May 15, 2003
We are posting J.H. Snider and Benjamin I. Page's 1997 study on the media ownership debate because it has become relevant. At a hearing on media ownership on May 13, 2003, Senate Commerce Committee Chair John McCain waved the study at a media mogul on the panel and said: "Do you think this is an anomaly?" McCain's comment and the study to which it referred were subsequently featured on the front page of the business section in The Washington Post (Frank Ahrens, "FCC Sees Local Gain to Age of Max Media," May 16, 2003, p. E1). During the late 1990s, the two papers that constitute the study were widely cited in academic books and articles. But this was the first time they had become relevant to the policy-making community.
When the FCC and Congress were debating whether to give away or sell $70 billion worth of digital broadcast spectrum in 1996, local TV broadcasters embarked on a furious lobbying campaign to ensure that they got the spectrum for free. The study looked at two different ways that ownership interests may have influenced media coverage. The first paper studied "Overt Bias," media coverage of the telecommunications issue that was under debate. The paper found that newspaper editorial coverage was indeed influenced by broadcast ownership interests.
The second paper studied "Covert Bias," actual or threatened media coverage of other issues that could apply pressure on a political candidate to take the position favored by local TV broadcasters on the telecommunications issue. The paper found that a prominent and powerful local broadcaster threatened media retribution on the key opponent of the spectrum giveaway, Senator Bob Dole, at a time and place where this threat would likely have maximum effect. The broadcaster, a member of the NAB board, made the threat soon after an NAB board meeting, which was consumed by the danger Senator Dole posed to the future of their industry.
Finally, we are posting J.H. Snider's 1999 paper on "The Paradox of News Bias," which was published as a chapter in Politics, Discourse, and American Society: New Agendas, edited by Roderick P. Hart and Bartholomew H. Sparrow, Rowman & Littlefield: New York, 2001. The paradox of news bias is that broadcasters have a strong incentive to exercise bias in ways that are not verifiable or even detectable by either the public or scholarly community. Moreover, on issues of information policy, they have ample means to exercise bias this way. An analogy to the paradox of news bias is the paradox of interest group bias. Interest groups and politicians have strong incentives to jointly engage in opportunistic behavior in ways that aren't verifiable. The paradox of news bias calls for new methods to study the probability of broadcaster bias. The FCC's and federal courts' recent demands for hard evidence of bias to justify current media ownership rules make this paper especially relevant. These demands reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of evidence available to prove bias. There needs to be a shift from a "smoking gun" standard of evidence to an "appearance" standard of evidence.
For the complete document, please see the attached PDF version.