January 20, 2012 6:30 pm

Pick your channel, choose your news

The growth of customised media, which espouse explicit tribal views, sets America apart from other western countries
illustration of TV remote

A couple of weeks ago, I threw a dinner party in New York – and encountered an unexpected etiquette-cum-politics challenge. By a piece of bad (or good) luck, the dinner coincided with a crucial primary contest to choose the Republican candidate for the 2012 election. So, as the guests arrived, we turned the television on to monitor the poll numbers over my salmon and chocolate mousse.

No problem, it seemed, but then there was a hitch: my dinner guests included some die-hard Republicans (including an important funder for Mitt Romney) and equally passionate, influential Democrats. So what channel, I wondered, should we watch? The Republicans naturally wanted Fox News, the rightwing channel, but the Democrats loathed that. So should I channel-hop to be “fair”, or pick a self-proclaimed “neutral” player, such as CNN (even though some Republicans curse this as “liberal”)?

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Gillian Tett

Welcome to an issue increasingly setting America apart from other western countries, particularly during an election year. In a country such as the UK, newspapers often have political leanings; however, television channels generally do not. To be sure, some rightwing watchers might accuse the BBC of being anti-establishment; but few would view it as pro-Labour. Similarly, in Japan and most of Continental Europe (with the notable exception of Italy), mainstream television channels also try to avoid explicit tribal affiliations, or views.

The US used to be the same: between 1950 and 1970, three channels (NBC, ABC, and CBS) accounted for 90 per cent of television consumption. These provided fairly impartial news, partly because television was more regulated, with a so-called “Fairness Doctrine” requiring TV outlets to give both sides of the story. But now this has changed. During the Reagan era, that regulation was rolled back, and the quantity of news sources has proliferated dramatically, even as the proportion of Americans consuming news has plunged (barely half of those under 35, for example, claim to read or watch news.) In a frantic effort to retain viewers, parts of the television and radio stations became more tribal: the highly popular rightwing Fox News channel is watched overwhelmingly by Republicans, say, while the liberal MSNBC attracts a primarily Democrat audience. And that tribalism does not apply to news alone. A recent survey from Entertainment Magazine shows that Republican and Democrat voters’ television tastes vary with popular shows too.

Republicans apparently like programmes about working people (Pawn Stars, or Only in America), action-packed police dramas (NCIS), and reality TV shows with competitions (The Biggest Loser). However, Democrats prefer comedies with progressive humour (Glee or South Park), and dramas without clear heroes, villains or morals (HBO’s Treme or Cougar Town). The most divisive programme is Discovery Channel’s Swamp Loggers, which features lumberjacks harvesting trees in the wetlands of North Carolina (no, I am not making this up). Republicans adore those lumberjacks; Democrats loathe them.

If you are feeling gloomy, it is possible to extrapolate a bigger – and alarming – trend. As Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing pointed out in a book, The Big Sort, a few years ago, American society appears to be increasingly fragmenting, prompting communities to “cluster” together geographically, and in cyberspace. That, coupled with the growing customisation of news, is creating intellectual echo chambers. “Before the advent of talk radio, cable news channels and most recently, the internet, citizens received a relatively consistent news package [which] fostered a common collective intelligence among the citizenry,” says Rebecca Chalif, a social scientist. “[But now] people choose media that agrees with their pre-existing political ideology, and ignore news that supports the opposite ideology.”

Nevertheless, it is also instructive to take a longer, historical view. This is not the first time such fragmentation has occurred: as Paul Starr, a Princeton professor of sociology notes, in the 19th century the newspaper industry was arguably as polarised – and tribal – as television today, and as important in disseminating news. There were, for example, almost a dozen different papers in Washington alone in the 19th century, many of which were closely tied to political figures or parties. “As a young republic (and to a large extent even after the civil war), the nation had partisan newspapers; the second stage, stretching across the 20th century, was characterised by powerful, independent media outlets that kept their distance from the parties; and in the third stage, we now have a hybrid system that combines elements of the first two,” he says.

That parallel will not comfort most modern observers; 19th-century politics, after all, was bloody. But, if nothing else, it shows that no media pattern is permanent. If America starts choosing more moderate, centrist and pragmatic leaders in the future, tribalism may become less commercially powerful. Meanwhile, in the case of my dinner party, I decided to deal with the current etiquette problem by hopping between Fox, MSNBC and CNN during courses. And it turned out to be instructive. Not only did I learn that there was very little difference in how the three channels reported the events (at least that night), but it also became clear that the guests were getting their hottest news from BlackBerries – not TV. And that merits a dinner debate of its own; albeit perhaps not during an election night.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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