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: The pace of events and competitive pressure invariably war with the media's duties to provide balance and perspective. 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 -- with all the extraordinary demands it is bound to make -- 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 to levels unmatched in recent memory.
The issues can be seen most clearly in the knock-down, drag-out fight among the all-news cable television networks. What began as a normal struggle over ratings has become the contemporary media equivalent of the Spanish Civil War, a vicious battleground in which new technologies and strategies are being tested with daunting implications for the future. 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. One American in four now is a regular viewer.
Fox's winning formula is essentially the continuation of 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. To anyone prone to twist the AM dial on the car radio, it's a familiar caldron, a witches' brew of rancor, sneers and resentment stirred for maximum distortion.
A certain number of people find this brew 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 -- and because it's cheap to put on the air, the other two networks are attracted to the model.
Preaching to the choir
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 percentage points more than four years ago. Meanwhile, 50% 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.
Popular beliefs about the credibility of other news organizations also divide increasingly along partisan lines. Pew found that only half as many Republicans as Democrats view ABC, CBS and NBC news as credible. The GOP respondents voiced a similar skepticism about National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting's "NewsHour."
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% of the Republicans surveyed and 29% of the Democrats said yes. USA Today is believed by 14% of the Republicans and 25% of the Democrats. Most surprising was the fact that only 23% 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.
Pew's portrait of a news audience fractured along ideological lines carried consistently over into other media. "The audiences for Rush Limbaugh's radio show and Bill O'Reilly's TV program remain overwhelmingly conservative and Republican," the center's analysts wrote. "By contrast, audiences for some other news sources, notably NPR, "NewsHour," and magazines such as the New Yorker, the Atlantic and Harper's, tilt liberal and Democratic, but not nearly to the same degree."