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The Fox/MSNBC effect

For us news junkies, it seems so clear that the creation of ideologically-oriented 24-hour news channels like Fox and MSNBC help explain the growing polarization of America, for obvious reasons.

Political scientist Matthew Levendusky of UCal-Davis, author of “How Partisan Media Polarize America,” offers to at least complicate what seems obvious.

In a post for “The Monkey Cage,” Levendusky offers the first few (also obvious) facts to complicate that view. For example:

“Even the most popular cable news programs get 2 to 3 million viewers on a typical evening in a country of 300 million Americans.”


“People seek out media choices that reinforce their existing beliefs… Republicans are more likely to tune in to Fox News and liberals are more likely to watch MSNBC.”

So yes, the existence of partisan news channels probably does strengthen the pre-existing political beliefs of those who watch them, and this might contribute to the increasing polarization of those two relatively small niche audiences. And some of those polarized political views probably spread out by osmosis into a larger group.

But it’s pretty important to bear in mind that the vast majority of Americans who are neither particularly political, partisan, ideological nor news-obsessed, aren’t watching either network. In fact, the biggest impact that the creation of cable TV had on the viewing habits of most Americans, is that it gave them hundreds of non-news —  sports, reruns, reality shows and so much more — things to watch compared to the good old days (also pre-internet and pre-DVR) when there was pretty much nothing to watch at 6 p.m. other than the evening news broadcast of the three networks which, as Levendusky summarizes, “all basically gave the same news in a similar format.”

Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 02/04/2014 - 01:03 pm.

    The advantage of cable news channels

    is that they provide consumer choice, unlike back in the day when, as Levendusky puts it, “all basically gave the same news in a similar format.”

    Bill O’Reilly likes to talk about how his old colleagues at the network news shows (he worked for both CBS and ABC News) despised the cable news channels because the networks no longer had a monopoly on what was “the news.”

    Let the market decide.

  2. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 02/04/2014 - 01:12 pm.

    I actually don’t think the countries polarized.

    I think that a lot of conservatives are polarized but their numbers a minority. Polarization can be difficult to capture actually in polls because they cover attitudes that can be very shallow or temporary. Real polarization deep seated commitment and I’m thinking that a lot of this was actually quite shallow. I think the collapse of the Tea Party and the Republican Party are telling us that people are tired of all of these so-called wars launched from the Right. Culture wars, Christmas wars, language wars, etc. I don’t think this represents a shift to the left, I think it tells us that the majority people were never that invested in these pseudo crises to begin with. My new response to America haters like the ones who are complaining about the multilingual Coke commercial is: ‘America doesn’t have the problem, you do.” It looks to me like the conservative agenda is collapsing too quickly to be attributed to substantial changes in attitudes on a mass scale.

    I say when you come across one of these so-called conservatives instead of railing on them, just ask them to recognize that their fellow Americans are NOT enemies. Stop trying to turn your fellow citizens into all kinds of different illegal persons and treat people with dignity and respect.

    • Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/04/2014 - 09:19 pm.

      I don’t think that the country’s polarized either

      A MinnPost article just a few days ago referenced a Minnesota poll showing that more people described themselves as conservatives, then as moderates, and lastly as liberals. My take is that the whole country is much the same but with about three equal thirds. Polarization would indicate two opposite sides with little in the middle but it seems like we have plenty of citizens in the middle.

  3. Submitted by Donald Larsson on 02/04/2014 - 09:39 pm.

    Polarization is not all that new

    It’s useful to recall that there was a time when newspapers in various cities could be radically at odds with each other in ways that make Fox and MSNBC look like complacent feel-good news channels. Of course, the impact of such differences was somewhat more geographically isolated, but we tend to continually recall the past as a better age than the present, even when it wasn’t.

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