Friday, August 19, 2005

Divided We Fall

The Fox News network's famous claim, "Fair and Balanced", is considered by most people on both sides of the political spectrum to be as authentic as a $3 bill. Yet that hasn't stopped Fox News from becoming the most-watched cable news channel in America, ahead of rivals CNN and MSNBC. Though the network plays to the right-wing crowd, employing some of the most belligerent and blustery commentators this side of talk-radio, a 2004 Pew study found that half of Fox's viewers identified themselves as Democrats or independents.

Are those liberals who tune into the network looking for political balance and a broader perspective? Not according to Professors Steffano DellaVigna of UC-Berkeley and Ethan Kaplan of Stockholm University, who recently concluded a long-term study of political bias in reporting. They suggest that both Democrats and Republicans watch Fox News to corroborate their own existing viewpoints. Republicans like Fox because the news emphasizes themes that appeal to them, and because there is a heavy ideological slant in favor of conservatism. Democrats who watch Fox do so not out of masochism, but rather, to strengthen their conviction against what they see as misplaced priorities, a lack of intellectual sophistication, and heavy-handed bias.

In other words, both sides are just looking to hear what they want to hear. Psychologists would call it “confirmation bias”, the tendency to emphasize and believe experiences that support one’s own views. Examples from everyday life are abundant. I’m still trying to project the momentary flashes of brilliance I’ve seen from the Redskins in their thus far lopsided preseason as proof that, despite all evidence to the contrary, they will finally turn it around this year. I know, dream on.

Confirmation bias is a far more serious problem in the context of our country’s political dialogue. People have always disagreed on politics, but it seems to me that with the advent of well-funded partisan advocacy groups, vituperative ideologues, and zealous bloggers, it’s become harder than ever to find the middle ground.

Since when did news become a partisan issue? The late Senator Daniel Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” That adage seems quaint now that liberals and conservatives can each get their own news and commentary, each never having to listen to a single word they disagree with.

With people content to ideologically insulate themselves, it is no wonder then that Republicans and Democrats treat each other as if they came from different planets. I’m tired of hearing about a divided America. When Senator Joe Biden (D-R.I.), a presumed presidential candidate in 2008, spoke on “Meet the Press” of visiting “the red states” to gauge support for his candidacy, I cringed. Didn’t anyone learn from Barack Obama’s memorable convention speech last year, that there is no Blue State America and Red State America, just the United States of America? Self-imposed divisions are hurting this country, with each side filled with foreboding for the other.

I hope that, in light of upcoming elections in 2006 and 2008, our new political leaders from both parties will look to the middle-of-the-road and try to formulate policy that chooses broader appeal over narrow partisanship. The country's current division only subtracts from our ability to relate to one another and get things done. Let's see a real uniter!

Last edited on September 3, 2005.

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