Media bias and the polls

Obama concedes that media bias matters, in a backwards sort of way:

“I am convinced that if there were no Fox News, I might be two or three points higher in the polls,” Obama told me. “If I were watching Fox News, I wouldn’t vote for me, right? Because the way I’m portrayed 24/7 is as a freak! I am the latte-sipping, New York Times-reading, Volvo-driving, no-gun-owning, effete, politically correct, arrogant liberal. Who wants somebody like that?”

He could be right. If there were no Fox News, every major media outlet would be in the tank for Obama. That could well be worth 2-3 points. Of course, for Obama to complain about media bias is a little like Richard Daley (the elder) complaining about election fraud.

But just for fun, let’s take Obama’s estimate at face value and do a back-of-the-envelope calculation. (Don’t take any of this too seriously!)

The Groseclose-Milyo media-bias study scored Fox News at 39.7, where higher is more liberal and the center (i.e., the average voter) is 50.06. Thus, each point of Fox News bias results in a quarter of a point in the polls (by Obama’s estimate).

So, let’s compute how much it benefits Obama to be favored by nearly every other media outlet. To do the calculation, we need to have estimates of the relative influence of the various outlets. Since this is just a back-of-the-envelope calculation, let me make some very conservative assumptions (er, conservative in the sense of cautious; that is, assumptions unfavorable to my case) that also turn out to make the calculation easy.

First, let’s suppose that every outlet in the Groseclose-Milyo study other than Fox News has equal influence. This is a cautious assumption, since most would agree that the farthest left outlets (e.g., New York Times, CBS, Washington Post) are some of the most influential. The composite score of all non-Fox outlets is then simply the average, 63.9.

Second, let’s suppose that Fox News has one-quarter the influence of every other news outlet combined. (That is, assume that Fox News itself has about 20% of the influence of the entire mainstream media. In my dreams!) That means that each point of non-Fox bias is worth four times each point of Fox bias, which works out to about one point in the polls. Thus, 13.8 points of non-Fox bias translates to about 14 points in the polls.

That is pretty close to the 15-point estimate that Newsweek’s Evan Thomas gave for how much media bias was helping Kerry in 2004. If Obama is right that Fox News is costing him 2.5 points (a big if!), and if there exists a linear relationship between media bias and poll results, and if media bias hasn’t lessened since the study was conducted (unlikely!), then Thomas’s 15 points has to be an underestimate, given our cautious assumptions.

The latest RCP poll average has Obama up by 6.3 points.

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