Different news for different views

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

In a nation of growing red or blue allegiances, the media too are beginning to take on more overtly partisan hues. And it may be reinforcing the political cleavage in the country.

The selective perspectives are evident from coastal lobster-trap country to the land of longhorn cattle.

Up in Bar Harbor, Maine, Michael Boland works overtime during the summer feeding the locals and tourists that crowd into his restaurant, Rupununi's. But no matter how busy he is, he tries to disappear every afternoon at 4:30 so he can head to his office upstairs and tune in to "Democracy Now" on the radio - an unabashedly left-of-center analysis of the day's events.

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"I rely on it for my progressive take on the news," he says.

Down in Schertz, Texas, Stace Cunningham is just as determined to get a spin he's comfortable with. He spends most days in his lab, where he's got 15 computers for his work as a security consultant for a Fortune 500 company. But he keeps one computer set to www.NRAnews.com, a website operated by the National Rifle Association, so he can hear an assessment of the world that he believes is truly fair - particularly where gun issues are concerned.

"The show is a breath of fresh air," he says.

From the conservative Fox News Channel to the liberal radio startup Air America to political blogs of every philosophical stripe, Americans can now pick and choose a news source to fit their ideological bent. Even the big screen, these days, offers up politically charged fare - most notably with Michael Moore's "Farehnheit 9/11."

The trend toward partisanship in the media, though nascent, has many political experts worried. If everyone simply reads or listens to news that reinforces their own opinions, there may be less room for compromise - a key foundation of this nation's government. An already polarized country could become even more deeply divided at every level. Already, stories of friends or relatives who can no longer talk politics - because they're ideological opposites - are common water-cooler fare. Signs of the times include caustic political humor and candidates tossing profanities at the other party.

While others admit the growing politicization of news does create potential problems, they instead see the emergence of new sources of information as a welcome expansion of the nation's political dialogue. To them, the high-voltage talk shows and websites are signs of a public increasingly engaged on important issues - from Iraq to the role of religion in society.

Indeed, most Americans who tune into these alternative sources still tap into mainstream media as well. In addition to listening to "Democracy Now," Mr. Boland reads three newspapers a day. And Mr. Cunningham looks forward to the NRA's Cam & Company show so he can compare it with what he sees on the nightly news.

"For democracy, the thing you worry about is a world in which people don't get exposure to the other side," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "And we're not in that world yet."

How, and why, viewing habits are changing

Still, there is evidence that the media-browsing public is getting more partisan right alongside the press.

A recent Pew Research Center study found that since 2000, the number of Americans who say they watch Fox News Channel regularly jumped from 17 percent to 25 percent, and most of those new viewers describe themselves as "politically conservative." Struggling against an apparent Republican-viewer revolt, Fox rival CNN has managed to draw in a growing number of Democratic-leaning viewers.

The trend is driven by several factors - some originating with the news outlets and others rooted in the public at large.

On a basic level, more-opinionated news is what the public seems to want in this so-called 50/50 nation, with feelings fanned by battles over the Iraq war, gay marriage, and the Florida recount of the 2000 election. Many see the media as biased and are looking for other sources.

The trend also reflects top-down efforts by both sides to galvanize political support. In a field pioneered by conservatives such as talk radio's Rush Limbaugh a decade ago, Al Franken's Air America radio program is now offering a sharp-edged brand of liberal commentary. And a younger generation is "blogging," creating their own media with like minded people on the Web. Recent limits on political donations have also driven some organizations to try to get their messages out via traditional media. Most notably, the NRA is looking beyond its new radio show toward the possibility of buying a broadcast network.

Technology has also played a role, as TV's once-limited dial has expanded to hundreds of channels, and anyone with a computer is a potential Thomas Paine.

Some analysts think media companies are biased less toward the ideological than the sensational - that which sells papers and causes people to tune in. It's staying in business, not ideology, that motivates most newspapers.

Whatever the reasons, the rise of opinionated journalism appears to have taken a toll on media credibility. In 1987, 58 percent of Americans said the news was objective, according to the Pew Center for the People and the Press. Today, 36 percent say they find that kind of balance when they tune in or pick up a paper.

Extreme media? Not like it used to be

Still, the nation's news outlets are nowhere near as blatantly political as they were during the country's first 150 years. Publishers such as Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst used their papers to express their own agendas, and those crusades often colored the truth.

Even Thomas Jefferson, one of America's greatest champions of a free press, saw the media's darker side. "Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper," he wrote to John Norvell in 1807 while president. "Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle."

Today, by contrast, experts say the media's more boisterous partisans are still the exception, not the rule. While many of America's liberal voters thoroughly enjoyed Michael Moore's movie, they'll spend considerably more time with traditional news sources before the election. And where 1 in 5 conservatives say they listen to Mr. Limbaugh or Bill O'Reilly Factor on Fox, 61 percent read a daily newspaper, according to a Pew survey.

Beyond that, no matter what views are being espoused by media opiners, many of them still get their basic news from services like the Associated Press, says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism in Washington. He doesn't believe the trend toward partisanship will infect the whole media, in part, because most local cities and towns have only one newspaper, and that paper is dependent on advertisers. So it's in their best interest to be as objective as possible.

But consumers are more particular about the lens through which they get their information. Cam Edwards, the host of the NRA's Cam & Company, thinks he knows why conservatives are so skeptical and quickly to turn to alternative sources like his show. "If The New York Times or The Washington Post would cover things without leaving out pertinent information, we wouldn't have an audience," he says. "Our listeners can rely on us to give them factual information that they're not getting elsewhere."

Stace Cunningham agrees, which is why he hasn't missed a day since he discovered NRA News on the Web. "For several years, I've felt that what I've heard on the news channels was always tilted toward the very liberal side, and I'm smart enough to figure out there are always two sides to every story," he says. "Take firearms, for example. I've seen plenty of good defensive uses and plenty of bad stuff, but the only thing that gets reported is the bad stuff: You never see when someone saved themselves from getting raped or robbed."

And up in Maine, Michael Boland couldn't disagree more about the bent of the mainstream press. He thinks it leans toward the middle to conservative - leaving out a truly liberal perspective. His primary source of information is The New York Times, which he sees as anything but progressive. He also listens to National Public Radio, another source that is perceived by many as liberal, but he contends has gotten more conservative since the 1991 Gulf War. "For instance, they use the term terrorists to describe some groups that are clearly not terrorists: They're freedom fighters or in a civil war," he says. "I have an ability to read between the lines, but I also think it's really important for us as a country to have good alternative sources of information."

He would also like to see Air America - the liberals' answer to Limbaugh - become more friendly and available to the "average Joe" just as Limbaugh has done. That's some of what comedian and now co-host Janeane Garofalo is determined to do. She's convinced the mainstream media are beholden to economically privileged interests and don't represent most Americans.

"The 'liberal bias' in the mainstream media is a neat trick; it does not exist," says Ms. Garofalo, cohost of "The Majority Report" on Air America. "The conservative movement demands underdog status. It demands that its listeners, whether [they're listening] to Fox or Limbaugh, are the underdogs fighting the good fight against this alleged media bias."

The pitched battle for America's hearts and minds may be intensifying - with skirmishes now in the courtroom as well as on the airwaves. The Democratic group MoveOn.org was scheduled to announce legal action Sunday challenging the Fox network's use of "fair and balanced" as a slogan - a jab at what critics see as a blatant conservative bias on the network.

Some play referee

As liberals and conservatives clash more sharply, some Americans are taking things into their own hands to cut through the bloviation. People like Bryan Keefer. At age 21, he was appalled by the vitriol on both sides of the 2000 election fray over Florida ballots. So he and some friends started spinsanity.com, a blog on the Internet that attempts to cull the wheat from the political chaff. The site took off, and is now a mainstay for many politicos.

"We are specifically nonpartisan, we consider ourselves sort of the umpires, we call it as we see it," he says. They've taken on both Michael Moore's innuendo in "Fahrenheit 9/11" and George W. Bush's selective use of facts - what Mr. Keefer calls the "strategically dishonest talking points."

Every week now in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Spinsanity has a column critiquing two claims, one from the left and one from the right. "We're holding everyone accountable," says Keefer, who is now also the assistant managing editor of CampaignDesk.org, which is run by the Columbia Journalism Review.

Indeed, the public in general likes to see issues debated, rather than spun, in the media, according to a recent Pew study. And not everyone sees the American media going to ruin. Despite all of their failings and biases - liberal, corporate, or conservative - news organizations still maintain independent voices that are accessible, regardless of political leanings.

"The American media is a real treasure. There's nothing else like it in the world - an institution that provides an independent voice is very rare: hard to build, easy to destroy, and hard to rebuild," says Robert Lichter of the Center on Media and Public Affairs. "But you know, the republic did survive for 150 years with a partisan one."

Next in the Continental Divide series: Pennsylvania, where the red-blue battle is up for grabs.

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