On cable TV and talk radio, a push toward polarization

By Michael Smerconish
Friday, June 11, 2010

Any conversation about political polarization would be incomplete without a look at the media's role in shaping opinions. From my view on the front lines, I have seen a rapid escalation of extreme dialogue -- sadly, something sure to guarantee high ratings. Indeed, Campbell Brown's departure from her CNN show last month marks another tombstone in the graveyard of moderate, thoughtful analysis.

Why does this matter? I'd argue that the climate in Washington is being shaped by an artificial presentation of attitudes on cable TV and talk radio. To view and to listen is to become convinced that there are only two, diametrically opposed philosophical approaches to the issues. And yet, working daily in both mediums, I often think that the only people I meet who see the world entirely through liberal or conservative lenses are the hosts with whom I rub shoulders.

Buying gas or groceries or attending back-to-school nights, I speak to people for whom the issues are a mixed bag; they are liberal on some, conservative on others, middle of the road on the rest. But politicians don't take their cues from those people. No, politicians emulate the world of punditry.

Opinions from the middle are underrepresented, even shunned, in the modern debate. Consider: In May 2008, a few weeks after Pennsylvania's presidential primary, I was scheduled to appear on CNN's "Larry King Live." During the customary pre-interview with a program producer, I gave a summation of how I saw the presidential race. The producer was satisfied. At the conclusion of our chat, I asked how I would be identified.

"As a John McCain supporter," I was told.

"But I'm not sure I will vote for McCain," I responded.


The producer asked whether CNN could identify me as a conservative. "Well, if someone who supports harsh interrogation, thinks we should be out of Iraq but in Pakistan, doesn't care much if two guys hook up, and believes we should legalize pot and prostitution is conservative, fine," I replied.

More silence.

Why not just introduce me as a radio host, columnist and author, I asked. I was told to await a call-back to see whether I was still needed. (Ultimately, I did appear on the program, under the heading of "talk-radio host, columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News and Philadelphia Inquirer. He is a Republican.")

Another time, a Fox News producer invited me to appear on a program to discuss then-candidate Barack Obama. I was told they were "looking for someone who would say he's cocky and that his cockiness will hurt him, if not in the primary, definitely in the general election against McCain." I declined. A few hours later, the same producer made a new pitch: "What about a debate off the top of the show on whether or not Hillary is trustworthy? We have someone who says she is and we're looking for someone who says she isn't."

The message of both episodes is clear: There is no room for nuance. Either you offer a consistent (possibly artificial) ideological view or you often don't get a say.

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