Different news for different views
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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."