Bryan Caplan  

Media Bias Bias

Peter Thiel, Cowenian... The Great Reconfiguration, Aga...
Question: Why is bias in the media so much more on our minds than bias in the schools? 

Both the media and schools are largely in left-wing hands - and the content reflects this fact.  But consider the stark contrast between the two.  Schools, unlike the media, largely target impressionable youth.  Schools, unlike the media, are heavily tax-supported.  Schools, unlike the media, usually can't go bankrupt.  And finally, schools, unlike the media, have a very high switching cost.  Even with a voucher system, changing your kid's school would remain a much bigger deal than changing the channel.

In short:




Aimed largely at impressionable youth






Can't go bankrupt



High switching cost



If you think that schooling isn't politicized, check out virtually any approved history text.  I vividly remember reading Thomas Bailey's The American Pageant in the late 80s.  Every government program and every war except for Vietnam was a gift from God to Our Great Nation.

COMMENTS (26 to date)
Lord writes:

That sounds much more conservative to me.

frankcross writes:

If every war besides Vietnam was praised, that wouldn't show left wing bias. Might be a pro-government bias but probably just putting a positive spin on history.

Joe Cushing writes:

I remember being taught that laissez faire allowed the depression to continue but big government programs under the new deal helped and that WWII ended the depression. Most people still believe that WWII ended the depression even though war, in every other case, has caused economies to slow.

Jeff writes:

I can think of two plausible explanations:

1)Bias in schools is out of sight, out of mind. People with and without kids read newspapers and watch the news, but hardly anyone reads history text books except students, so media bias is just more visible to people who care about that sort of thing, and thus gets more attention.

2)Kids can't vote. Politicos of all stripes are first and foremost focused on winning the current election cycle or news cycle or some battle over policy that's happening right now. That little Johnny's going to school every day and getting his head crammed full of nonsense has no immediate impact on any of those things, and thus it simply gets ignored in favor of what does (or at least could) have an impact: spin and bias coming out of the mainstream media.

Phil writes:

Like Jeff says, bias in schools is unseen. If there were transcripts or summaries in the paper every day of what teachers were saying, things would be very different.

Amaturus writes:

Instead of a crusade against schools, how about talking to your kids about what they're learning and engaging them in discussions about the material?

Mesaar writes:

Amaturus: I think most concerned parents already do, however the problem is what's going to happen to the masses of kids whose parents are not engaged in the process enough to talk through these things. Also, perhaps the idea that taxpayers' money is going into funding para-political activity might trouble you even if you don't have any kids?

Renato Drumond writes:

Bias in school is about the past; bias in media, about the present.

What people know about current events will matter more to influence near future than beliefs regarding the past.

Steve Roth writes:

> Both the media and schools are largely in left-wing hands

> vividly remember reading Thomas Bailey's The American Pageant in the late 80s. Every government program and every war except for Vietnam was a gift from God to Our Great Nation.

But the whole American exceptionalism luv-it-or-leave-it thing is a right-wing meme. They're forever accusing lefties of hating America.

I think you scored an own-goal there.

i writes:

Media is in left wing hands, except mainstream media is all but wholly owned by mulitnational corporations and conglomerates.

Amaturus writes:

As someone who's graduated a public school in the last decade, I think the critique is quite overblown. The students whose parents aren't engaged are less likely to be engaged themselves, so it's not like they're learning the material anyway. The students who actually do care are fully aware that there are people out there trying to influence their opinions. I think about myself here. I read Ayn Rand directly in response to a teacher calling it trash. Isn't how it is for most libertarians?

And really, conservatives have had control of school boards for some time now. Look at what has happened in Texas; they're basically setting the drum beat for text book publishers anyway. Certainly the teachers themselves and their unions are more likely to be left-wing, but I think Bryan does them a great discredit by suggesting that the education from these people would automatically be biased.

MernaMoose writes:

What people know about current events will matter more to influence near future than beliefs regarding the past.

But how and what they think about past events will have a huge impact on what they conclude about current events.

Certainly the teachers themselves and their unions are more likely to be left-wing, but I think Bryan does them a great discredit by suggesting that the education from these people would automatically be biased.

"Automatic" or not, it largely is biased. I don't see anything to discredit here, it's just an observation.

I have nephews and nieces that I worry about. They are scattered across the nation, all in different schools in different states. When I listen to what they're learning, they definitely are getting a predominantly left-leaning bias.

They're taught that "man-made global warming is going to destroy the planet very soon, maybe even before you've grown up". I could go on.

What amazes me, is the kinds of topics they've got 8 and 10 and 12 year old kids "thinking" and writing little papers about (of course after they've been spoon fed the proper liberal left responses). If I didn't know better I'd think somebody was trying to indoctrinate them before their brains are mature enough to judge.

What infuriates me, is that the smarter the kid, the harder the school systems appear to be trying to indoctrinate them.

I'd say the dumber you are as a kid in school today, the less likely you are to come out of it a far-left liberal because they won't try to "educate" you as hard.

As far as where the bias leans, I'd put it like this: it's left, usually further than lesser, except in those cases where the right happens to want a bigger, more bloated government than the left does (yes there are a few places). Then the media will in that instance lean right.

School teachers lean much more reliably to the left.

MernaMoose writes:

Somebody is almost sure to come back and say "oh you're wrong, the bias leans the other way". To which I say, that's not even what matters.

From talking to around a dozen nieces and nephews who are in public schools, I'm certain none of them are being taught anything that sounds like this:

1) Small, limited government is good.

2) Free markets are good and have brought vast, previously undreamed of levels of wealth to the masses.

I've found this to be a very effective line that makes their eyes pop open because it's so new to them:

If you want to help poor people, you need to fight for free markets.

agnostic writes:

Schools are socially and physically near, the media are far off. Things nearer to us enjoy the halo effect of our own awesomeness and saintliness; far-away things don't.

- Even within the media, people talk more about bias in the national media, not the local TV news.

- Within schooling, people talk more about bias at the national level (say, if the Department of Education requires or bans reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, requires or bans a Christmas tree during Christmas, etc.), than at their local school.

I'm sure you see this in other industries, like the local hospital vs. the health insurance industry, locally made entertainment vs. Hollywood or New York TV, and so on.

Alvin Hutchinson writes:

"Schools, unlike the media, largely target impressionable youth."

I only got so far in the post but with the above statement, I disagree.

If you're in the media business, and you're not targeting impressionable youth, you're probably going to be out of business in a short time.

Frost writes:

Media bias is more easily understood because its purpose is to re-educate Americans on issues for which they remain imperfectly progressive, i.e. open borders, gay rights and even-greater extensions of the welfare state.

School bias is more about consolidating the previous public-opinion gains made by progressives. I mean, look at all the commenters claiming that supporting America's historic great wars (Revolutionary, Civil, 1 and 2) is evidence of right-wing bias. I think you would have to reach someone at a young age to warp their mind into seeing those as anything but leftist crusades...

Then again, public school as I remember it was also very, very into environmentalism, so who knows.

Frost writes:

Here's another theory: Even right-wing people want to see their kids rise to the top of American society. The best way for them to do that is to get into Harvard and say the right things. Do you really want your kids to be burdened with concealing their non-progressive beliefs? Ketman is hard work.

Randy writes:

To those who question whether the concept is "Left" or "Right", I'd say that a better distinction is between "Political" and "Non-Political". The wars have all been Political. The schools are without question Political. Fox News, CNN, NBC, PBS, etc., are Political. The Democratic and Republican parties are certainly Political. But, is the Tea Party Political? Probably not, but if not it will be either captured or made irrelevant very soon. We are ruled by Political organization - always have been and always will be. That does not mean that they deserve our respect.

Tracy W writes:

Why is bias in the media so much more on our minds than bias in the schools?

Question. Is it much more on our minds?

I keep running across people who are firmly convinced that schools act as instruments of social coercion. They get rather confused when I point out that schools seem to be rather ineffective at said goal, which rather implies that they're not in the habit of coming across counter-arguments. Then there's all the political noise about the teaching of evolution, or sex education.

It may be that bias in the media is more on people's minds than bias in schools, I don't know of any data one way or another. Personally my feeling is that they're about the same in importance, perhaps schools are a bit more important.

Floccina writes:
Aimed largely at impressionable youth

I have heard that advertisers mostly care about the young because adults are often set in their buying patterns. So TV might also be mostly aimed at impressionable youth. Of course not the drug ads.

Randy writes:

@ Tracy W, Re; "Instruments of social coercion"

I was thinking about that just this morning. It occurs to me that the indoctrination of the public schools doesn't stick forever, but that it doesn't really have to. It just needs to stick long enough for impressionable young people to develop the habits that will stabilize them through the potentially violent years. That is, I'm no longer a fan of our political leaders, but I still go to work every day, pay my taxes on time, and limit my expressions of resentment to blog comments.

celestus writes:

The media is biased, but different segments of the media are biased from different (and competing) perspectives. So you get Fox etc. talking a lot about the bias of the mainstream media, you get other sources talking a lot about the bias of Fox, all as a means to dismiss the commentary that their competitors (both ideologically and commercially) are making.

In short, no matter what media outlet you pick there will probably be diatribes against media bias on a regular basis. And then you get into meta-discussions about "their media accuses our media of being biased, but their media is even more biased."

There's really not a lot of competition, in either sense, in education. So there is really not as much force behind a discussion of bias there.

Although, when you get to colleges (which is a more competitive environment in both senses) you will certainly find accusations of bias leveled against Harvard etc. by Chicago etc. and vice versa.

Tracy W writes:

Randy, I presume by "potentially violent years" you mean late teenager/early twenties (small children are far more often violent than that age group but also rather ineffective as a political force). How many people in that age group are fans of their political leaders?
And, since the introduction of public schools around the turn of the century, we have seen the Civil Rights Movement, the second wave of feminism, and the gay liberalisation process. We now have a black guy as president of the USA (I know he's mixed, but to the commonly-racist people who set up public schools in the first place, he would have been just black spelt with an n), we've got a woman leading Germany, we've seen the Rogernomics revolution in 1980s New Zealand, and Margaret Thatcher's economic reforms in 1970s/1980s UK, and many of these movements started with hefty involvement from young people.
I just don't see "indoctrination" taking place into adulthood.

We have to remember that teachers know more than most parents. When parents complain about school bias they frequently start with those issues where standard conservatives are wrong. (For example, asking "If humans came from apes, why are there still apes?")

Stefano writes:

Schools have a bias toward authority (and not liberty), because the very concept of school is based on authority.

Children have to sit quiet, listen to the teacher, answer when asked questions, produce reports, do their homework, etc.

Non-coercitive schools might exist, but I don't think their methods could be used in all schools. Perhaps with a much lower students/teacher ratio.

So, you'll never find a teacher say to their pupils that authorities are in general bad, only because _they_ are the authority in the class.

Michael Strong writes:

About seven years ago, when I was still running high schools, I did a survey of all of the leading Advanced Placement history textbooks and corresponding AP exams. A few of my findings:

1. Almost all of the AP U.S. history textbooks and AP exam prep books explained the Great Depression as the result of inequalities of wealth in the 1920s. None mentioned monetary policy, tariffs, or regime uncertainty.

2. All the AP world history textbooks and AP exam prep books had extensive coverage of the Holocaust, but when it came to the crimes of Stalin and Mao there were merely brief paragraphs stating something like "it is alleged that many people died" during a famine that might have been due to natural causes. In essence, NO coverage of the crimes of communism.

3. Both U.S. and world history provide a narrative in which the evils of 19th century laissez-faire were eliminated by the heroic progressives, with individuals such as Ida Tarbell and Teddy Roosevelt in the heroic roles, and the robber barons and other industrialists serving simply as stock evil characters. There is no indication that 19th century capitalism increased the standard of living for workers.

In order to go to an elite college, students MUST do well on several AP tests, and most take an AP history exam. The content of AP history exams is determined by committees of senior academic historians and high school history teachers, most of whom were educated 30-40 years ago. I don't know how economically literate the latest crop of historians are, nor whether they acknowledge frankly the crimes of communism, but imagine the views of a 1970s-era history Ph.D. to get a sense for the content of current AP history courses and exams.

Libertarians would make more progress if they could influence the AP history curriculum than they do by means of "economic education."

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