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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.

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

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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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