The Rise of Polarized Media

[Content Warning: Homophobia]

Viewers tuning into ABC on August 5, 1968 for coverage of that year’s Republican National Convention in Miami were treated to a special and altogether new sort of treat. Instead of the commonplace and expensive wall-to-wall coverage that NBC and CBS were offering their viewers, a cash-strapped ABC hired two of America’s leading public intellectuals and prominent television personalities to debate one another on the issues of that day’s convention. Those two men were National Review editor William F. Buckley, Jr., one of the central disciples of the modern American conservative movement, and Gore Vidal, a liberal writer of history, who had recently garnered controversy with the publication of his groundbreaking novel Myra Breckinridge, which depicted transsexuality and deviant sexual practices in a way uncommon in the 1960s. ABC executives had hoped that although they had little to provide to viewers in way of substance for their coverage, that the Buckley-Vidal debates would make up for that with plenty of style.

The result was predictably explosive, especially for the penultimate debate on August 28 when both debaters, stunned by the aftermath of the violence in Chicago’s Grant Park, took to verbal attacks and threats unlike anything they’d used in previous debates. Vidal referred to Buckley as a “crypto-Nazi,” leading Buckley to say to Vidal “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” It was a personal low point for Buckley’s career and a watershed moment for American television. Those who look back fondly on the 1950s and 1960s as being home to a golden era of TV journalism tend to look to the Buckley-Vidal debates as the turning point toward a grave future that lay ahead for the profession. The following day, the last debate aired with the two debaters in separate rooms. Buckley lamented about how foolish he’d been on the air, but Vidal made a snide remark that was far more prophetic than he could have conceived of at the time: “Well, I guess we gave them their money’s worth tonight!”

What followed was a sea of change in the way that television treated broadcast news. Audiences lapped up televised debate, and soon television news centered around “talking heads” began to take off in a major way. The format of pundit television had been pioneered by Buckley himself with his PBS program Firing Line that began airing in 1966. The format of televised debate between pundits took another leap forward on September 19, 1971 with the introduction of “Point-Counterpoint” segments on 60 Minutes, an ABC product that began airing in September 1968. The segment pitted Nicholas von Hoffman arguing from a liberal viewpoint and James Kilpatrick arguing from a conservative viewpoint in three-minute, unresolved debates as the ending segment to each broadcast. Von Hoffman was replaced by Sasha Alexander on the liberal side of “Point-Counterpoint” in 1975, and the format that soon took over news television took off.

The success of “Point-Counterpoint,” famously lampooned by Jane Curtin and Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live, was soon followed by Crossfire in 1982 on CNN, which itself was founded in 1982, starring Pat Buchanan and Tom Braden. The McLaughlin Group also premiered in 1982 with a group debate format, and the pundit-based news format that CNN pioneered became a cornerstone for the burgeoning world of cable news. As Jon Stewart famously lamented to Tucker Carlson on Crossfire in 2004, “You’re doing theater when you should be doing debate.” In that appearance, Stewart aptly described that comparing Crossfire to debate was like “Saying pro wrestling is a show about athletic competition.” Whatever high-minded possibilities that the format had originally offered with the open-ended “Point-Counterpoint” was now the habitat of what Stewart called “partisan hacks.” But it was too late -- news based in opinion over fact had shown its ability to satiate the nation’s sweet tooth.

Although the floodgates of partisan programming and the subsequent political polarization to follow hadn’t opened yet, there is a clear antecedent in the opinion-based reporting we see today on cable news with the pundit-based discussion programs popular in the 1970s through the 1990s. However, data shows that there was actually little comparative increase in political polarization during this period. This all changed with two major developments: the FCC’s 1987 decision to do away with the Fairness Doctrine and Congress’ passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The Fairness Doctrine was a policy introduced in 1949 that required licensees under the FCC to devote time to matters of public importance and to provide contrasting views on these issues. The policy was implemented in 1949, but the FCC under Ronald Reagan viewed the doctrine as antithetical to free speech under the First Amendment. In doing away with the Fairness Doctrine, the FCC cited the wide variety of media voices in the market, arguing that by restricting the journalistic freedom of broadcasters that the doctrine actually inhibited presentation of controversial issues and degraded editorial prerogative. Attempts to codify the doctrine in law were rebuffed and threatened with a veto by Reagan and George H. W. Bush. The demise of the Fairness Doctrine came at a time when television news was still dominated by the Big Three networks: ABC, NBC, and CBS. It also came at a time before conservative talk radio and cable news networks that would soon take advantage of the lack of restrictions.

The removal of the Fairness Doctrine occurred alongside the removal of the FCC’s Non-entertainment Program Regulation that dictated how much educational content must be included in a broadcast. The FCC’s removal of the Fairness Doctrine resulted in a considerable increase in the number of AM radio stations voicing information and opinions from a conservative viewpoint. These hosts now had considerably more ability to dictate what they could say on the air and conservative talk radio took off. While the Reagan and Bush, Sr.-era FCC had hoped that this policy change would result in an increase of radio viewpoints across the political spectrum, soon only conservative talk radio proved commercially viable. This was egged on by the rise of right-wing media sites like The Drudge Report in the wake of the Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky scandals engulfing the Clinton White House. A study of political talk radio in 2007 found that 76% of it was broadcast with a conservative viewpoint compared to just 24% with a liberal viewpoint.

It was from this world of conservative talk radio that Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Laura Ingraham, all Fox News fixtures, were pulled from conservative radio by the network in their search for conservative news hosts. A 2012 study from the University of Maine found a correlation between the end of the Fairness Doctrine, the rise of conservative talk radio, and increases in the number of people believing in anti-establishment viewpoints. A separate 2002 study found that there was a significant and unique move to the political right among listeners of Rush Limbaugh’s radio program between 1992 and 1996. The influence of conservative talk radio only increased as de-regulation and media consolidation came about as a result of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 took the process of deregulating the media a few steps further. The act intended to follow up the 1984 breakup of AT&T’s monopoly with legislation to improve competition in telecommunications and media, but instead ended up increasing the number of media mergers that took place in the United States and resulted in a handful of media conglomerates whose constituent companies were previously separated by regulations. This act not only increased the number of available television channels, but also greatly increased the number of channels devoted to televised news and partisan news networks. The deregulation that the act allowed led cable companies to hike up their cable prices, which incentivized media companies like Fox to create their own cable networks. The act itself was passed in February 1996, the same month that Rupert Murdoch approached NBC executive Roger Ailes about forming a news company that became Fox News.

While there is little evidence that political polarization significantly increased prior to the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, there is now evidence that a surge in polarized political sentiments occurred in the wake of the act's passage and the subsequent movement towards diversifying television news and the introduction of partisan news networks. The deregulation that followed the act also led to reductions in staff for news programs that may have contributed to a reduction in the overall quality of the news broadcasted by these networks. A Washington State University study in 2015 found that there was a significant increase in partisan polarization in the United States following the implementation of the act and that this effect increases the more television one watches. Another study found that this partisan effect of television reinforces itself over time as people who watch these programs are pushed to more ideologically extreme positions, who then vote for individuals who now have access to more ideologically extreme programs willing to give them airtime. And when people are confronted with views that they don’t agree with, instead of attempting to reconcile these views, they simply turn to a channel that agrees with them.

The increased availability of partisan news outlets draws audiences with polarized views,  reinforcing their own polarized viewpoints. A 2017 study from Stanford University found that this effect was especially strong for Fox News viewers. It estimated that George W. Bush enjoyed a .46 point increase in national vote share and a 3.59 point increase in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, respectively, due to Fox News, while John McCain saw a 6.34 point boost in his 2008 general election campaign thanks to the network. These effects are caused or strengthened by the selective capabilities that the fractured media landscape produced, a balkanization that has only increased with the rise of the Internet.

As one might expect, there is a wide range of evidence on the effects the Internet and social media have on polarization. A Duke University study found that when Democrats were paid to follow a conservative Twitter bot, their political attitudes remained about the same, but that when Republicans were asked to follow a liberal Twitter bot, their conservative attitudes increased. This finding suggests that the exposure to people of differing opinions on social media may lead people to express more extreme partisan attitudes. A Stanford University and National Bureau of Economic Research study found, however, that political polarization is actually most likely to affect those in the age range of older adults, those age 75 and above, who use the Internet the least.

While the Internet and social media themselves aren’t acting as major sources for increased polarization, the Internet is an environment for a wider variety of political viewpoints without any of the regulations that exist on television or the radio. Websites like Breitbart and InfoWars were found to have a heavy influence on the 2016 election not through increasing political polarization, but through taking advantage of the appetite that it produces for attitude-affirming news on issues like immigration and Hillary Clinton’s emails leading up the 2016 election. The power of media to influence elections and feed off of political polarization peaked during and in the aftermath of the 2016 election, which many decried as being caused by social media “echo-chambers.” Studies now show that while fake news likely did not affect the majority of voters, it likely did have a significant effect on people who voted for Obama in 2012 and Trump in 2016 in key states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania that all went to Trump by margins of less than 1 percent.

This all begs the question, what is to be done? One policy option that gained some traction in the 2000s was the reinstatement of the Fairness Doctrine. The issue was raised by a number of figures including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and former President Bill Clinton in 2008 and 2009 in the lead-up to Barack Obama’s presidency. But ultimately the policy was opposed early on in the Obama administration which hoped to focus on “media-ownership caps, net neutrality, public broadcasting, as well as increasing minority ownership of broadcasting and print outlets” instead of reinstating the Fairness Doctrine. Following Obama’s decision to oppose the doctrine’s reimplementation, organizations like Free Press joined the administration’s support for media-ownership caps and stronger “public interest” in broadcasting and public broadcasting to ensure a more diverse group of viewpoints while removing power from media conglomerates.

However, the FCC under President Trump has worked to reduce caps on media ownership and the FCC’s decision to redact Title II net neutrality in 2017 seems to be moving American media policy in the opposite direction. The Trump administration’s removal of media ownership caps seems to be especially helpful to the right-wing Sinclair Broadcast Group, whose corporate-produced editorials have sometimes crossed the line into fake news and disinformation. While Sinclair’s recent merger with the Chicago Tribune has been overturned due to problems with the information that Sinclair presented the FCC during the merger process, the FCC’s decision to intervene in this merger may prove to be the high-water mark of major media policymaking for this administration. However, the unity between members of the political left and right shows that there is common ground for those interested in implementing meaningful change in media policy to keep the power of polarizing television news outlets from growing in the future.

As for what we can do in the short-term to monitor information on social media and the Internet, we have to consider stopping the spread of this polarizing type of media among the young and the old. This includes actions prioritizing the teaching of good Internet media use habits in public schools while teaching children how to find good sources of unbiased information and to think critically about news sources that they find on all forms of media. It also involves teaching young people about Actively Open-Minded Thinking (AOT), a cognitive style that emphasizes thoughtfulness and flexibility in thinking. This cognitive framework can help young people be less troubled by political polarization due to all forms of media. For older people, corporate responsibility can play a role, especially for large social media websites like Facebook, which was used disproportionately by those who spread fake news during the 2016 election, as well as Twitter. These companies can do better to practice fact-checking on their websites and to orient the news-centered functions of their websites in ways that may encourage the sharing of more thoughtful and balanced media resources. These are only modest solutions and there is assuredly more research to be done on this topic, lest we all end up like Buckley and Vidal, flinging insults through our screens.