Hand Waving on Bias

When I was in grad school, my lab and an 'allied' lab would have joint meetings every two weeks or so to go over what had been going on in the interim between the two, with rotating presentations by the grad students & post-docs on their research. If it had not been a particularly good time in the lab between your last presentation and your current one, one would be tempted to 'stretch out' the presentation by exploring many different hypotheses on your data or engaging in a meta discussion on your work. One of the professors in the joint lab meeting coined such bloviation as "hand waving." Not exactly bullshit, but also nothing much of substance, either, being that its an exercise in distracting your audience from the fact that you... have few facts that would allow you to say something definitive. That is, an excess of verbiage and speculation in the service of killing time & dressing up a gaunt position. Not that I ever had to stretch out lean data... :eek:

Surprisingly enough (or perhaps unsurprisingly), a great deal of the weekly seminar speakers we had in the Genetics dept. were masters at hand waving, so much so that at the end of the session (if I had not lost my perpetual battle with sleep during seminars) I ended up knowing either the same or less than when it began.[1]

Bringing the anecdote home, with the latest CBS 'scandal'[2] bringing light again to the usual charges of "liberal media bias," John Holbo has decided to weigh in on the topic over at Crooked Timber. And I mean 'weigh in' more literally than usual, as John seems to be filling in (for the left) the hole Stephen Den Beste left in his indefinite hiatus from blogging; not content to use 1000 words where 4700 will do, John waves his hands frantically on the topic of media bias, throwing up definitions, analogies to John Rawls, extended psychological analyses of what righties mean by 'liberal media bias', more definitions & discussions of the definitions, etc. The end result, though, is that after all that I'm left scratching my head at precisely what it all means, aside from the obvious implication of "there ain't no such thing as liberal media bias, son."

I suppose it could be:[3]

1. Media bias must be defined to be asserted.
2. Righties haven't defined it.
3. Thus, no media bias. QED.


1. The media's reporting is leftish.
2. Leftism[4] is the truth[5].
3. Telling the truth isn't bias.
4. Thus the media are not biased. QED.

or perhaps even

1. Media folk are lefties.
2. Media critics are righties.
3. Media, subject to the market, serves right and left.
4. Thus media will play it straight to stay in business. (oh, and No Bias, QED.)

Afterwards, John settles down to what I believe is the actual point:

I guess I’m just sayin that, between the rock of not really having a good ecological theory of the media as a whole, and the hard place of not having really worked out exactly what sort of bias is bothering them, I suspect certain bloggy media critics could slow down before trying to leverage Dan Rather’s pain into a world-historical moment.

Oh, ok.

However, another explanation for perceptions of lefty bias in the media that alternatively goes straight to the thesis is offered by Russell Roberts:

If you call someone in the media, you might think them rude. They're not. They're just coping with a thousand calls a day and a thousand emails and you're one of them. They have a very short attention span. It has to be that way. They are under constant bombardment from people trying to get their attention.

Newspapers and news programs are filters for this torrent of information. Yes, there is investigative reporting. But much or most of what the media reports comes to them. Virtually every scientific study, every health study, every economics study that you read about in the paper is the result of a press release that someone from the university, think tank or institute wrote and sent to a media outlet. The good reporters try and parse those press releases for bias and exaggeration. They are likely to be both biased and exaggerated becuase the writer of the press release knows that the press release is one of a hundred or a thousand arriving that day. You have to stand out.

A while back I wrote about the CBO study that examined the burden of recent tax cuts. Every newspaper covered that story. Every wire service. All on the same day. How did that happen? Did the economics reporters at those places just happen to notice that the CBO had released the study? No, the Democratic Joint Economic Committee sent out a press release. As I wrote when the study came out, the media didn't quite get the findings of the study right. I suspect this happens all the time. It has nothing to do with bias. It's the way the business works. Too much information and too little time to deal with it carefully.

Combine the fact that the "mainstream media" (the MSM, an unfortunate new acronyn) are filters and gatekeepers of information flowing to them rather than primary generators of news/analysis with uncontroversial reports that MSM members are strongly Democrat in affiliation, then it seems to follow that given the information overload, the initial (and perhaps undetected, subconscious) biases of the filters will tend to notice and emphasize stories amenable to a lefty/Democrat worldview, and sometimes that bias will out due to the amount of info and the time constraints. No conspiracy, or even conscious bias, needed.

I agree with Holbo's sentiments regarding lame calls by conservatives/righties for, in essence, affirmative action on viewpoints. The answer, as always, is more speech. Speech-facilitating technology will bring us ever more asymptotically towards the truth and serve as a corrective for whatever biases seep through the cracks (the hyper-partisan flap over the hoax memos led to lightning-fast error correction on both sides- in this case, high bias on both sides ultimately drove people to the truth). With the addition of Fox News on cable and Air America on radio, it would seem that the market is already correcting perceptions of bias through proliferation of views.


fn1. Given that I couldn't stay awake in seminars and generated little data in the lab, its really no surprise that I was ultimately unsuited for academic laboratory research...

fn2. Assuming CBS has pristine hands in all of this, its at least extraordinarily embarrasing for them. They're either phenomenally incompetent dupes or witless accomplices of a poor hoax.

fn3. I use "media" here to mean "the mainstream broadcast network news, major daily newspapers, and major news magazines, collectively."

fn4. While it is possible for democratic egalitarians to be considered liberal (depending on their prescriptions), the sense of 'liberal' in US parlance is usually anything but (democratic socialist in practice & rhetoric). 'Leftism' as a catchall for both illiberal democratic socialists and welfare liberals is more in keeping with what the critics of "liberal media bias" mean by liberal, and so I use the term accordingly.

fn5. Quoth Holbo:

If it turns out that 89% of journalists are Democrats (I think I saw that figure, which was not accompanied by any statistic about how many CEO’s of media corporations are Republicans) - if most journalists are Democrats, why should this be regarded as proof of Democratic bias, rather than proof that truth itself is biased against Republicans, since the market rejects them?

Emphasis added.

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I think there is an

I think there is an important difference between why the media is biased towards fear-mongering and exaggeration, and why they are biased towards the left. The former is because they have limited time and that is what strikes their attention, and because they are competing with each other for viewers. It has nothing to do with the specific biases they have, but only the general bias towards exciting news that we all have.

But given that there are just as many audience members on the right as on the left, the left bias seems specific. I agree that its not conscious, nor is it a conspiracy. But if MSM was not predominantly left-wing, the bias would be different.

The interesting question then becomes: Why is the MSM left-wing, and can that be changed? It may be that the professions of journalism appeal to the same personality types who are attracted to leftist beliefs. For example, an interest in learning about and helping people may be connected on both sides.

One nice thing about the blogosphere is that we can choose to get our news from less biased sources, as long as a few exist.

I agree that the composition

I agree that the composition of the MSM in terms of partisan affiliation is non-random. Not being a sociologist, I don't have much speculation to bear, but I imagine that ala Academe, would-be journalists are drawn to the profession (or is it craft?) because they are focused more on getting attention for their smarts (and the social power that may accrue forthwith) vs. getting cash money on the market (to spend on bling, or investments, etc). Professors, at least of the kind I knew in grad school, are there in some part because they don't like the real world, and also because unlike in business, a clever idea can win on its own, regardless of how practical (or popular) it is. You cogitate, and you get sums. Not that there isn't an audience to please in academia, but its a different lifestyle than someone who goes in to being either a corporate cog, entrepreneur, or high-powered/paid professional.

To speculate further would require, I think, defining social/personal characteristics of 'right' and 'left'.

Before the rise of Foxnews,

Before the rise of Foxnews, every claim that I had ever seen (by no means an exhaustive study) that the MSM was right-biased went like this:

1. Media outlets are owned by capitalists.
2. Capitalists are right-wingers.
3. Thus, the media has to be right-biased. QED.

The sleight of hand here is to exploit the dual meaning of "capitalist"; the easy refutation is (or used to be) Ted Turner (except to the hard core Marxist, who believes that Ted's brand of leftism is really petty bourgeois pseudo-opposition to The Machine that made him rich).

A slightly more sophisticated approach, lately, has been:

1. So-and-so (insert your favorite target, like O'Reilly, here)is not concentrating every broadcast on problems with the Bush Administration or Republican Congress, or at the very least, he isn't balancing reports about them with in-depth criticism of them.
2. Anything that fails to show Republicans in a negative light is biased toward them*.
3. Thus, the media has to be right-biased. QED.

Note the "subtlety" in that last bit: starting with a critique of one show/network/column, it jumps to an indictment of all media. At best, that drastically overestimates the impact of that one source (it is frequently submitted in the context of a warning about "media consolidation"), and is especially surprising given the vast number of information sources available today. At worst, it is dishonest. See the FAIR website for lots of examples. See Sean Hannity during the Clinton Administration for examples of this argument from the other side.

Does anyone besides me think that it's funny that one story can both spark complaints about media consolidation and complaints about the lack of a filter, editor, or responsible party? The consolidation complaint usually comes from the left, but the lack of a filter complaint can come from either side. Whenever Drudge breaks a story, we hear the latter no matter who is harmed, but if it grows legs and gets picked up by CNN or Fox and if it is harmful to the left, we also get to hear the former. How do they do it with a straight face?

In regards to Patri's conjecture, I think there is a certain amount of "Let's go change the world" rah-rahism that goes on in journalism schools. People without the etatist bias might think that becoming a doctor, engineer, or entrepreneur is a better way to make a difference, while people attracted to journalism either start with this template, or are taught "Who What When and Where" in this form:

What's wrong with the world? Environmental destruction, war, oppression, and poverty
Who's the culprit? Corporations and CEO's.
When do we solve it? During elections.
Where? In the voting booth. (No, really, I have heard people claim this!)

Okay, kids, now go fill in the particulars and change the world! Nevermind that very few of you has ever taken more than an introductory science or econ class, and remember that no problem is so complex that it can't be solved in 400 words or less.

* Anything that fails to show Republicans in a negative light these days is simply amazing! The way they are cynically buying votes, engaging in Keynesian pump-priming while putting of the reckoning for another day, imposing Pax Americana, spending money on social programs like a drunken sailor**, erecting ad hoc mercantilism, social engineering via the tax code ... um, I'm sorry, was I ranting about FDR again?

** Apologies to drunken sailors, who - so far as I'm aware - have never shaken anyone down for $2 trillion and then blown it on campaigns to simultaneously win friends and piss everyone off.

I think the problem is

I think the problem is you're confusing "left-wing" with "liberal." If liberalism is the "left wing" of anything, it's the left wing of a very centrist corporate establishment. The establishment "liberalism" and "conservatism" on con-talk shows like Crossfire is neither mutually exclusive nor mutually exhaustive. On issues like GATT, NAFTA, "intellectual property," foreign policy, etc., the average TNR liberal and the average Weekly Standard conservative agree on at least 80% of the substance. This country is governed by a centrist New Democrat/neocon establishment--and the issues they agree on never even appear on the political radar screen. That's why most political debate involves dumbed-down fluff like gay marriage and abortion. I heard a radio commentator the other day who argued that the latter social issues were emphasized by both sides mainly as a form of branding: "We have to disagree about *something*, so here it is...."

Historically speaking, news

Historically speaking, news outlets (newspapers generally) were tied to one or the other party (this is why so many papers have the terms "Democrat" or "Republican" as parts of their titles); they were party organs in other words, and served many of the same purposes we see being filled out by the candidates themselves. However, with the rise of the Cult of Objectivity, we got away from all that. I often wonder if that was a good idea. Just imagine say, the MSNBC-Democrat or the Fox News Republican. :)