Media polarization good or bad?

Yet another study finds Democrats and Republicans going to our separate media corners. This one from University of Georgia associate professor of journalism Barry Hollander as reported by the AJC’s Political Insider:

What he documented was a quiet stampede.

In 1998, 27 percent of Republicans and 25 percent of Democrats tuned in regularly to Atlanta-based CNN. Eight years later, the number of Democrats had risen to 29 percent.

But the number of Republicans who tuned in to CNN had shrunk to 19 percent. Gosh, where do you think they went?

Over the same period, Fox News’ share of Republican viewers jumped from 14 to 36 percent.

Hollander documented a media shift among Democrats to friendly sources, too, but the most dramatic change has occurred among Republicans. And, possibly, among more casual consumers of news.

“Republicans have dramatically dropped news sources that they perceive as being biased against their position. They’ve completely fled into Fox and have left CNN, broadcast news and all the others,” Hollander said.

Outrage over alleged liberalism could explain this, except for one inconvenient fact. Republicans, Hollander said, have even dropped C-SPAN, which — because of its verbatim approach — is widely considered neutral in content.

Something larger is happening, the University of Georgia professor asserts. “People have always hung out with people like themselves,” Hollander said. The water-cooler world that most people live in is a huge echo chamber of attitudes and ideas.

“It was always thought that the media was the savior in this,” Hollander said.

Of course, “always” is a relative term. And some of us don’t want or need a big media “savior.”

Hollander comes from a very particular media bias tradition. His concerns are clear and sincere, this from the university press release for the study:

Television news audiences are divided along party lines like never before, according to a new University of Georgia study that warns the trend may have damaging consequences for political discourse and democracy in America.

“Ideology and partisanship used to be completely unrelated to the television news people consumed,” said study author Barry Hollander, associate professor of journalism in the UGA Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. “But they’ve become significant factors in the last five years.”

Hollander sounds certain that ideology and partisanship are bad and that certainty is the received wisdom of the day. But if we go back in history, say, to a time before journalism schools…

In the March 31 issue of The New Yorker, Eric Alterman had a wonderful piece on The death and life of the American newspaper. The piece includes a terrific telling of the heated intellectual debate in the early twentieth century between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey over the relationship between democracy and the press.

In the 1920s Lippman came to believe that the world was too complicated a place for the average citizen to comprehend. His new “progressive” theory of democracy called for an educated elite expert journalist to comprehend and interpret it for us. Lippman is credited with inspiring both the public-relations profession and the academic field of media studies — journalism schools!

Dewey, on the other hand, understood that it was a complicated and challenging world but he believed that participation was a vitally important part of the democratic process. He thought that participation was far too important to be handed off to journalist experts:

Dewey did not dispute Lippmann’s contention regarding journalism’s flaws or the public’s vulnerability to manipulation. But Dewey thought that Lippmann’s cure was worse than the disease. While Lippmann viewed public opinion as little more than the sum of the views of each individual, much like a poll, Dewey saw it more like a focus group. The foundation of democracy to Dewey was less information than conversation. Members of a democratic society needed to cultivate what the journalism scholar James W. Carey, in describing the debate, called “certain vital habits” of democracy—the ability to discuss, deliberate on, and debate various perspectives in a manner that would move it toward consensus…

To the degree that posterity can be said to have declared a winner in this argument, the future turned out much closer to Lippmann’s ideal… As the profession grew more sophisticated and respected, in part owing to Lippmann’s example, top reporters, anchors, and editors naturally rose in status to the point where some came to be considered the social equals of the senators, Cabinet secretaries, and C.E.O.s they reported on. Just as naturally, these same reporters and editors sometimes came to identify with their subjects, rather than with their readers, as Dewey had predicted. Aside from biennial elections featuring smaller and smaller portions of the electorate, politics increasingly became a business for professionals and a spectator sport for the great unwashed—much as Lippmann had hoped and Dewey had feared. Beyond the publication of the occasional letter to the editor, the role of the reader was defined as purely passive.

Some of us have been remembering that Dewey/Lippmann divide for decades. And we’re not all worrying that divvying up the audience means anything bad for democracy.

Alterman does a fine job of summing up the state of the newspaper today, but his is not the story of the death of the American newspaper. New communications paradigms don’t eclipse old paradigms.

Movies didn’t kill theater. TV didn’t kill radio. The VCR didn’t kill TV or movies. Instead we get new business models. And a bigger pie.

I’m thinking Professor Hollander’s got it wrong and Alterman’s closer to what’s right. And Dewey’s finally going to get his due…

And so we are about to enter a fractured, chaotic world of news, characterized by superior community conversation but a decidedly diminished level of first-rate journalism. The transformation of newspapers from enterprises devoted to objective reporting to a cluster of communities, each engaged in its own kind of “news”––and each with its own set of “truths” upon which to base debate and discussion––will mean the loss of a single national narrative and agreed-upon set of “facts” by which to conduct our politics. News will become increasingly “red” or “blue.” This is not utterly new. Before Adolph Ochs took over the Times, in 1896, and issued his famous “without fear or favor” declaration, the American scene was dominated by brazenly partisan newspapers. And the news cultures of many European nations long ago embraced the notion of competing narratives for different political communities, with individual newspapers reflecting the views of each faction. It may not be entirely coincidental that these nations enjoy a level of political engagement that dwarfs that of the United States.