The Great Media Divide
Mark Jamison • April 12, 2017, at 1:10 p.m.
Examples of the political divide in the U.S. abound. The twists and turns of the Senate over the nomination and eventual confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court are the latest episode in the drama of the country's polarization. Seemingly everyone blames someone else for the division: Democrats and Republicans blame each other, as do the factions within each party. And at least some independents blame both parties.
But how the media conducts its business in this country should also be partly blamed for the political rift. I don't mean that we should blame CNN or MSNBC for being too liberal, or blame FOX News for being too conservative. The problem isn't that journalists have opinions, but rather that the standard media business models – daily news for traditional media and talk radio like Rush Limbaugh's and Sean Hannity's programs – drive some media to the left and others to the right, leading large segments of their respective audiences to become caught in media bubbles.
Again, my point isn't that journalists, commentators and media bosses choose to be liberal or conservative for nefarious reasons and should be called to task. Rather, it is that the business model for daily news drives its content to the left and the business model for talk radio tends to drive its content to the right. If we are to make serious progress in bridging our political divide, we have to deal with these business models.
In numerous surveys over the past 20 years, Pew Research has documented our growing political divide: "In 1994 23% of Republicans were more liberal than the median Democrat; while 17% of Democrats were more conservative than the median Republican. Today, those numbers are just 4% and 5%, respectively." And each side has a different view of reality: According to a Suffolk University poll before the 2016 election, 77 percent of Clinton supporters believed Trump is a racist, while 87 percent of Trump supporters believed he is not.
Pew also found that liberals and conservatives tend to migrate to different media outlets: Liberals consume a wide variety of media sources that essentially follow the traditional model of daily news: PBS, The New York Times, MSNBC, CNN, etc. Conservative media, with the exception of Fox News, is dominated by talk radio: Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Mark Levin, etc.
There are numerous explanations for the media divide that corresponds to our political rift. Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple believes that mainstream media leans left because they are headquartered in politically liberal cities, and because activist journalism has been cool since Watergate. Academics Jeffrey Berry and Sarah Sobieraj have written that conservative media attracts its audience by venting outrage, which they presumably correlate with conservatism. My liberal friends echo Berry's and Sobieraj's belief: They believe that liberals are more thoughtful and less emotional than conservatives, so liberals favor written media like The New York Times while conservatives are attracted to the anger of talk radio.
What these and other views miss is that the economics of media pushes traditional daily media to the left and talk radio to the right. Each naturally creates its own cultural bubble, contributing to our political divide.
Why do traditional media lean left? As historian John Summerville points out in his book "How the News Makes Us Dumb," the daily news business model relies on convincing viewers and readers that they have to consume news every day; that the news is urgent, that today's news is bigger and scarier than yesterday's news and that people who don't watch or read today will suffer as a result. Stories are often couched in terms of groups – mostly race, gender and sexual preference – which accentuates the drama. A media mindset that focuses on urgent problems often concludes that someone in authority, namely the government, should fix them.
Why don't these same economic forces press talk radio to the left? Talk radio by its nature puts greater emphasis on the individual, which aligns with the conservative mindset. The program host does much of the talking, but spends a fair amount of time with callers, who provide content and sometimes the direction of the dialogue, such as Limbaugh's "Open Line Friday." Participants in talk radio are more likely to see themselves as part of what is happening than are passive consumers of PBS or CNN, for example. So talk radio favors mindsets of individual responsibility for making one's way in the world and helping others.
What about outlets that update constantly, like blog-oriented outlets and news aggregators? At present, these business models don't seem to favor either political view as each political side has its own websites. That the primary economic driver is page views driven by breaking news would seem to lead these outlets to eventually lean left. But as long as the government is large and active in people's lives, and people worry about what the government will do to them next, conservative-oriented sites might continue to flourish.
Is there a media business model that helps bridge the divide? It isn't a forgone conclusion that the divide is bad. What is harming us is what appears to be our growing inability to understand how others might hold a view different from our own, except for others being ignorant, unintelligent, or of low morals. What is needed are media businesses that break out of the bubbles, employ contributors, involve consumers of different mindsets and make the consumers, not drama, central to the action.