The Real Media Divide

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By Markus Prior
Monday, July 16, 2007

Today's news world is a political junkie's oyster. Cable TV offers CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and C-SPAN. The Washington Post, BBC online, The Note and many, many more news Web sites are only a click away. But that's where they remain for many Americans. Decades into the "information age," the public is as uninformed as before the rise of cable television and the Internet.

Greater access to media, ironically, has reduced the share of Americans who are politically informed. The most significant effect of more media choice is not the wider dissemination of political news but mounting inequality in political involvement. Some people follow news more closely than in the past, but many others avoid it altogether.

Now that Americans can choose among countless channels and Web sites, the role of motivation is key. Many people's reasons for watching television or surfing the Web do not include learning about politics. Today's media users seek out the content they really like. Unfortunately for a political system that benefits from an informed citizenry, few people really like the news.

Consider the broadcast networks' desperate struggle to hold on to an ever-shrinking news audience. The problem is not that shallow, loud or negative coverage of politics causes viewers to tune out in disgust. It's that for many people shallow, loud entertainment offers greater satisfaction, and it always has. Now, such entertainment is available around the clock and in unprecedented variety. Television viewers have not abandoned the evening news out of frustration -- they just found something more enjoyable. Even Katie Couric can't stanch that trend.

The flip side of the entertainment fan who doesn't have to watch the news is the news junkie who now can follow it constantly. A relatively small segment of the population -- my own research indicates it's less than a fifth -- specializes in news content. But such people consume so much of it that the total amount of time Americans spend watching, reading and listening to news has not declined even though many people have tuned out.

The new fault line of civic involvement is between news junkies and entertainment fans. Entertainment fans are abandoning news and politics not because it has become harder to be involved but because they have decided to devote their time to content that promises greater immediate gratification. As a result, they learn less about politics and are less likely to vote at a time when news junkies are becoming even more engaged. Unlike most forms of inequality, this rising divergence in political involvement is a result of voluntary consumption decisions. Making sure everybody has access to media won't fix the problem -- it is exactly the cause.

When media users get what they want all the time, does anyone get hurt? Well, yes. The expansion of news choices has many worried about partisan bias. Such worries are overstated. Fox News's Bill O'Reilly preaches mostly to the converted; there have always been passionate conservatives, and exposure to one-sided media will hardly make them more conservative. Plus, a little O'Reilly doesn't harm anybody. The danger lies not in larger audiences for politically biased news outlets per se but in exclusive exposure to outlets all biased in the same direction. But many Fox News viewers also watch CNN and MSNBC.

More troubling is that entertainment fans reduce the political representation of their interests when they avoid news and cut down on their political participation. Politicians pay more attention to voters than to nonvoters, so the views of these less-involved entertainment fans may not be reflected in political outcomes as much as they were in the past.

Greater media choice is both gratifying and a powerful political asset for those people who read op-eds and then move on to NPR, Instapundit and Wolf Blitzer. It is more treacherous for entertainment fans. Happy as they are with a remote control in one hand and a computer mouse in the other, they never consciously weigh the pleasure of constant entertainment against the cost of leaving politics to news junkies and politicians. The danger is not that they are seduced by the views of Ann Coulter or Arianna Huffington but that they don't know who such people are. And not that they cast more ideologically extreme votes but that they no longer vote at all.

Markus Prior is assistant professor of politics and public affairs at Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School. He is the author of "Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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