Surprise at Obama’s victory illustrates growing partisan divide in US media

Conservatives' shock that Mitt Romney did not win big is further evidence, analysts say, that the public is consuming media that reinforce personal views rather than give actual information about the world.

By , Staff writer

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    Republicans watch Fox News for election updates during the Albemarle County Republican Committee's watch party at the DoubleTree Tuesday in Albermarle, Va.
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The big media story emerging from President Obama’s reelection is the fact that so many on the right were so stunned by the results.

Social media were abuzz with shock and dismay at what many conservatives felt was a last-minute reversal of the prolific positive predictions they had been hearing.

More than a few conservative commentators, including prominent pundits such as George Will, had been predicting that Mitt Romney would take more than 300 electoral votes in a landslide election on Tuesday.

Recommended: Mainstream media biased against Romney? Four points to consider.

At the same time, statistical blogger Nate Silver at The New York Times and survey aggregator Real Clear Politics were citing polls that showed Mr. Obama with a clear lead.

But, rather than the purportedly surprising election results reflecting some national subversion of the voting process, many political scientists and other analysts say this right-wing upset is dramatic evidence of a growing partisan divide in our media.

Increasingly, the public consumes media that reinforce personal views rather than give actual information about the world, says University of San Francisco political scientist Corey Cook.

“The biggest story of this election is the stories that were being told about the election,” says Professor Cook, adding, “the two sides had very different views heading into the election night.”

Fox News Channel, on the one hand, he points out, repeatedly drove home the idea that Romney was headed for a huge victory nabbing more than 300 electoral votes, while the other side was saying that calculation included states that were not even in play.

“It was really as if places like MSNBC and Fox were talking about completely different races,” he adds.

It was a huge win for pollsters such as Mr. Silver, says Matthew Reavy, chair of The University of Scranton’s Department of Communication and an expert on media coverage of politics. The final results look to be well within the margin of error of the Real Clear Politics poll average, he points out adding via e-mail, “Concerns about poll weighting and the inability to reach all Americans in the age of cell phones proved to be unfounded.”

The disconnect exploded in full bloom on Fox News Tuesday night, when GOP strategist and Fox commentator Karl Rove challenged the election results.

Mr. Rove spent the week on Fox News Channel detailing the route Mr. Romney would take to Electoral College success, says Randy Gage, author of “Risky is the New Safe,” who writes about the national decline in critical thinking.

“When his own network began calling states that made the math to 270 impossible – he made his anchors go into the bowels of the network and interrogate the analysts who made the call on Ohio,” he says via e-mail, adding, “it was a new and embarrassing low for American media."

This selective perception of the race was driven in part by an unprecedented explosion of polling this cycle, points out Mark Tremayne, assistant communications professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. He recently conducted a study of national polls and partisan web sites, and points out that in the last several weeks leading up to Nov. 6, there were roughly 200 different polls every day, while over the summer the numbers hovered around 15 to 20.

Many of these polls were conducted by the campaigns themselves, he points out.

“What I found was that the partisan sites played up the polls that supported their candidate, and if they didn’t, the sites would critique the methodology of the poll,” he says. “This has led to a huge increase in the sense that there are two different worlds,” he adds, “and each one’s candidate has a real chance of winning depending on which universe you subscribe to.”

Both sides of the media equation are at fault, Professor Tremayne says, noting that despite the presence of many national polls suggesting Obama was ahead, many media outlets all over the political spectrum continued to call the race extremely close.

“This is understandable because this creates a sense of drama and therefore ratings, which all for-profit media want.”

But, he points out that once the election evening began to unfold, such large news organizations as NBC were quick to point out that in fact, Obama’s poll results had him in the lead and “they began calling results very quickly.”

This heightened sense of drama makes for good ratings, points out Shaun Bowler, professor of political science at the University of California, Riverside, adding that cries of “it's close, it's close" will increase turnout, he notes via e-mail, for both sides. But, he adds, “that is different from the race itself being in doubt.” 

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