The latest presidential election between the victorious Democrat Barack Obama and losing Republican Mitt Romney, as well as the continued gridlock in Washington, D.C., underscore the extremely polarized state of politics in contemporary U.S.
Mass media, particularly cable news networks, feed into this scenario by frequently presenting biased -- and sometimes even inflammatory -- accounts of current events, in defiance of traditional journalistic standards and the concept of impartiality.
Like any other capitalist enterprise, mass media is primarily driven by a desire for profits and high ratings. Consequently, the age-old precepts of responsible journalism have dramatically eroded.
Conservatives think most of mass media exhibit a liberal bias, while liberals reject this assertion, claiming to the contrary that, as corporate entities, media adheres to right-wing ideologies.
The International Business Times spoke to an expert on broadcast media to sort out this complex phenomenon.
Dr. Lance Strate is professor of communication and media studies and director of the professional studies in new media program at Fordham University in New York City.
IB Times: Critics and detractors of cable's Fox News claim the network has a right-wing bias and serves as a kind of propaganda arm for the Republican Party. But could one not make the same accusations about MSNBC -- that it espouses a decidedly left-wing bias?
Strate: Rupert Murdoch, the right-wing media mogul, hired Republican political consultant Roger Ailes to create the Fox News Channel, and it was conceived and planned from the very beginning to present a highly conservative view of the world. MSNBC at first tried to take the non-ideological approach traditional to broadcast news operations but was unable to compete effectively with CNN's long-established reputation and Fox's combination of entertaining format and political focus.
So, in order to distinguish itself from its competition, MSNBC became the mirror image of Fox, trying to do for the left what Fox had done on behalf of the right.
Thus, the answer is yes, MSNBC has become infected by the bias virus and turned into the counterpart to Fox.
IB Times: Where does CNN fit into this ideological battleground?
Strate: CNN, in turn, uses this to bolster their image as the leading source of objective journalism on cable and could be considered the heir to CBS as the Tiffany Network in regard to news -- an image that is augmented by their strong involvement in international news.
Recent promotional spots during the election had them claiming to be on the side of citizens, rather than one party or the other. Of course, the right claims that CNN exhibits a liberal bias, albeit one more subtle than MSNBC, and the left claims that they are ideologically conservative in essentially upholding the status quo.
For example, in presenting the election as a horse race between Democrats and Republicans, and in all of the shouting matches between liberal and conservative spokespersons, where are the numerous other candidates and representatives from other parties, such as the Greens and Libertarians?
IB Times: When did the very notion of liberal media bias arise? Was it during Richard Nixon's administration or before that era?
Strate: It pretty much became a meme during the Nixon campaign, with his vice president, Spiro Agnew, complaining the loudest.
During Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency, the talk was mainly of the press, and newspapers tended to favor Republican candidates, which was one reason why Roosevelt resorted to the radio in the form of his famous Fireside Chats.
The shift from talking about the press to talking about the media came about during the '60s and was largely due to fact of television's newfound dominance in our culture and the influence of critic Marshall McLuhan in making the media part of popular discourse.
IB Times: On an episode of “All in the Family,” Archie Bunker called Walter Cronkite a “pinko” and a “communist” (presumably due to Cronkite's opposition to the Vietnam War). But wasn't Cronkite widely admired and embraced by Middle America? Or was he also vilified by the right wing?
Strate: Known as "the most trusted man in America," Cronkite began reporting that the Vietnam War was not going well in 1968, and from the right's point of view, this was a betrayal almost as egregious as Jane Fonda's visit to Hanoi. For the majority, however, this was a turning point in popular opinion, a visible demonstration of Cronkite's honesty and courage, and the anti-war movement did not really take off until after this occurred.
Archie Bunker, and the kind of conservative views that he represented, was considered far on the fringe up until Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980. Cronkite retired in 1981 and therefore did not run into much of a conflict with the ascendency of conservative politics in America.
Interestingly, prior to the 1980 election, with Reagan perceived by many as an extremist and Carter as ineffectual, there was some talk of trying to get Cronkite to run for president, with polls showing that he had the potential to win such a campaign.
IB Times: What do you make of the fact that Fox News consistently attracts higher ratings than either MSNBC or CNN? Does this mean that there are a lot more conservatives in the U.S. than liberals or moderates despite Obama’s reelection?
Strate: It does reflect the strength of the conservative movement over the last few decades and the willingness of the audience to at least put up with that perspective. It also follows the rise of conservative talk hosts on radio -- such as Rush Limbaugh -- who have proven to be extremely popular.
But more than anything, Fox News has embraced an entertaining format, and television is above all an entertainment medium. As author and critic Neil Postman put it, it is attention-centered, image-centered, emotion-centered, and Fox has come up with a successful combination of sensationalist reporting and political discussion that emphasizes dramatic confrontation, not to mention a stable of good-looking on-air personalities, and this has made it possible for them to attract and hold audiences better than their competitors.
Of course, their audiences are still pretty small compared to the major networks.
IB Times: In the recent presidential election, the New York Times endorsed Obama, while the New York Post and Daily News endorsed Romney. When a newspaper endorses a political candidate, are they not sacrificing their journalistic impartiality? What's the point of these endorsements? Do they have any influence on the electorate?
Strate: Endorsements by newspaper editors is a longstanding tradition in the press and goes back to the days of the partisan press of the 18th century, long before the rise of objectivity in journalism in the 19th century.
But keep in mind that for most of the history of the press in the U.S., cities typically had a number of different newspapers competing with one another. So the reach of each newspaper was limited and local rather than national, with many competing points of view.
This is quite different from a handful of television channels competing for a national audience. Newspapers never had the reach or power of television programming.
Moreover, in the papers, opinion was clearly segregated from objective reporting of the news and relegated to the op-ed pages, whereas on television clear boundaries of that sort simply do not exist. This is not to deny that different papers had different slants and their political allegiances could influence their coverage, but newspapers were also very responsive to their readership, being directly dependent on them, whereas television is more beholden to advertisers, with audiences being the "product" they sell to commercial interests.
Perhaps the bottom line is that newspaper editors, in endorsing a candidate, were expected to provide a reasoned explanation for their support, that it was not an automatic display of ideological allegiance, which is why newspaper endorsements actually meant something and carried some weight with their readers. They are not without influence today, although nowhere near as much as they had before television came into the picture.
IB Times: With regard to Fox and MSNBC, at two polar opposites of the ideological spectrum, what is behind their business model? Are they simply “preaching to the converted”? How can they increase their ratings and revenue if they stick to their respective ideologies?
Strate: To a large degree, yes, they are “preaching to the converted,” and audiences generally seek out sources of news and opinion that are in line with their own prior values, beliefs and attitudes -- this is known as selective exposure.
As a business strategy, it parallels the political logic of campaigning to your base. You are creating a homogenous audience that is relatively stable in size and predictable in terms of its characteristics, and advertisers like that -- they like to know exactly what they're getting and exactly what they're paying for. Beyond that, the goal is to provide an entertaining programming option. If folks will tune in to Bill O'Reilly to see who he yells at, even if they agree with the victim and not O'Reilly, then Fox's programming strategy is working. And it has worked well for them, much better than MSNBC, although they are improving with the likes of Rachel Maddow. But is there any doubt that if they could steal them away from Comedy Central, MSNBC would be happy to run "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" and "The Colbert Report" on their network?
IB Times: Was U.S. political debate always as polarized as it appears to be now? Or is this something new?
Strate: We were even more polarized in the period immediately preceding the Civil War.
What is strange about our time is that there is this extreme polarization between candidates and, to some extent on values, but it seems to be a divide based on emotional responses, not rational evaluation of the issues. Say what you want about it, slavery was one hell of an issue, there were rational explanations and motivations on both sides of the divide, and everyone knew exactly what the conflict was about and what was at stake.
In this last election, there was little in the way of rational debate on economic issues, health care or foreign policy, and the differences between the two candidates were hardly clear at all. I think it all came down to which candidate voters felt to be most like them in style and tone and, yes, appearance and not whose thinking, ideas and ideals best matched their supporters and their interests.
IB Times: Are on-air personalities at Fox and MSNBC selected primarily for their political views?
Strate: They have to be willing to toe the party line, so to speak. Beyond that, on-air personalities everywhere are selected based on appearance and personality, how well they come across on television.
IB Times: During the Cronkite-Murrow-Huntley/Brinkley days, did the network executives and advertisers pressure the news departments to slant controversial news topics, like McCarthy's communist witch hunt, the civil rights movement and Vietnam War?
Strate: There were pressures from network executives and advertisers, absolutely, but there also were courageous individuals leading network news divisions whose allegiance was to the ideal of journalistic objectivity and public service, backed by FCC requirements for devoting some of their time on-air to the public interest, a notable example being Fred Friendly, who worked with Edward R. Murrow and helped to put an end to McCarthy and his "red scare."
But television came to be characterized as the timid giant, because executives became frightened to death of controversy, of offending any segment of their vast audience, and, therefore, sought out the least objectionable content (which fits nicely with detached, objective reporting).
The deregulation of broadcasting under the Reagan administration allowed executives to break down the ivory tower of broadcast journalism and place increasingly more emphasis on getting good ratings and, therefore, on creating entertaining programming.
And cable is almost entirely free from the oversight that broadcasting requires, so not only news but all sorts of nonfiction programming from National Geographic, Discovery, Learning and the like become outlets for various kinds of nonsense, distortion or disregard for facts, pandering, and the trivialization of important issues and concerns.
IB Times: ABC, CBS and NBC news have all seen their ratings eroding for years -- I assume cable TV and the Internet is responsible for this. What can they do to stop their declining numbers of viewers?
Strate: There isn't much they can do about it. Most viewers today were long accustomed to watching nightly network news programs and continue to do so -- just as many have been in the habit of reading a daily newspaper.
But younger generations do not share these habits. And where once it was an absolute requirement that a network provide a certain amount of news programming, it is now entirely possible that one of the major networks may simply decide that they no longer want to do the news, which was never profitable for them, always a loss leader, or perhaps they might decide to outsource their news coverage to a cable news source.
But the era of the Big Three broadcast news divisions is over. We're seeing a return to a new, audiovisual version of the partisan press and to a wide variety of news sources online via blogs, Twitter, YouTube, sites from established news organizations domestic and foreign, sites like Wikileaks and human and algorithmic aggregators. This may be good in some ways, bad in other ways, and certainly suggests major changes in the ways in which campaigns are conducted and governments operate.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.