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On cable TV and talk radio, a push toward polarization

By Michael Smerconish
Friday, June 11, 2010; A17

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.

Silence.

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.

Unfortunately, this approach is rewarded with ratings, because ratings are driven by passion, not universal appeal or general acceptance. While the most recent polling and voter registration data suggest that political power lies in the middle, it remains largely untapped because it lacks the fervor of the extremes. This also explains the lack of loyalty by centrists for media personalities such as Campbell Brown, unlike the devotion the far right and left have for their own torch-bearers. The more doctrinaire the viewpoint, the better the odds it will be heard.

Brown abandoned her 8 p.m. program because, in her words, "not enough people want to watch." "The 8 p.m. hour in cable news world is currently driven by the indomitable Bill O'Reilly, Nancy Grace and Keith Olbermann," she said. "Shedding my own journalistic skin to try to inhabit the kind of persona that might co-exist in that lineup is simply impossible for me."

Viewers and listeners have become conditioned to expect -- and accept -- only perspectives that line up on one side of the aisle. Interestingly, while the audience hears the extremes, the populace appears headed in a different direction. A Wall Street Journal-NBC News poll last month found that more respondents deemed their approach to issues as "moderate" (37 percent) than any other classification (very liberal, somewhat liberal, very conservative or somewhat conservative). Nevertheless, politicians, keyed up by on-camera conflict and forced into constant campaign mode by the 24-7 news cycle, strive to placate the most reliable voters, those who vote in primaries, tend to be the most polarized and make the most contributions. Ask South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson (R-"You lie!") or Florida Rep. Alan Grayson (D-"Die quickly") how their fundraising went in the quarters after their outlandish outbursts regarding the president's and the Republicans' respective health-care plans.

No wonder that, when elected, many treat their legislative colleagues the way they would a pundit on a split screen. Collegiality used to be commonplace. Now it's political kryptonite.

The endangered part of the political spectrum is now the middle. Centrists such as Republican New York Assemblywoman Dede Scozzafava get ridiculed as weak or lacking in principle. Sen. Arlen Specter's decisive loss in Pennsylvania and Sen. John McCain's fight for his political life in Arizona are signs of the vulnerability of nonideologues running in primaries that cater to the passions at the ends of the spectrum.

All of which leaves more elected officials beholden to the fringe elements of their parties, which in turn means less gets done. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, and it is robbing our televisions and radios of the substantive dialogue the country desperately needs, while leaving our politics a petty and unproductive mess.

The writer is a nationally syndicated radio host and columnist and an MSNBC contributor.

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