he's doing good work for the Republicans as we speak.

I'm an independent, and when you have to claim the media has Liberal bias (or Conservative), then more often than not, you are defending something that you know to be false.