Is the Media to Blame for Our Polarized Politics?

We all know that America is growing increasingly polarized (or do we?), and that the once objective news media has become fragmented and let slip many of the norms of journalism. The question that then inevitably comes next is: which came first? In some ways, it may be a classic chicken and egg issue, though there is also substantial evidence that could help get the media off the hook.

Whether the American electorate has actually become substantially more polarized could be contested; however, there is no doubt that Congress has become much more partisan, with both parties moving toward the extremes, more votes (even on non-ideological issues) coming along party lines, and more Congressmen unwilling to compromise. Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann make the argument that this polarization is asymmetrical, and that the Republican Party has moved further to the right than the Democrats have to the left. They add that the media is reluctant to ever make such an argument for fear of appearing biased, and prefer leveling out an issue rather than providing a straight account. In some ways, traditional news media that wishes to maintain its unbiased appearance in an increasingly polarized world is actually forced to distort the truth on occasion to maintain a façade of impartiality.

As the print media industry has struggled financially in recent years, and network news has fallen in popularity relative to its cable counterparts, the quality of actual journalism has diminished. The business models of cable news stations, such as Fox News, have proven remarkably profitable. By providing news content that its overwhelmingly conservative audience wants to hear, the station is able to maintain a substantial audience. Politicians are also given easier avenues to reach their political base and can deliver increasingly partisan messages to this audience. As technology has expanded the sources of news available to the masses, initially through cable and now through the internet, competition has grown substantially, making traditional journalism unprofitable and somewhat unsustainable. Americans can now seek out news sources, whether it be Fox News, MSNBC, or partisan blog sites that confirm their polarized views. The electorate is no longer simply varied in ideology because of differing value judgments, but is now actually making differing value judgments from completely different sets of facts. We have lost the common marketplace of objective facts that once kept ranging opinions grounded.

Media expert, John Ladd, makes the point that the objective, professional news media that we may get nostalgic for was somewhat of a historical anomaly, only strongly existing from the 1930s to 1970s in an era of low media competition and low political polarization. Ladd falls somewhat in the middle on the question of the media’s role in modern polarization. He does not blame polarized media for Americans becoming increasingly polarized and suggests that voters are strong partisans first and then self-select partisan media that fits them. However, he also points out that this contributes to the persistence of biases because polarized voters are decreasingly exposed to opposing points of view and objective sets of facts. The perceived bias in the media is most consequential in its effect on trust in the media, which is at an all-time low, making voters even less likely to glean objective facts from the media to counter their existing prejudices.

Other media experts have stuck to one side or the other, with some making the argument that media biases create polarized voters while others argue that the only people watching partisan news are already strong partisans and would not deviate from their beliefs anyway. Still others, including Georgetown’s own Daniel Hopkins, have made the case that the media opinion actually lags behind public opinion, and is inconsequential in influence – merely reflecting the trends of the masses rather than directing them.

Regardless, the changes in the media landscape, whether or not they are to blame for our current polarization, have certainly changed how Americans interact with news and how politicians engage with the media. The proliferation of smaller news outlets has led to a more open spigot of information. Stories are reported without filtering for facts and without any interpretation from those in the know. The move to the 24 hour news cycle has led to a more obsessive need for news outlets, whether cable TV or online, to constantly have ‘breaking news,’ and controversy to drive repeat viewership. Politicians and their press personnel now live in fear of POLITICO headlines and avoid giving on the record quotes at all costs.

On the flip side, new technology has brought widespread access to massive amounts of data, holding journalists to a higher standard when the public has access to most of the same sources. Technology has opened up the news sources available to media consumers and potentially providing access to content at both ends of the spectrum. The modern fragmented media landscape, and the open access to sources that the internet provides, may be both a blessing and a curse. It allows us to cave to our confirmation bias vice, but it also affords voters an opportunity to counteract their biases in a way they never could before. So even if most in the electorate continue to demand polarized news that reinforces their beliefs, there is something to be said for having choice and competition in media consumption.

There may be little point in debating the merits of the new media landscape as there is little recourse to be taken. However, it seems that, as often is the case, the blame can be spread around. Though there may be a healthy dose of ‘independents’ in the electorate, only about 9% of the electorate truly lacks partisan loyalties (and many in that population do not regularly vote). The masses have grown more partisan, party realignment has eliminated almost all conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans that once limited partisan divide, and other structural factors have led to more ideologically-extreme members of Congress. All of this is to say, as much as we may bemoan the highly partisan news outlets, especially those on the opposite ideological extreme, they can’t bear the whole blame for the gridlock we’ve grown accustomed to.

Note: This post previously appeared on Votifi