Media responsible for polarization and fear?

This is something I’ve been wondering for a long time.

How much of the political polarization and the social fear that we see these days is the media and the internet responsible for?

By political polarization, I mean the left/right wingnuts and their irrational hate for candidates and policies of the opposing party, and the constant exhortation that the other party is evil, and bent on ruining the country.

By “social fear”, I mean the fear that people seem to have these days about things like murderous carjackers, child molesters, kidnappers, school bombings, school shootings and the like. And how many of those are fueled by the media?

I don’t recall things being like this in the 70s and 80s, or even early 90s. It seems to me that a lot of it started changing with the advent of CNN and the 24-7 worldwide news coverage that followed.

I argue with people that no, there aren’t any more child molesters than before, it’s just that when they get caught in Oregon, people in Key West hear about it a few minutes later.

And that no, school bombings aren’t new and neither are school shootings. It’s just that in the past, you didn’t hear about it outside the locality or possibly region.

Finally, I argue that no, the Democrats are neither crazy nor evil, and while they may want to take your guns, they aren’t going to have the people in black helicopters show up at your door at 2 am and demand them.

Am I off base? Are all these things really a bigger deal than in times past, or is it just a matter of the existence of immediate and intense coverage and the existence of a persistent forum for crazy ideas?

Well, teach 'em a lesson - get all your news just from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.

You don’t remember Anita Bryant?

I’d say your memory is selective.

In the larger sense, it is not so much a matter of greater emphasis than different emphasis coupled to new technology.

Read accounts of the newspaper stories and editorials during the early years of this country to see truly vile slurs being cast on opposing political parties.

As to fears, the news media has simply hunted around to find new targets. Up through the 1970s with some spillover into the 1980s, it was “communists.” Through the 1980s, it was drugs. Then, as drug fears fell with the combination of overexposure in the news and sexiness in the entertainment field, and with no serious external enemies, we shifted to different forms of crime. In the last eight years, we have shifted onto A-rab terrorists, althought the disaster of our Iraq adventure has dampened some of that enthusiasm, leaving reports of the elatively rare child kidnapping and murder, (first played big in the 1980s), to dominate the news.

To a certain extent, you are probably correct that 24-hour/instant access news has promoted these stories. The various news/entertainment organizations need to promote “exciting” stories to maintain their audiences. However, that is simply the expansion of technology; the news outlets have not really changed what they have reported that much and the actual events are no more frequent and no worse than in previous decades.

I do remember the news in the 70s and 80s… but it was the local and national news in the evening and at night, AM radio news, and local newspapers, so with a limited amount of space and time, the news tended to be selected a little more carefully.

That’s not to say that they weren’t just as sensationalistic as they are now, but not every sensationalistic thing made it on the news like they do now, with CNN, Fox News, CNBC, etc… as well as bloggers, internet news sites, etc…

An example that comes to mind would be the difference between the Adam Walsh coverage in 1981 and the Caylee Anthony coverage recently. Both were in the national news, but I don’t recall live coverage of search teams, or anything like that back in 1981.

You don’t remember the “Satanic Panic” of the 1970s and 80s? A lot of people believed there were Satanic cults that ritually molested, murdered, and performed other sordid acts. Look up the McMartin Day Care case on Wikipedia. This came at the tail end of the whole Satanic Panic era. This wasn’t just some fringe thing. Check out the newspapers from your area in the 70s and early 80s and you’ll find articles about Satanic rituals.

In Europe during the early modern period lots of people came to believe that there was a conspiracy of witches that involved diabolism. After Reconstruction in the American south there were a lot of whites who feared that blacks were plotting insurrection. These kinds of things happened without mass communication as we understand it.


I agree with the OP. First, there used to be much less national news. Just three networks with half-hour news show. They were pretty much “fair” in that they were professional journalists (of course there was some big city, east coast bias). The news divisions did not need to make money and they saw news as a public service.

The advent of CNN and the 24 hour news cycle, combined with ubiquitous growth of technology allowing local news stations to capture live video on location, changed things dramatically. Then FOX News brought in UK-style tabloid news techniques to television and it has been a race to the bottom on all sides.

As an example, the idea of NBC being pro-Dem and ABC being pro-Pub would have been unthinkable in the 60s. Now it is clear what “side” MSNBC and Fox are on.

There is a difference. I agree during the early years the press was partisan and brutal, but its primary role was considered political. The press was seen as a way to protect dissident voices. There were numerous views and opinions available to the public without a commercial influence. Even in the ninetieth and early twentieth century when newspapers had a commercial influence, cities still had many newspapers, and special interest groups produced their own media providing a broad spectrum of political views, everyone from feminists to radicals had the opportunity to influence the public.

The news has dramatically changed in the last few decades and radically since Clinton. It has become a political outlet with a noticeable open door policy for lawmakers when they leave Washington. There is no real in depth investigative reporting on important social issue. No human interest stories about homelessness, poverty, the impact of the declining breadwinner wage or even the arts. I will give CNN credit for the documentaries it produces a few times a year, some are good, but I think they are too commercialized and superficial. There is no foreign coverage because most networks no longer have any foreign correspondents. I have to double check my facts, but I don’t believe there are any U.S. corespondents in Africa.

Most importantly, there is no honest investigation to expose fraud in the government or the corporate boardroom. Investigations into serious fraud are usually after the fact, when it’s too late. There is no effort to the help the public understand the significance of corporate financial influence on public policy. Basically, the the news does little to inform and protect the public.

To answer the OP, I do consider media largely responsible for the deep partisan division.

If this counts as an answer, the crime rate in the US has actually been decreasing consistently since the early 1980’s. I spent about twenty seconds on finding a cite, but it conveniently divides crime into various types. Violent crime has been decreasing, as well as overall crime. Murder peaked in 1980. This trend is true of both violent crime per capita and in total numbers. So yes, we’re safer today, and feelings otherwise are unjustified.

None of this answers the question of whether the media is responsible for polarization and fear, of course.

When has there ever been in depth investigative reporting on important social issues? If you are talking TV or radio, they never really did that and if you are talking newspapers and news magazines, they still do it.

I will agree that the vast majority of radio stations have gutted their news staffs and that the newspaper is slowly, (or not so slowly), dying in the North America, but TV has always been filled with “happy talk” and “if it bleeds it leads” stories with no substance. Heck, the “nightly news” used to be fifteen minutes of John Cameron Swayze reading the story leads from AP, UPI, and Reuters wires each day.

The quality of the news industry has waxed and waned over the years, but I do not think that it is accurate to claim that “the news” is any more responsible for fear-mongering or polarization, now, than it has ever been. It sounds, somewhat, as though you are currently in a particularly bad market.

This, I think, is a major factor in the whole equation. Twenty four hours a day, seven days a week is a LOT of time to fill with news. More time means more stupid stories being given air time, and more time for spin to take place, which only helps divide the issue. More time is devoted to focusing on differences, rather than similarities.

It’s all an effect of the permanent campaign, which started around the time of Nixon - when politics became more about garnering popular support for an agenda rather than creating actual governing policy. It’s all about winning the next news cycle nowadays.

The structure of media is radically different today than it was twenty or thirty years ago. I don’t think the past news provides a good comparison to the news today. Technology allows media to reach more people and control of the media by a few commercially driven corporations has led to market control, so people receive the same generic news across the country. The same applies to digital radio.

Because news has become a profit driven corporate structure and investigative journalism has been cut to save money, corporate and government news releases are more likely to be accepted as fact and no one investigates or questions the validity of the claims.

Add to the mix a news channel like Fox that took directives from the Bush White House and now the Republican Party to advance a corporate agenda. Fox marginalizes dissenting voices by ridiculing any opposing view that might threaten free market supremacy, specifically liberals, but even moderate Republicans, and scapegoats any group that could be suggestive of a need for social spending or a respect for human rights. The hostile and pugnacious communication style used by Fox commentators to bully anyone who challenges the corporate/free market agenda is a model for the public.

When people are not told the truth and led to believe official statements from those in power while anyone challenging those positions is painted as a liberal nutcase, I would say it contributes to sociopolitical divisions.

The Cold War
Rock music (remember the PMRC)
Psychos putting razorblades in your Halloween candy

When wasn’t it?
The difference now is with 24 hours news on half a dozen channels and the internet, it becomes increasingly more difficult to shock viewers into tuning in for long periods of time. You also end up with ridiculous sensationalized news stories like some kid getting murdered halfway accross the country or the Octomom getting airplay for weeks or months when 20-30 years ago these would have been interesting local news pieces.

Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things by Barry Glassner is a pretty good read on why Americans are terrified of everything from being killed by terrorists to having their kids snatched by pedophiles way out of proportion to the statistical likliness of happening.

I’ve got no shortage of criticisms of the press, but people don’t need “the media” for polarization and fear. People are entirely capable of polarizing and scaring themselves, and their press reflects that.

Thanks for the tip on the book. You’re right about fear. The pervasive communist threat always loomed in people’s minds until the wall came down. I know the American press has always had shortcomings, and as tomndebb points out, there is a history of press partisan mud slinging.

For me, the difference is the emergence of an institutional structure that focuses on dividends for shareholders and allows concentrated ownership. As inefficient as the history of the American press may be, there was an attempt from the early years of broadcast, through regulation, to limit commercialism and market domination by one or a few press owners. After WWII, lawmakers feared Nazi style propaganda, so they decided to try and lesson the likelihood with regulatory laws. Not by censoring speech, but by assuring a wide variety of speech.

I’d say you’re right as far as a lot of the social fear that is out there.

  1. You need to be worried about identity theft! Of course, it makes a better story if the Russian Mafia is the one opening up accounts in your name rather than an ex-girlfriend.

  2. The internet is full of sexual predators! Of coufrse, it makes a better story if the pedophile is someone who friends the kid of myspace rather than a creepy relative.

  3. Children are being abducted! Time for an Amber Alert! Probably just another ugly custody battle.

I would add what you have said with the addition of MTV style rapid cuts and soundbyte editing.

Risk by Dan Gardner (also published as The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things We Shouldn’t–and Put Ourselves in Greater Danger) is about real risks versus perceived risks, and is well worth reading. It devotes a significant amount of space to the issue of media influence on perceived risks.