April 21, 2002
Nunberg's Bias Problem

Weighing in on the Geoffrey Nunberg bias debate...

I am not responding to his original article, but rather to his response to criticism of the original piece.

Concerned Women of America is a self-identified conservative Christian group (it opposes, among other things, abortion, homosexual adoption, hate-crime legislation, the AmeriCorps volunteer program, and the teaching of "ill-conceived Darwinian theory" in the schools). Whereas NOW makes a point of rejecting explicitly partisan labels — the appropriate description of the group is "feminist." To insist on labeling it as liberal would be to assume that to be pro-choice makes you by definition a liberal, by which criterion Goldberg ought to be equally indignant that the press doesn't use the "liberal" label for Christine Todd Whitman or Tom Ridge.

Let me get this straight—because NOW rejects partisan labels, they are non-partisan? That appears to be the argument Nunburg is making. NOW *is* liberal, in addition to being feminist. Nunberg is attempting to explain away NOW's liberal agenda by implying the only reason it has been tagged thusly is support of abortion. Their disdain for the GOP can be seen in this document from their website, entitled "GOP Pushes to Advance Conservative Agenda". If opposition to every one of those issues makes a group "conservative", wouldn't support of all of those items make a group "liberal"?

Bozell claims that I ignored studies by the Media Research Center that show discrepancies in the labeling of what he takes to be conservative and liberal groups. For example, he says, newspaper stories on the Competitive Enterprise Institute included a conservative label 28 percent of the time, compared to less than one percent for the Sierra Club, and that Concerned Women for America is labeled far more often than Planned Parenthood.
But those comparisons are as transparently loaded as Goldberg's are. After all, the Sierra Club membership came close to adopting a resolution favoring immigration restriction a few years ago, and Planned Parenthood proudly points out that Peggy Goldwater was the founder of its Arizona chapter. To insist that the press describe these groups as liberal amounts to demanding that it adopt the lexicon of the right on a wholesale basis, like a baseball manager demanding that the team's own fans should determine the strike zone. Everyone knows it's ludicrous, but the bleachers eat it up anyway.

Gee, the Sierra Club "almost" supported something not entirely liberal (in other words, they rejected it), therefore they cannot possibly be liberal. Nunburg is attempting to tie a liberal group to a position that is not liberal, thereby absolving the group of any bias. By his reasoning, Senator Russ Feingold is not liberal because he voted to confirm John Ashcroft as Attorney General. (I think Feingold would be either irritated or amused by any attempt to identify him as anything other than solidly, proudly liberal.) Likewise, Barry Goldwater was not conservative because of his support for gay rights. Black is white? Up is down? Apply a little common sense here.

It's notable that Bozell doesn't mention any figures for well-known groups like the Americans for Democratic Action or the Center for Justice, who fairly deserve the liberal label. As it happens, I did counts for a number of political organizations like these, and if I wanted to play Bozell's game I could point out that ADA and the Center for Justice are labeled far more often than conservative groups like the Cato Institute, the National Association of Scholars, or the Center for the Study of Popular Culture. But that would be intellectually dishonest — the fact is that there's a lot of unaccountable variation in the frequency of labeling of groups, with some groups on both sides, like the Heritage Foundation and ADA, being labeled far more than others.

Well, the Cato Institute isn't really conservative, it is libertarian. Its views on the drug war, on civil liberties, and on defense issues are decidedly UNconservative. As to the rest, I cannot ever recall seeing a citation for the Center for the Study of Popular Culture in the media where they did not identify either the group or its founder, David Horowitz, with some type of label (sorry, Mr. Nunburg, labeling Horowitz as right-wing counts as a citation for the center, in this case, since they are so closely identified). I'd also like to know the number of citations received by the more obscure groups; smaller numbers tend to produce more unbalanced results, because of the greater weight assumed by each article.

One other point worth mentioning is that Boyd did another search that included not just the labels "conservative" and "liberal," but also the labels "right wing" and "left wing," which increased the disparity in the labeling of conservatives to around 30 percent. Conservative media critics have often claimed that the press uses "right wing" a good deal more often than "left wing," and in this they're absolutely right. In my own data, for example, I found that Jesse Helms was described as "right wing" about thirty times as often as Paul Wellstone was described as "left wing." But if you are going to look at "left wing," you're obliged to look at the other labels the press uses for liberal politicians, as well — terms like "progressive," "on the left, " "leftist," and so on. In my own data, it turned out that these labels were applied to Wellstone slightly more frequently than the analogous labels with "right" were applied to Helms. And when I did some searches in the same database that Boyd used, I found that the inclusion of terms like "progressive," "leftist," and "on the left" would have increased Wellstone's rate of labeling by about fifty percent, and doubled Barney Frank's. In for a penny, in for a pound.

It is true that the press will often use "kindler, gentler" terms such as "progressive" and "on the left" to describe liberal individuals. It is also true that terms such as "arch-conservative", "reactionary", and "from the Taliban wing of the Republican Party" are applied to Helms, and those three terms are much more incendiary than the relatively innocuous (some might say complimentary) "progressive". In addition, Nunberg points out that Helms received 30 times as many "right-wing" hits compared to Wellstone's "left-wing", and then tells us that "progressive" and the like increase Wellstone's labeling by about 50%. That still means that Helms was labeled far more often than Wellstone, not even taking into account the number of analogous labels Helms would receive in a comparable additional search.

Another point is that Nunburg (and consequently Boyd) looked at specific people. Much of the labeling to which conservatives object is directed at the party itself, not at specific members. While nobody would doubt that Helms and Delay are conservative, they share little in common with fellow Republicans Nancy Johnson, Sherwood Boehlert, and Connie Morella. Nonetheless, they are depicted as the definition of the GOP. Why aren't Maxine Waters and Ted Kennedy presented as exemplars of the Democrats?

That's fair enough, but in this connection I was struck by the fact that none of the critics took on the single most extraordinary result in the data I looked at — this one involving, not labeling, but the way the press talks about the bias story itself. In the newspapers I looked at, the word "media" appears within seven words of "liberal bias" 469 times and within seven words of "conservative bias" just 17 times — a twenty-seven-fold discrepancy. (As it happens, the disproportion is about the same in the database that Boyd looked at — 72 to 3).

Now there's a difference that truly deserves to be called staggering. But how should we explain it? Certainly critics on the Left haven't been silent about what they take to be conservative bias in the media, whether in the pages of political reviews or in dozens of recent books. But the press has given their charges virtually no attention, while giving huge play to complaints from the right about liberal bias. That's hardly what you'd expect from a press that really did have a decided liberal bias, and in fact the discrepancy is far greater than anything you could explain by supposing that reporters were merely bending over backwards to be fair — in that case, after all, you'd expect them to give at least a polite nod to the other side, as well.

Here is another interesting point that Nunburg did not fully pursue. How many times was "liberal bias" prefaced by "alleged" or "so-called" or the like? I'd like to see a breakdown on THAT statistic.

Actually, there are only a few groups that constantly complain about conservative bias—one of them is Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting (FAIR). FAIR is not, however, a liberal counterpart to the Media Research Center—they are more of a Chomsky/Naderite anti-corporate attack dog. According to them, the media cannot have a liberal bias because they are all owned by large corporations. This, of course, is ludicrous (look at the money Big Entertainment/Hollywood dumps on the Democratic Party every election cycle), but its obviousness has been why it doesn't receive more play in the media, not some big conspiracy.

For yet another look at media bias, here is an exhaustive study of labeling in the New York Times. The guy who put the piece together was very careful to include only news items, not commentary, so the results are all the more striking. His argument further buttresses the accusations of bias at the Times.

UPDATE-22April2002/9:50pm PDT—Richard Bennett and Megan McArdle both have a lot to say about this issue, and they handle it far better than I. See what they have to say about this. I also need to correct my oversight by posting Edward Boyd's original post on the subject. He has several more comments posted on this subject; scroll up to read them.

posted on April 21, 2002 03:28 PM


Dude... how do I link to this post?! I can't do the "copy shortcut" thing, and you don't have a permalink thing to click... you have to understand, I'm sooo not techie. Help?

posted by susanna on April 22, 2002 12:11 PM

Right-click on the three colons before the "posted by...", and select "copy shortcut". Paste that into your message, and voila! Instant link.

I don't understand why you can't do the "copy shortcut" thing. Is this a Mac issue? I don't know how to work the one-button mouse on a Mac...

posted by scutum on April 22, 2002 02:42 PM

I think "user error" fully expresses what happened there. I pointed to the wrong thing.


Some days I just shouldn't be allowed out in the real world.

posted by susanna on April 22, 2002 04:03 PM

Great stuff... glad I found your blog.

posted by TVH on April 22, 2002 04:15 PM

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