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.”