Friday, March 29, 2013


"Why do you lay these troubles on an already troubled mind?"
Grima Wormtongue

Newspaper circulation and ratings of news shows continue a downward plunge, with very few exceptions.  This is met with glee by conservatives, and a bit of puzzlement as well; why won't these news organizations change their behavior?  Why do they seem to be even more slanted than before, why do they go out of their way to avoid covering huge pulitzer prize-caliber stories?  And why, with less and less actual audience to these news organizations seem to continue to have so much influence?
There's a study that was done by Marcus Prior at Princeton University (pdf file) which helps make sense of all this.  He compared the audiences of various news shows (cable and network) with the general voting population and discovered something pretty basic: so few people watch these things that they cannot be the source or even a major contributing factor in public understanding of issues.
Sure, the hardcore news junkie and fanatic will watch these shows and study them, but the general public just doesn't.  Fox News, for example, is the highest-rated news channel in the country, and on each average night, bout 0.7% of the population of the country watches it.  That's several million people so it seems like a lot, but compared to 315 million, it just doesn't add up.  Adding up all the cable news channels combined still isn't a very big number:
The share of Americans who watch cable news at a rate of 10 minutes or more per day is probably no larger than 10-15 percent of the voting age population and rises modestly when an exciting election approaches.
Now, when polled, people will give the news channel they tend to go to when they want to see news, but that doesn't mean they actually watch it much.  Folks who are polled want to sound informed and capable, so they'll say something just to avoid sounding like a cretin, even if its not really true.  Like people who claim to be churchgoers, but only go to church twice a year (Easter and Christmas) or weddings, that doesn't make them a news audience, it makes them someone who technically sometimes views a news channel.
Now Prior argues that the present polarization of views in America thus cannot be traced to cable news - Fox News Channel or otherwise - because there simply are not enough people consuming that news to shift an entire culture.  If one of your four buddies watches the news a lot, he's not the one making the culture change.
Prior points out that when there were only 3 TV channels with news on them, pretty much everyone watched the same evening news and drew their own conclusions.  There was literally nothing else to watch for a couple hours a night on every channel, and people loved them some TV, so they watched.  Now, very few people watch any news and get their ideas from other sources.  Moderates have been pushed in either direction by this, Prior argues.
So where do people get their news?  Not from news sources, but from popular culture and other sources which restate pieces of news.  The expansion of possible entertainment options pulled people away from the network TV channels and away from the news.  Now instead of being locked into network nightly news from 5-7 PM, you could watch a baseball game on ESPN, reruns of Sanford & Son on WTBS, a ballet on Arts & Entertainment, or a show about a drug-addled family of misfits on E!, the alternatives were available by the score.
That's not to say people stopped getting news and opinions, though. They get their information from ESPN and HBO and comedy shows, from entertainment and sources totally unrelated to news.  Snide comments from reality show stars, wisecracks from sitcom characters and late night comedians, youtube clips of Bill Maher and Rush Limbaugh, and Facebook posts about something they saw on ESPN.  When the characters on your favorite drama talk about the horrors of global warming (recent NCIS episode) or mock the Tea Party, or praise gun control, "Obamacare," or Secretary of State Clinton, that tends to influence your views on the issue.  Endless jokes about evil child-molesting priests have shaped a culture whose kneejerk reaction to anything Roman Catholic is a crack about molestation.  Constant hammering that Fox News is some hillbilly batch of right wing extremists or a mouthpiece for the Republican Party shape people's perceptions.
And this isn't done in the form of information or facts, its always done in the form of snide or joking sarcasm and opinion.  Nobody lays out the data and argues a persuasive case, they sneer and mock.  Nobody actually argues why Fox News is evil, they presume it and make jokes about it.
Which is where the old news sources come in.  These shows are written by people, the sports casters and announcers are done by people who have to learn their information somewhere.  And the old news is reaching out to the folks who inform them.  That 20% that watches cable news consists of the really motivated news junkie, the politically driven.
So when you see news sources being even more outrageously partisan and tilted than they ever were, and wonder why on earth they don't stop doing that to maybe win back readers they're alienating, you miss the point.  They're doing so because that's where their audience is.  The New York Times has several times in the past admitted that they are liberal and biased, and do so because their readers prefer it and agree with them.  In fact, they get lambasted by their audience for moderating even slightly from that position.
So they craft a certain narrative about events, people, and reality.  One perspective on events is reported on, while competing or varying stories get minimized, spun, or ignored.  To this day, almost nothing whatsoever has been published by the New York Times on scandals like the Fast & Furious story.  What has been reported has been essentially a White House press release.  By omitting some stories and pushing others, these news organizations can shape understanding and opinions on issues and people.
For example I know a guy online who is absolutely certain that President Obama is the most hated and abused president in human history, that no president has ever been treated so meanly and been so attacked.  He has no doubt about this at all, and further is unassailable in that position.  Just 5 years ago President Bush was in office, with movies and plays being written and performed accusing him of the most evil deeds imaginable and fantasizing about killing him.  President Bush faced unrelenting hatred and attack from the entertainment community, popular culture, academia, and politicians.  No horror was too awful to believe he was involved in, no hatred too extreme to be piled on him.
Today, President Obama is mocked and derided by right-leaning voters, sometimes with shocking venom and absurd fantasy.  But the difference is extreme: both the voters and the media, popular culture, academia, politicians etc were busy doing so against President Bush.  Against Obama?  Not even remotely close. Nobody has done a play about murdering President Obama to rave reviews.  Nobody has put out an indy film about killing the president that is shown at the Sundance Film Festival.  All you get are angry cranks on facebook and twitter.  There's no comparison.
But this guy is totally sure.  Why?  Because he is a hard leftist and doesn't get the news that challenges his assumptions.  He didn't get the stories about the plays and movies fantasizing about murdering Bush.  He only got the stories supporting the hatred and contempt.  He didn't see the unbelievable rage and hatred displayed in protests by foaming extremists.  He didn't get the speeches and comments by loony politicians.  What he does get are pictures of every misspelled Tea Party rally sign, every crank who claims Fox News is a certain way, every facebook post that insists Obama is the most put upon man on earth.  So he has no basis for understanding, that's all he knows, and further all he trusts.
People who challenge this are extremists, radicals, on the fringe, they have an agenda, they cannot be trusted.  If a Republican does something he likes, well they have a secret evil agenda behind it and should be stopped anyway.
And that's how the system works.  The news chooses what to report ("the deciders") and what not to, carefully crafts what is exposed, and puts it out.  The few people who actually pay attention to this then pass what they learned on to the public through various media, using not argument and persuasion but attack and sarcasm.  Michael Savage doesn't try to convince anyone of anything, he just yells and gnashes his teeth.  Jon Stewart puts on a false display of rhetoric on occasion, but its always just sophistry and sight gags.  These people are about shaping opinion, not persuasion.
So the fact that these news organizations are all but dead on the vine doesn't matter a bit in terms of their ability to manipulate events and politics.  In fact, they're more powerful than ever in this, because they are the Wormtongue of modern culture, whispering into the ears of the pundits and opinion makers, slipping their ideas into every possible setting and avenue, just to get people to think a certain way without even realizing it.
Its not so much collusion or design, there's no secret panel meeting in robes by torchlight under the Hollywood sign.  It more or less fell into place, not by craft but by coincidence; most people behind popular culture and entertainment lean left, so they trust their political allies.  Yes, there's been a concerted effort over the decades to build a coalition of people in various places who agree politically, but this just happened organically as the effort continued.  Nobody saw it coming, but they all found a way to make it work for them.
MSNBC and CNN don't really persuade anyone of anything, they tend to only confirm what their viewers already think, but those viewers then reach out and persuade others not through argument and fact but subtle peer pressure, mockery, and unexpected imposition.
*UPDATE: A perfect recent example of how this works.  A recent episode of the show Elementary featured a big snowstorm, and Sherlock Holmes quipped about how storms are getting strong and more powerful over recent years.  This is absolutely false, the opposite is actually true.
However, the writer of Elementary wanted Sherlock to say something smart and informed about the weather, so he put this into the mouth of the actor.  People who don't know anything about weather, climate, or even science hear it - from the mouth of an alleged expert on all things, no less - and believe it to be true.  After all, Sherlock Holmes....
Why did the writer do this?  Because he's been reassured by all the "correct" sources that not only is global warming causing horrific weather, but that anyone who doubts this is a knuckle dragging, sister-marrying, Fox news watching imbecile teabagger; never to be heeded.  And so it goes.

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