Sat, 10 Jul 2004

Presidential election comes amid news-challenged times

Tim Rutten Los Angeles Times

If the American news media are lucky, 2004 will be remembered as the year of living dangerously. If not, then this election cycle may be recalled as the point at which journalism's slide back into partisanship became a kind of free-fall.

Presidential elections always challenge the press. Readers, viewers and listeners inevitably become more critical news consumers as their personal preferences solidify. This year, the polls instruct us, the country is likely to approach November so exquisitely divided that serious analysts actually wonder whether Michael Moore's anti-administration agitprop may tip the electoral scales.

This situation comes at a time when an ever-growing share of the news media is increasingly unsure of its direction and when the public's trust in what it reads, sees and hears has fallen.

The issues can be seen most clearly in the knock-down, drag- out fight among the all-news cable television networks.

Actually, the war is between Fox and CNN. The third network, MSNBC, is sort of like the Catalan anarchists -- slaughtered by everyone.

Its slogan notwithstanding, Fox News is the most blatantly biased major American news organization since the era of yellow journalism.

But by turning itself into a 24-hour cycle of chat shows linked by just enough snippets of news to keep the argument going, Fox has made itself the most watched of the cable networks.

Fox's winning formula is essentially talk radio by other means: All opinions are shouted, and contrary views are admitted only if they agree to come on camera dressed as straw men.

A certain number of people find it entertaining -- much, one supposes, as others do bull baiting or cockfighting.

The problem is that since it is popular within the relatively small universe of cable news viewers -- the medium's most popular show actually has an audience about the size of a good metropolitan newspaper

Troubling as that may be, it pales beside what's happened to the cable news audience. According to a recent survey by the independent Pew Center, more than half of all Fox News viewers now describe themselves as political conservatives. That is 12 percent more than four years ago.

Meanwhile, 50 percent of CNN's viewers now call themselves liberals or independents. Among the Republicans polled in Pew's 3,000-person national sample, Fox is the most trusted source of news. Democrats most trust CNN.

The cable news audience, in other words, is increasingly dividing itself along partisan lines, seeking not information but confirmation.

The country's three nationally circulated newspapers fared little better. Asked whether they believed "all or most" of what they read in The New York Times, only 14 percent of the Republicans surveyed and 29 percent of the Democrats said yes.

USA Today is believed by 14 percent of the Republicans and 25 percent of the Democrats. Most surprising was the fact that only 23 percent of Pew's GOP respondents felt they can believe all or most of what they read in The Wall Street Journal, which has one of the nation's most consistently and coherently conservative editorial pages. One in four Democrats trusts the Journal's reporting.

Before we declare the apocalypse too loudly, it's worth recalling that similar things have happened in earlier periods of national distress. During the depths of the Depression, for example, the pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic radio priest Father Charles Coughlin had an audience twice that of the popular Limbaugh. At the time, the country's population was half what it is today, and there were no portable radios and only a handful in cars.)

The greater danger for America's people and the press is that what we now call partisanship will harden further into what the Founders detested as "faction."

If one believes that the First Amendment is meant to protect something other than corporate profits -- that fair, nonpartisan journalism serves the common good -- then it is clear that more than ratings or circulation is at issue here: The open society is propped open by truth; knowledge is the air that democracy breathes.

Factional dogmatism, with its blind preference for the party line and its confusion between attitudes and ideas, abhors the truly open society. Moreover, our contemporary factions are organized around what the late Canadian philosopher J.M. Cameron called "syndrome thinking" -- a willingness to embrace a complex of beliefs connected by something other than logic.

These are hardly novel notions.

In February 1877, during his famous lecture on the "history of freedom in antiquity," the greatest of 19th century historians, Lord Acton, said, "If hostile interests have wrought much injury, false ideas have wrought still more; and liberty's advance is recorded in the increase of knowledge as much as in the improvement of laws."