Contextualizing new media and partisanship today

Alexis de Tocqueville rightly observed that 19th century Americans were a newspaper-thirsty bunch. In “Democracy in America,” Tocqueville praises, “Nothing but a newspaper can drop the same thought into a thousand minds at the same moment. A newspaper is an adviser that does not require to be sought, but that comes of its own accord and talks to you briefly every day of the common weal, without distracting you from your private affairs.”

Toqueville presents himself as the iconic witness of the American experiment, and I often think of him as that French tourist loving his prolonged American vacation. He certainly took vigorous notes. In this example, Toqueville identifies newspapers as a source of community and common local experience. Of course, countless other historians have noted the ways in which a robust free press inspired American civic life.

But as I write this, I’m trying to picture Toqueville, that grand French spectator, hunched over a Macbook and posting a Facebook status. Would Toqueville have approved of today’s pervasively-partisan blogosphere? Of Fox News? Or is Tocqueville instead advocating a bygone era of blissful neighborhoods, in which residents anxiously awaited the paper-boy and nodded their heads in unison while skimming the editorial page?

Since the 1990s, journalism bigwigs, such as New Yorker writer Nicholas Lemann or Washington Post publisher Katharine Weymouth, have been mourning the death of the traditional newspaper. To many, the newspaper symbolizes a smorgasbord of American culture — that grand fusion of current events, art, sports, book reviews and crossword puzzles.

Maybe it’s that the morning newspaper has been on life-support since I was a toddler, but I’m not too worked up about its demise. Yes, Rupert Murdoch’s right-leaning Newscorp and addictive websites like the Drudge Report are a fairly new phenomenon, wearing their political preferences on their sleeves. But the oft-cited, oft-bemoaned “vast right-wing conspiracy” must be seen in context: a reaction against the polite-liberalism that dominated the mainstream press for a century, with few real alternatives. Politely liberal outlets, like today’s ABC or CBS news, really do attempt to downplay bias and look conservatives in the eye, yet they have been historically dominated by writers and producers who privately consider themselves Democrats. In fact, the early-twentieth century “yellow journalism” led by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst wasn’t even all that polite. Reporter bias has long been present. It’s human, and not even the worst human vice at that. Sometimes bias is well-sandwiched within the Washington Post editorial page, and sometimes it’s loud and sweaty, as in a round of Hardball with Chris Matthews.

But in reality, mainstream journalism has long had a lefty flavor to it. Outlets such as Fox News formed an extremely-lucrative business model by bringing conservative options to the table, and, now, with the Internet and competing cable news networks, we have the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet that is our current media. Many pundits and academics express worry that politically-charged blogs and niche magazines reinforce one’s already-held beliefs and, hence, drive a deeper wedge between conservative and liberal news consumers. Yet the perception that we’re all locked in our own politically sound-proof rooms is based on little evidence.

The more impassioned conservative and liberal readers visit like-minded sites, the likelier they are to seek out sources that also challenge their given opinions. The war of words that happens between say, Fox News and Media Matters, often, involves exposing readers to the writings of the opposite side. Bloggers may point out their competitors to underscore a gaffe or falsehood, but it gets followers moving to different crossroads of the web nevertheless.

Such is the beauty of the hyperlink. A recently published result in the journal “Political Behavior” combined five collections of study data between 2004 and 2008. Subjects were asked about their own political attitudes and their preferences for ideologically-charged news websites like the progressive DailyKos and the Tea Party-promoting Townhall.com. A relatively small slice of respondents admit gravitating toward politically-consistent websites such as the National Review Online or Moveon.org. The type of person who hangs out on politics-heavy blogs surprisingly proves to be more familiar with mainstream news outlets than the general public.

Curiously, even the critique of partisan media is rather partisan in itself. No person chastises himself for being too ideological and vows, as a New Year’s Resolution, to view more CNN. Instead, most of the criticism gets leveraged at political foes, i.e. the economy would improve if only we could issue a gag-order on the Glenn Becks or Keith Olbermanns of the world. This impulse to a shove a sock in the mouths of one’s adversaries is my reason for opposing “postpartisan” endeavors like the “No Labels” movement. Such feel-good strategies for public discourse pretend political ideology can be separated from public policy. It can’t. Eliminating one version of news bias means maintaining another.

It’s true that George Washington, upon leaving the presidency, hoped America wouldn’t succumb to political parties in his Farewell Address. Whether or not the Founding Fathers crossed their fingers for a party-free electorate, when people today complain about parties, they’re usually expressing dissatisfaction with politics in general, rather than the specific method of media or side of the aisle.
Consider these hypothetical moans: “Why are people spitting about the debt ceiling? Why can’t I turn on the TV without hearing about income inequality stats? Why does John Boehner’s gavel look like something better suited at a construction site than the House of Representatives?”

Obviously these examples get filtered though the hyper-partisan sieve that is our modern media. But at their core, they’re just as political as any of the elbow-shoving that went down during the Jefferson-Adams campaign, when parties were still hazy. Toqueville, I suspect, would have made his peace with media partisanship, if for no other reason than that the Internet is even more vast than the “vast right-wing conspiracy.”

Danielle is a sophomore. You can reach her at dcharet1@swarthmore.edu.

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