Media & Polarization: Survey Responses vs. Viewership

by Gene Giannotta

Fox News, MSNBC, and other notoriously partisan media outlets are often blamed for the rise in polarization in American politics. But is this accurate?

Political scientist Markus Prior has shown that what seems to have actually happened over the past fifty years is that already polarized partisan individuals have flocked to the new (relatively speaking) polarized outlets. Back in the 1960s, there weren’t many options if you wanted to watch television. At certain times of day, there was news and nothing else. The limited options were also moderate since they were targeted at the population as a whole and not niche markets.

But once cable and the Internet came along, there was an opportunity to reach those niche, far more partisan markets and so we had the rise of niche, partisan media outlets like Fox News. Now, in this media environment, people who do not care about politics can avoid it altogether by switching to ESPN or the Food Network and watch only those channels. But those who were already predisposed to be interested in politics had options themselves.

In other words, the fact of so much choice in our current media means that politics is largely driven by those who are already interested, involved, and politically polarized. Media further separates that polarized segment of the population from the moderates, rather than polarizing anybody on its own.

But beyond that, it’s really hard to accurately assess the role of media in political life. Take for example, the seemingly simple question of how big the audience for outlets like Fox News really is. There is a big disconnect between how people respond on surveys and what they actually do. Here’s a graphic from the Monkey Cage blog that shows this quite clearly:


About a third of respondents told Pew that they “regularly” watched either Fox News, MSNBC, or both, while Nielsen data reported far smaller actual viewership. This raises important points about the accuracy of survey data - we have to be careful about taking self-reporting at face value because people don’t always remember their behavior, among other factors that could cause a gap between what really happened and what somebody says happened.

This is relevant for the current shutdown debate not because these outlets are primary drivers of polarization among the populace as a whole, but because they are not. Rather, they are, if anything, helping to push existing partisans further to the extremes and encouraging them to double down rather than move to the center and compromise. For many of them, they just exist in a far more ideological “bubble” than their counterparts did decades ago.

For more on media and polarization, I encourage you to check out John Sides’ post at the Monkey Cage here and Markus Prior’s research here

Is The Media to Blame for Political Polarization?

By Matt Sarge

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 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. Sites like Votifi provide an avenue for consumers to engage with partisan content if they choose, or they can easily access content that provides an opposing view. 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.

Media Coverage & Environmental Policy

- by Gene Giannotta

Last week, I touched on how external entities can influence media outlets in terms of their coverage. I also noted how media organizations can be their own source of influence on policy.

Here’s an example in the world of environmental policy. This isn’t the same as ESPN lobbying to get college football schedules and cable policies favorable to its corporate interests, but rather how media coverage can help create shifts in policy by virtue of focusing public attention on particular issues.

The particular case here is that of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that has been cited for numerous possible negative effects - despite “massive uncertainties underlying” those claims. Scholar Simon Kiss questioned why so many regulations exist if the science is so iffy:

The short answer is that media attention to BPA helped initiate and sustain attempts at regulation.  Thus, BPA regulation did not follow a traditional path of diffusion—whereby one state’s actions lead other states to act similarly.  Instead, local news stories within that state helped to produce a response from state lawmakers.

You can find more from Kiss, including a link to his full paper, at The Monkey Cage.


Influencing Media Coverage, in Politics & Sports

by Gene Giannotta

Two stories last month showed how external entities try to influence media coverage. First, the Republican National Committee protested plans by CNN and NBC to develop films about Hillary Clinton, claiming they would be propaganda pieces ahead of the 2016 election. In what may prove to be a largely symbolic vote, the RNC decided to boycott both networks during the primary debate season. 

The message was clear: change one aspect of your programming plans over the next few years or we’ll pull another important part of those plans.

CNN and NBC, however, did not back down.

ESPN, on the other hand, allegedly faced pressure from the National Football League over its involvement with a PBS “Frontline” investigation into concussions. Despite denials, reports claimed that it was concern over its image that caused the NFL to press ESPN, and concern over its business relationship that caused the cable sports network to cave.

Two similar cases, two different outcomes.

But the full picture of media and corporate interests isn’t quite as straightforward as those stories might make it seem.

Take ESPN, for example. After backing out of the “Frontline” partnership, The New York Times reported on the pressure from the NFL but didn’t stop there. In two additional, lengthy pieces, the Times detailed the ways in which the network exercises outsized influence in the worlds of college football and television policy. Whether making scheduling decisions or leveraging its position to gain privileged  status with cable providers and policymakers, ESPN is no stranger to exerting its own pressure to get its way.

One example: this graphic, from one of the Times’ stories, shows how ESPN’s relationship led to the rise of Boise State as a premiere football program while at the same time contributing to the downfall of Western Athletic Conference football:

Inline image 3

So while the RNC tried to leverage its primary debate product to stop the Clinton projects at CNN and NBC, it’s not a one-sided relationship. After all, like ESPN, those media outlets have pretty strong positions themselves when it comes to political coverage. Media is very consolidated these days - CNN and NBC are owned by two of the “Big Six” corporations that control about 90% of American media. So they’re significant gatekeepers when it comes to disseminating political information. Can the GOP really afford to alienate them?

This graphic is a bit outdated (Comcast has since bought NBCUniversal from GE, for example) but it still reflects the media landscape well:

Inline image 2

[This is the first in a series of posts on media this week: how groups try to influence coverage, how it relates to public opinion, and what the public thinks about it all]

What the Media Reaction and Executive Response to the Drone Memo Should Tell Us

By Nick Davis

It’s been about a couple weeks since President Obama and the Justice Department released their legal memo with regards to the drone program only because a leaked memo recovered by NBC forced its hand. In fact, the government still doesn’t even acknowledge its existence and speaks in hypotheticals.  The issue that first arose back in 2011 when American citizens, Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16 year old son, were targeted and killed by two separate drone strikes, has taken a tumultuous turn after the release of a memo that suggests it is perfectly legal for the United States government to kill an American citizen.

It’s certainly a valid question. The United States government would need a judge’s approval to wiretap Anwar Awlaki’s telephone. However, the president can unilaterally order the assassination of Anwar Awlaki, under the stipulations set forth in the white paper. (What is a white paper anyways?)

After taking a step back, weighing the arguments flying back and forth and observing Attorney General Eric Holder handle questions from the press, there are a couple things that I think deserve our attention and should shape our view of this memo.

In an increasingly divisive political landscape, it’s not often that media outlets Fox News and MSNBC agree. Each network has featured the drone memo as front-page news on both their nightly news as well as on their talk shows. Pundits on both channels have in one way or another roundly criticized the perceived overreach of power.

The conservative outlet Fox News veered off the conventional path of a strong national defense. This time it has become a staunch leader of traditional conservative values, due process, and constitutionalism. It frequently featured contributors criticizing the federal government for violating due process clauses of the constitution, including Judge Andrew Napolitano.  The judge has made it clear that the constitution doesn’t grant authority to the government to kill anyone without due process.

While Napolitano questioned the constitutional legality of the memo, Rachel Maddow approached the subject from a practical standpoint. In one of her opening monologues, Maddow acknowledged that everybody is in favor killing  ‘bad guys.’ But, how do you determine who is a bad guy? The words ‘imminent,’  ‘activities,’ and ‘senior US officials’ as it pertains to who can order a strike, are not defined and leave themselves to be easily manipulated. Even if someone knew that they were a suspect (which they don’t), how would they go about proving their innocence if no formal charges are filed and the government skips the trial and assumes guilt?

So, what should we make of this bipartisan reaction to the drone memo? It’s not often that there is a federal policy that is roundly disliked by both parties. Despite legal questions, public outrage itself should tell us about how the American people feel about the ethical implications involved. Let’s be clear. This memo authorizes the killing of American citizens without trial. If that doesn’t upset you, it should.

Additionally, the answers provided to questions over the drone memo by Holder indicate a mix of corruption and secrecy. The day after the memo was released, Holder fielded questions about the legal definitions and justifications to the wording and intent of the document. When asked what the difference between an ongoing and imminent threat is, the Attorney General responded, “We’ll have to look into that.” So he’s saying that he doesn’t know what’s in his own memo? Doubtful. He knows the white paper is heavily dependent on loose vocabulary.

To add to the secrecy, the congressional judiciary committees are the only entities outside of the Obama administration allowed to view the memos. The lawmakers are not allowed to take notes, make copies, or show their staffs. Wow.

Jay Carney tells us that the President takes his role ‘very seriously.’ I should hope so. Has he or his administration taken into account how these legal justifications could be used or interpreted in the future? The concern among many is that this memo could justify the killing of any American, not just a known terrorist. And frankly, it already has, al-Awlaki’s son Samir, was 16 when he was killed. He had no reputation as a terrorist and was never even accused as being such. He just had the unfortunate opportunity to have one as a parent. Everybody enjoys safety and security. This time however, it has crossed a line

The Attitudes We Have, Not the Choices We Make, Will Determine Our Future

By Nick Davis

The 2012 Presidential Election has come and gone and it didn’t arrive any too soon. In an intensely contested race for the Oval Office that was commonly hailed as one of the most important of our lifetime, Americans chose to put their faith back in the hands of President Obama for another four years. Many have argued that if we continue down this path, it will be the end of America as we know it.  However, this couldn’t be any further from the truth, and I voted for Romney. 

You see, while any number of crises could be the downfall of the United States, they are merely byproducts of a much deeper and ingrained culture of political bickering and one-upmanship that I liken to some sort of ‘social disease.’ One doesn’t have to look far to find its vile dark side. 

As the polling results began reporting back to the media last Tuesday, my Facebook and Twitter feeds exploded into an angry furor. My liberal friends rejoiced at the thought of ‘Mitt Money’ sulking in defeat while my conservative buddies were disgusted that we gave ‘that communist’ another term. According to them, our government was going back on what made us great.

I turned on the television and I couldn’t escape it there either.  As a political junkie, I enjoy watching both Fox News and MSNBC. I am easily amused by their painfully obvious bias to their respective party. However, it’s one thing to be biased, it’s another to be downright disrespectful and hostile to the opposing side.

On Fox News, I witnessed a completely jaded and vitriol Sean Hannity referring to Obama as ‘the anointed one’ and Karl Rove insisting that his mathematical background knows more than the ‘gobbledegook’ the trained statisticians were producing, also known as evidence. MSNBC isn’t free of any blame here either. Chris Matthews boneheaded-ly and proudly proclaimed that he was ‘so glad we had that storm’ referring to Hurricane Sandy. It apparently allowed Obama one more chance of ‘good politics.’ What an absolute disgrace. Attitudes like these where we put national politics ahead of the decency of common humanity are what’s hurting this country.

Even our own elected politicians prefer to spite the other party rather than work together to tackle today’s most important issues. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell summed it up best in October of 2010 when he stated, ‘my number one priority is making sure President Obama’s a one-term president.’ Really? Your number one priority isn’t to run on the platform you campaigned on, but to actively oppose the President in anything he does? I expect that kind of behavior from 14-year-old siblings, not public servants of the United States of America.

We as voters are just as much at fault as any of these media pundits or elected officials. During this last session of the 112th Congress, Senate leaders and Representatives garnered a pathetic 12% approval rating, the lowest such rating since 1947. It seemed as though we were ready for change; we were tired of the gridlock and infighting. You wouldn’t know it though by the way we voted. As whole, neither the executive branch nor either house of Congress garnered 50% approval and yet each party retained control of their respective institutions. We want change but we sure as hell don’t vote like it.

We’re stuck in this perpetual cycle of extreme partisan politics and hate. When we vote based on party affiliations and not policy solutions, we’ll never make decisions based on what’s best for our beloved country. When the politicians see the electorate as party minions, they’ll govern in such a way. Minions don’t compromise; they take everything they can get and then some. This in turn aggravates the other party, which in turn votes the party line just like before. When we interact with decency and respect, the media and politicians will follow.

Politics of media and books, via @Buzzfeed

I’m wondering where readers of Dianetics by L Ron Hubbard fall on this scale. 

Votifi #SXSW media roundup

We’re back home from SXSW. It was a a great experience for Votifi in so many ways. We highly recommend startups, founders, creatives and entrepreneurs to make an effort to attend SXSW in the future. We’ve been fortunate to land some good media over the last 10 days and here is a summary of what we got:  

March 26, 2012

Election 2012: Politics in a Wireless World, Aasil Ahmad’s interview with GenConnect at SXSWi

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

March 24, 2012

Once the People Connect, the Politicians Will Follow”, Lou Aronson’s interview with TechCocktail

"With a more diverse and mobile electorate we found a potential solution in the “disconnect” by using “peer to peer” issue-based connections as a tremendously powerful avenue to bring people together and enable them to form their own political connections."

March 19, 2012

Fox and Friends interviewwith Lou Aronson

March 14, 2012

Startups Trying to Improve the Political Process, Nicholas Montgomery,

Votifi tries to solve the problem of weighting expert opinions by ranking profiles. “We calibrate profiles based on a variety of explicit an implicit signals – its not just your answer to a single question, but rather your overall participation in the community through polls, discussions and content that builds a nuanced view of an issue,” [Aasil] Ahmad of Votifi said.

March 13, 2012

Grandstand and Votifi are the Buzziest DC Startups at SXSW this year,

Which startups caught our eye at SXSW Startup Village?,

In the age of cell phones and social media, this new company is working to re-invigorate and promote voter engagement. Votifi is a new social media based, political and current events polling and networking engine — a peer-to-peer recommendation engine for political discovery.

Votifi co-founder Aasil Ahmad interviewed on AP TV by Abram Boise
Video streaming by Ustream

March 11, 2012

Start-Ups Play Some Tunes at SXSW”, Nathan Koppel, Wall Street Journal, March 11, 2012
"South by Southwest has been called the Super Bowl of social media," said Lou Aronson, the founder of Votifi, a Bethesda, Md., company that distributes targeted political news to subscribers’ smartphones and other mobile devices. Mr. Aronson said he was thunderstruck when he learned he had been invited to take part in the Accelerator event. "This is where start-up companies like mine go to get discovered," he said.
BusinessRx: Votifi, Washington Post
"Our technology recognizes that the strength of the American political system lies in diversity of opinion, and that voters’ views are multidimensional and evolve over time. Online competitors tend to reinforce party lines or attempt to create consensus without necessary debate, and traditional political pollsters are finding it increasingly difficult to capture voters’ views in a mobile world. Votifi’s mobile polls and platform capture political views in real-time and make political content more accessible, particularly to those groups that have been traditionally underrepresented in the political process.”

March 9, 2012 Our first press release went out and got picked up by a few places including San Francisco Chronicle and Yahoo News.

February 29, 2012 7 DC Area companies selected for TechCocktail’s SXSW Startup Showcase,

February 25, 2012 Votifi headed to SXSWi and TechCocktail Accelerator Competitions,

[Lou] Aronson and the team over there sit right at the intersection of politics and technology, a space that DC-area startups need to occupy and occupy dominantly. When we spoke with Aronson today he seemed to share our philosophy that the ‘Age of Big Data’ is upon us, and that the implications are enormous for our political system as well as the companies that can harness and process this information.