Election Day. Finally! That’s the time the American electorate sink back into their couches, easy chairs, and Barcaloungers to witness that great rite of American democracy: watching news coverage that aligns with their world views.
In that regard, the award for least surprising news report of the year has certainly already been won by The Pew Research Center,which reported two weeks ago that “when it comes to getting news about politics and government, liberals and conservatives inhabit different worlds.”
Duh — this is about as surprising as those scientific studies that uncover the rather obvious “fact” that good-looking people get waited on faster in stores.
Through the use of an online survey, Pew put some numbers to the phenomenon of Americans watching news according to ideological inclination. The researcher found that 47% of “consistently conservative” Americans get most of their news about government and politics from Fox News, while “consistently liberal” Americans get their news from a wider variety of sources, including CNN (15%), NPR (13%), MSNBC (12%) and the New York Times (10%).
This survey almost certainly understates the disparity between blue and red viewers — and I have to wonder why the reporters who covered this story seemed to believe the numbers really told us anything. There’s a major tip-off that something’s wrong when you look at the results for the whole sample: supposedly CNN is the major source of news for 16% of Americans, while Fox is the runner-up at 14%. But the Nielsen ratings, which are a lot more accurate, tell a completely different story, given that Fox’s audience is multiple times larger than CNN’s.
For the sake of argument, though, let’s assume that the data are “directionally” correct, even if the actual numbers are off. If I were NPR and The New York Times, which purport to be honest brokers of the news, I’d be a little worried. America is telling them that their reporting leans left. If the only people who get their news from you are “consistent liberals,” that’s a narrow demographic. Yet they don’t seem to care, having heard the same complaints for years and shrugged them off. After all, they’re the New York Timesand NPR; THEY’LL decide when their reporting is skewed.
For the sake of democracy, it’s a shame that the media has broken down along ideological lines and that some of our most respected news institutions are considered the enemy by a large segment of the population. It would be a lot easier to run this country if we could all agree on a common set of facts and priorities. But with ideologically split news sources presenting alternating realities, blue and red voters can’t even speak the same language.
For this I blame the big three networks themselves. For decades they had a monopoly (a triopoly?) on TV news — and, like theTimes and NPR today, shrugged off allegations of bias. Year after year conservatives would rail against media distortion, and year after year the networks would magisterially reply that they reported the news straight and that conservatives just didn’t understand that the role of journalism was to report uncomfortable truths wherever they found them. Somehow it never seemed to worry them that liberals found network news programs highly congenial to their taste, while conservatives despised them.
A low point was reached after the 1994 election, when the Republicans unexpectedly (unexpected by the press at least) won control of the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in more than 30 years. ABC’s Peter Jennings, one of the Big Three anchor mandarins at the time, had this to say in a subsequent radio commentary: “Some thoughts on those angry voters. Ask parents of any two-year-old and they can tell you about those temper tantrums: the stomping feet, the rolling eyes, the screaming. It’s clear that the anger controls the child and not the other way around. It’s the job of the parent to teach the child to control the anger and channel it in a positive way. Imagine a nation full of uncontrolled two-year-old rage. The voters had a temper tantrum last week…. Parenting and governing don’t have to be dirty words: the nation can’t be run by an angry two-year-old.”
So voting for a Republican Congress is the equivalent of throwing a temper tantrum? No wonder conservatives embraced Fox News when it debuted two years later. Would Rupert Murdoch have even launched Fox News if he hadn’t perceived a massive market opportunity among conservatives who hated what they derisively called the “mainstream media”? Maybe. Maybe not. It certainly costs a lot of money to launch a new network if you aren’t sure you can attract a lot of disaffected viewers.
With Fox raking in the viewers, MSNBC — which had launched in 1996 as a hipper, more technologically focused version of CNN (the MS does stand for Microsoft, the original launch partner, after all) — eventually evolved into a liberal alternative. That hasn’t worked so well, in part because, well, why do you need a liberal alternative to Fox when you already have the three broadcast networks?
Looking back at what the networks have wrought, it’s not as if it would have been impossible to build a news organization that maintained the respect of all sides. According to Pew’s own research, The Wall Street Journal is more trusted than distrusted by all ideological sides. If even one of the network news organizations had tried to achieve that as a goal in the 1980s, we might not have ended up with the ideologically driven news channels of today.
Unfortunately, it’s too late to put the toothpaste back in the tube. Red and blue versions of the news are here to stay.