A feature of our method is that it does not require us to make a subjective assessment of how liberal or conservative a think tank is. That is, for instance, we do we need to read policy reports of the think tank or analyze its position on various issues to determine its ideology. Instead, we simply observe the ADA scores of the members of Congress who cite the think tank. This feature is important, since an active controversy exists whether, e.g., the Brookings Institution or the RAND Corporation is moderate, left-wing, or right-wing.
Previous Studies of Media Bias
One of the most curious and surprising statistics in all of American politics is that an overwhelming number of journalists are liberal. For instance, Elaine Povich (1996) reports that only seven percent of all Washington correspondents voted for George Bush in 1992, compared to 37 percent of the American public.1 Lichter, Rothman and Lichter, (1986) and Weaver and Wilhoit (1996) report similar findings for earlier elections.
The reason this statistic is curious and surprising is that many consider the media the watchdog of government, sometimes calling it the Fourth Branch of American Government. If so, it is by far the least representative of the branches. These statistics suggest that journalists, as a group, are more liberal than almost any congressional district in the country. For instance, in the Ninth California district, which includes Berkeley, twelve percent voted for Bush, nearly double the rate of journalists. In the Eighth Massachusetts district, which includes Cambridge, nineteen percent voted for Bush, more than triple the rate of journalists. In the 14th California district, which includes Palo Alto, 26 percent voted for Bush, more than four times the rate of journalists.
It is interesting to compare the unrepresentative nature of the media to the purported unrepresentative nature of the U.S. Senate. Some have noted that the U.S. Senate is unrepresentative of voters because small states are overrepresented. Further, since small states in the U.S. tend to be more conservative than large states, this causes a conservative bias in the Senate. However, even if the entire U.S. Senate were chosen only by voters from Mississippi, the most conservative state in the union in 1992 (50 percent voted for Bush), such an electorate would still be significantly more representative than the Fourth Branch of Government.2
Of course, however, just because a journalist has liberal or conservative views, this does not mean that his or her reporting will be slanted. For instance, as Kathleen Hall Jamieson (2000, 188) notes,
One might hypothesize instead that reporters respond to the cues of those who pay their salaries and mask their own ideological dispositions. Another explanation would hold that norms of journalism, including `objectivity and `balance blunt whatever biases exist.
Or, as Timothy Crouse explains:
It is an unwritten law of current political journalism that conservative Republican Presidential candidates usually receive gentler treatment from the press than do liberal Democrats. Since most reporters are moderate or liberal Democrats themselves, they try to offset their natural biases by going out of their way to be fair to conservatives. No candidate ever had a more considerate press corps than Barry Goldwater in 1964, and four years later the campaign press gave every possible break to Richard Nixon. Reporters sense a social barrier between themselves and most conservative candidates; their relations are formal and meticulously polite. But reporters tend to loosen up around liberal candidates and campaign staffs; since they share the same ideology, they can joke with the staffers, even needle them, without being branded the enemy. If a reporter has been trained in the traditional, objective school of journalism, this ideological and social closeness to the candidate and the staff makes him feel guilty; he begins to compensate; the more he likes and agrees with the candidate personally, the harder he judges him professionally. Like a coach sizing up his own son in spring tryouts, the reporter becomes doubly severe. (1973, 355-6)
However, a strong form of the view that reporters offset or blunt their own ideological biases leads to a counterfactual implication. Suppose it is true that all reporters report objectively and their ideological views do not color their reporting. If so, then all news would have the same slant. Yet, few would disagree that Fox News or the Washington Times has a more conservative slant the New York Times.
A large number of economic studies give theoretical reasons that bolster the view that the media does not have a systematic bias. (See xx, xx, xx and xx). The idea is that if there were a systematic bias, then an entrepreneur could form a new media outlet that does not have a bias. This outlet would drive the others out of business. This is a compelling argument, and even the libertarian Cato Journal has published an article agreeing with the view: In this article, the author, Daniel Sutter (2001), concludes that, although it might be possible for a systematic bias to exist in the network news (since, before cable television, there were strong barriers to entry in this industry), such a bias is impossible, or at least very unlikely, for the newspaper, radio, or magazine industry.
However, contrary to the views and evidence cited above, we find a significant liberal bias in our sample of media outlets. This presents a challenge to economic theorists. Given that there is a systematic liberal bias the news market, at least one of the assumptions in the above theoretical studies must be inaccurate.
The web site, www.wheretodoresearch.com
lists 200 of the most prominent think tanks in the U.S. Using the official web site of Congress, http://thomas.loc.gov
, we and our research assistants searched the Congressional Record for instances where a member of Congress cited one of these think tanks. We looked for instances where the legislator cited a view or a fact stated by a member of the think tank. We then counted the sentences in the citation. We also recorded the average adjusted ADA score of the member who cited the think tank.3
Along with direct quotes, we sometimes included sentences that were not direct quotes. For instance, many of the citations were cases where a member of Congress noted This bill is supported by think tank X. Also, members of Congress sometimes insert printed material into the Record, such as a letter, a newspaper article, or a report. If a think tank was cited in such material or if a think tank member wrote the material, we counted it just as if the member of Congress had read the material in his or her speech.
We did the same exercise for stories that media outlets report, except with media outlets we did not record an ADA score. Instead, our method estimates such a score.
Sometimes a legislator or a media outlet noted an action that a think tank had taken e.g. that it raised a certain amount of money, initiated a boycott, filed a lawsuit, elected new officers, or held its annual convention. We did not record such cases in our data set. However, sometimes in the process of describing such actions, the reporter or member of Congress would quote a member of the think tank, and the quote revealed the think tanks views on national policy, or the quote stated a fact that is relevant to national policy. If so, we would record that quote in our data set. For instance, suppose a reporter noted The NAACP has asked its members to boycott businesses in the state of South Carolina. `We are initiating this boycott, because we believe that it is racist to fly the Confederate Flag on the state capitol, a leader of the group noted. In this instance, we would count the second sentence that the reporter wrote, but not the first.
Also, we omitted the instances where the member of Congress or journalist only cited the think tank so he or she could criticize it or explain why it was wrong. About five percent of the congressional citations and about one percent of the media citations fell into this category.
In the same spirit, we omitted cases where a journalist or legislator gave an ideological label to a think tank (e.g. Even the left-wing Urban Institute favors this bill.). The idea is that we only wanted cases were the legislator or journalist cited the think tank as if it were a disinterested expert on the topic at hand. About two percent of the congressional citations and about five percent of the media citations fell into this category.4
For the congressional data, we coded all citations that occurred during the period Jan. 1, 1993 to December 31, 2002. This covered the 103rd thru 107th Congresses. We calculated the average adjusted ADA score for each member of Congress over the period 1993 to 1999.5
As noted earlier, the media data does not include editorials, letters to the editor, or book reviews. That is, all of our results express the bias of news reporting of media outlets and not, e.g., the editorial pages of newspapers and magazines.
In Table 1 we list the 20 think tanks that are most commonly cited in Congress. The third column of the table lists the average adjusted ADA score of the members who cited the think tank, where this average is weighted by the number of sentences that the legislator cited. The fourth column lists the average score weighted by citations. It is an open question whether the proper level of observation is a sentence or a citation. That is, for instance, if a journalist cites five sentences from the Economic Policy Institute in one story, it is unclear whether this demonstrates the same liberal bias as citing one sentence from the Economic Policy Institute in five separate stories. As a consequence, we report all of our analyses for both levels of observation, sentences and citations.
As a comparison, in Table 2 we list the mean and median adjusted ADA scores of members of Congress for the period that we analyze. The average scores for the House and Senate were respectively 44.5 and 40.0. We calculated these by taking the average adjusted score for each year. Then, for the seven-year period for which we recorded adjusted scores (1993-1999), we calculated the average over these years. We did the same calculation for the median of the House and Senate. These were respectively 39.0 and 36.9.
Table 3 lists the average adjusted ADA score of some well-known moderate members of Congress. It includes the scores of the most conservative Democrat in our sample, Nathan Deal (Ga.), and the most liberal Republican in our sample, Constance Morella (Md.). Although Nathan Deal became a Republican in 1995, the score that we list in the table is calculated only from his years as a Democrat.6
The tables shed some light on some much debated topics about the ideological position of various think tanks. First, the table reveals that the position of the Brookings Institution clearly leans left. When we use sentences as our level of observation, the average score of legislators citing Brookings is 50.0, and when we use citations, the average score is 46.2. In contrast, the average score of the House, 44.5, and the average score of the Senate, 40.0, are both more right wing than the average legislator citing Brookings.7
Second, contrary to conventional wisdom, the RAND Corporation is fairly liberal. The adjusted ADA score of the average legislator citing it is 53.6, using sentences as the level of observation, and 52.6, using citations as the level of observation. This is significantly to the left of the center of Congress, although not as far left as, say, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the Children's Defense Fund, or the Economic Policy Institute. We mentioned this finding to some members of RAND, who told us they were not surprised. While RAND strives to be middle-of-the-road ideologically, the more conservative scholars at RAND tend to work on military studies, while the more liberal scholars tend to work on domestic studies. Because the military studies are sometimes classified and often more mundane than the domestic studies, the media and members of Congress tend to cite the domestic studies disproportionately. As a consequence, RAND appears liberal when judged by these citations. It is important to note that this fact that the scholars at RAND are more conservative than the numbers in Table 1 suggest will not cause a bias to our results. To see this, think of RAND as two think tanks: RAND I, the left-leaning think tank which produces the research that the media and members of Congress like to cite, and RAND II, the conservative think tank which produces the research that they do not like to cite. Our results exclude RAND II from the analysis. This causes no more bias than excluding any other think tank that is rarely cited in Congress or the media.
Perhaps the biggest surprise of Table 1 is the average score for the ACLU. Weighted by citations, the average score, is 42.66, which is near the center of congressional scores. Weighted by sentences, the average score is 34.99, which is to the right of the average member of Congress. The primary reason that the ACLU appears so conservative is that it opposed the McCain-Feingold Campaign Finance bill. Consequently, conservatives tended to cite this fact often. Indeed, slightly more than half of the ACLU sentences cited in Congress were due to one person, Mitch McConnell (R.-Kt.), who strongly opposed the McCain-Feingold bill. If we omit ACLU citations that are due to McConnell, then the average score, weighted by sentences, increases to 70.12. Because of this anomaly, in the Appendix we report the results when repeat all of our analyses but omit the ACLU data. This causes the average score of the media outlets to become approximately one % point more liberal.