Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Newspaper Ideological Bias or "Statist Quo"? the Acid (Rain) Test

Academic journal article The American Journal of Economics and Sociology

Newspaper Ideological Bias or "Statist Quo"? the Acid (Rain) Test

Article excerpt



FOR 30 YEARS, debate has swirled around the alleged "liberal bias" of U.S. journalists, and especially journalists who write for publications such as Time, Newsweek, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. Sutter (2001) has written that a veritable "cottage industry" has sprung up as a number of authors, including Efron (1971), Lichter, Rothman, and Lichter (1986), and Goldberg (2003), have written books alleging and documenting what they say are incidents of "liberal bias" in news organizations.

Lichter, Rothman, and Lichter (1986) interviewed and surveyed a large number of journalists in print and broadcast media, and their study concludes that the journalists tended to have economic, political, and social views much more "liberal" or left of center than the beliefs of average Americans. The authors conclude that those views determine the slant of their news accounts.

The problem with such conclusions, says Sutter, is that a personal outlook of a journalist does not necessarily translate into biased news coverage. He writes, "Unfortunately, we cannot simply 'test' the news and determine once and for all if a liberal bias exists" (2001: 432).

Sutter (2001), Weaver (1994), and Brookes (1991) look to an alternative hypothesis: that journalists may have a bias toward expansion of government powers. Brookes says journalists do not favor the "status quo" as much as the "statist quo" (emphasis added). Brookes reasons that reporters mostly inform readers on issues of government, and the more the state expands, the better it is for journalists.

Crain and Tollison (1997) write that the need for the monitoring services of the press increases as government expands. It is in the self-interest of those in journalism, they write, to promote news that encourages expansion in the powers of the state.

Government has expanded its reach greatly in the past three decades in environmental regulation. Regardless of the individual biases of journalists on environmental matters, it would seem that if the "statist quo" viewpoint were true, the press would champion growth of government environmental regulation. We believe that the issue of acid rain allows for a test case for the "growth of government" view of journalism.

In this paper, we analyze how newspapers covered the acid rain debate during the 1980s and early 1990s. First, we describe how six major U.S. newspapers reported the issue relative to the scientific developments that occurred during the 1980s. Second, we test the patterns of acid rain news coverage and interpret those results according to an economic point of view, especially testing Brookes's "statist quo" description of journalism. While the results are mixed, it is clear, controlling for other factors, that once it became apparent that the U.S. government would attempt to "stop" acid rain through passage of new clean air legislation, the press lost much of its interest in the story, moving on to other issues.


Journalism and Economic Analysis

IF THE BROOKES THESIS HOLDS, benefits would exist for the press when state power expands. Stigler (1971) writes that the growth of government regulation allows outsiders to gain access to the affairs of private enterprises. This additional access also would provide more opportunities for journalists.

Brookes (1991) writes that journalists favor the "statist quo" because it provides opportunities not afforded to them when business decisions are made within a market setting. Using the example of reporters on the "energy beat" losing their jobs after the deregulation of oil prices in early 1981, he notes that once oil markets returned to a pattern consistent with other free markets, the "need" for energy alternatives like solar power suddenly disappeared.

He says that journalists mostly cover government agencies, local, state, and national, concluding that journalists have a vested interest in the maintenance and growth of government programs. …

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