‘Opinion media’ pollute public discourse, spur political dysfunction

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Teaching Professor of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is author of 10 books on international and American politics, including the forthcoming “New Warfare:  Rethinking Rules for An Unruly World.”  In addition to teaching courses in international politics, international organization and law, and U.S. foreign policy, he has served as Chairperson of the Political Science Dept. at UM-St. Louis.

By J. Martin Rochester

Many people complain today about a growing polarization of the American political system. Although many factors contribute to such polarization, the news media bear special responsibility for this development. Not only have the mainstream media (both print and electronic) become increasingly biased in its news reporting and analysis, but talk radio and cable TV have added an especially toxic mix of blatantly partisan “opinion” journalism. 

U.S. news media long have been accused of “liberal bias.” Several scholarly studies have validated this criticism. For example, a 2005 study by Tim Groseclose of UCLA and Jeffrey Milyo of the University of Missouri-Columbia confirmed, based on rigorous empirical analysis, that  “there is a quantifiable and significant bias in that nearly all [major media outlets] lean to the left”; of the 20 outlets studied, 18 were left of center. 

Other scholars have questioned the degree of liberal bias, noting that, while reporters tend to be overwhelmingly liberal Democrats, most major media are owned by big corporations that lean conservative and Republican. (For competing views, see Bernard Goldberg’s book, “Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News,” Regnery Publishing, 2001, and Eric Alterman’s  “What Liberal Bias?: The Truth About Bias and the News,” Basic Books, 2003.)

Some argue that, to the extent the media are biased, it is not so much a case of partisanship as a growing penchant for titillation and sensationalism, aimed at attracting a wider audience. This may be true not only for local TV news, where “if it bleeds, it leads,” but also for the networks and major newspapers, where, ever since Watergate, journalists have aspired to unearth the next big scandal a la Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. 

Partisan/ideological bias often takes the more subtle form of “agenda-setting,” where news outlets tend to cover some topics and stories more than others, putting some on the front page or at the top of the newscast while burying or ignoring others based on their philosophical predispositions. 

As great a newspaper as the New York Times is, I am sure that a content analysis would find many more articles about growing inequality between rich and poor than about Horatio Alger success stories of self-made men and women. It may be OK for the Times editorial and op-ed pages to veer leftward – Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman, Charles Blow and liberal commentators far outnumber Ross Douthat, David Brooks and conservative counterparts – but it is shoddy journalism to extend a paper’s tilt to the news pages themselves and blur reporting and advocacy. The same can be said for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Few media outlets are more guilty of bias and of polarizing our political system than the cable news channels, with Fox and MSNBC leading the way, both “Spin City,” wholly driven by ideology and partisanship. They are mirror images of each other – one far right and one far left. 

I tell my students that, if they are interested in becoming informed about current events through objective, accurate, balanced journalism, turn off Fox and MSNBC because both are a disgrace to journalism. It is a toss-up which commentators are worse — Sean Hannity, Bill O’Reilly, Megyn Kelly, and Greta Van Susteren, or Al Sharpton, Chris Matthews, Rachel Maddow, Chris Hayes, Lawrence O’Donnell and Ed Schultz. 

Opinion is one thing; polemics and infotainment, marked by loud, obnoxious rants and facial smirks, is another. Contrast them with the “PBS NewsHour,” an exemplar of balanced, serious, professional journalism. Jim Lehrer, Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill should be the norm, but their classy brand of substance and style is rare in the media universe. 

Despite Ted Koppel and others trying to mobilize shame against the cable news stations, people still watch them. The good news is that relatively few do; O’Reilly has about 2 million viewers, while the assorted MSNBC hosts struggle to reach a million. The bad news is, perhaps surprisingly, that their viewers tend to be among the more educated “opinion leaders” who should know better.  This squares with the thesis of Morris Fiorina of Stanford University, whose “Culture War?” argues that it is mainly the elites in this country who are the extremists at the edges of the liberal-conservative ideological spectrum, whereas the vast majority of Americans in the general public tend to take fairly moderate, centrist positions on immigration reform, gay rights, abortion and other such issues. 

Although the public may be ignorant in its information level (e.g., only 15 percent can name the “Perm Five” countries on the United Nations Security Council that have veto power and make decisions on Iranian sanctions and other important matters; barely half know they have two U.S. senators much less can name them), in some ways it may be more enlightened in its measured, common sense positions on issues.

Sadly, there is some evidence that the public itself is becoming more polarized lately as well, perhaps in response to all the screaming and shouting they hear around them on the part of elites. A new data-based study by Matthew Levendusky of the University of Pennsylvania, “How Partisan Media Polarize America” (University of Chicago Press), finds that “partisan media have changed the American political landscape. Exposure to partisan media contributes to the difficulty of governing. These outlets make citizens more extreme, more polarized, and less willing to trust and compromise. It is certainly true that only a small segment of the U.S. population watches partisan media programs. … But those who do watch are more involved and engaged politically” and thus “the impact of these programs is far-reaching” in making the electorate less willing “to find bipartisan solutions to the nation’s problems.” 

The Internet and social media only reinforce this echo chamber of dogmatic opinions and invective. 

We, of course, are a country that values a free press and the freedom to think, read, watch and listen to what we want. Just don’t complain about the dysfunctional government and lack of civility in Washington if you are among those contributing to the problem by frequenting media that coarsen the public discourse and pollute the public square.