Policy and Polarization

Numbers cruncher Nate Silver took a look at the recent New York Times poll of people who consider themselves supporters of the Tea Party movement, and noted that media habits were the most salient predictor of such support.

According to Silver, “Tea-partiers are disproportionately attached to, and perhaps influenced by, FOX News. And they are particularly enamored of Glenn Beck. Nationally, just 18 percent of people have a favorable opinion of Beck (the majority have no opinion whatsoever about him). But most tea-partiers do… 59 percent of those who do think highly of Beck consider themselves a part of the tea-party. This is, in fact, the single biggest differentiator of any of the items that the NYT asked about: not ideology, not any particular political belief, but whom they watch on television.”

It isn’t just Fox. Increasingly, the television programming you watch, the newspapers, magazines and blogs you read, and the other media you access have become predictors of the reality you inhabit.

Over the past eight years, I have team-taught a course with James Brown, Associate Dean of IUPUI’s Journalism School. The course is titled “Media and Public Affairs” and it enrolls both journalism and policy students. Its purpose is to explore the mutual dependence of the media and government.  When we first taught the course, it was a relatively straightforward exploration of the history of American journalism and freedom of the press: today, we aren’t even sure what “the media” is. And that’s a problem, not just for the classroom, but for the country.

In a large and diverse democracy, the ability of citizens to make informed decisions about public policy is critically dependent upon the quality, objectivity and completeness of the information available to them. We are seeing dramatic changes in the ways in which Americans access that information. At a time when the relationship between government and media has become increasingly important, that relationship has become increasingly problematic.

The media’s role in American policymaking involves two supremely important functions, that of “watchdog” and that of information provider. The watchdog function is intended to keep public administrators honest; the information function allows the public to make reasoned judgments, not just about their government’s actions and decisions, but about the all-important context within which those actions are taken and decisions made.

Governments depend upon a properly functioning media in order to make sound policy; citizens require a properly functioning media to ensure that their own policy judgments are informed.

The ideal of journalism is objectivity, difficult as that often is to achieve. Every journalist cannot be Walter Cronkite, but we cannot function as citizens without genuinely impartial and trustworthy sources of information. When we substitute commentators for reporters, when supposedly reputable news sources act like stenographers—giving us “balance” (i.e. “he said, she said”) without fact-checking who’s telling the truth—we end up in a black and white world where we can choose the “facts” we prefer to believe.

And then we wonder why everyone is so angry.

1 Comment

  1. I can attest to your point. i grew up in the suburbs of Indianapolis and half of my friends moved to Carmel Fishers Noblesville and an equal amount moved to Bloomington or Broad Ripple or just stayed in Indy, your community seems to also be a pretty good indicator of your worldview. What is scary is that a great number of people operate from the view that the people that disagree with their viewpoint are uninformed and naive and at worst being fed lies by the major Media or Fox news. What really amazes me is that my friends that have adopted a viewpoint completely at odds with my own shared the same educational institutions, even right through college in a lot of circumstances, neighborhoods and experiences. It is crazy to hear the white resentment of My tax dollars going to those other people expressed from friends of mine that I know grew up in a school that was 20% African American at Pike High.

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