How Polarizing Are Fox and MSNBC?

Fox and MSNBC may contribute to polarization, but they didn't cause it. 

Kevin Arceneaux has a nice piece today over at The Monkey Cage arguing against the idea that Fox News has caused Congressional polarization. Arceneaux is right that the timeline is all wrong; the polarization trend began long before Fox News even existed. He makes a good case that at the individual level, voters are perfectly capable of extracting information from even the most balanced news story in such a way that it reaffirms their ideological or partisan assumptions. Call it self-polarization.

That said, it seems to me that partisan-aligned media, whether it's TV (Fox, MSNBC), radio talk shows or magazines and blogs, is an important part of the polarization story. Not the main cause, certainly, but an important piece of the puzzle. In particular, I think Republican-aligned media are probably contributing to some of the pathologies of the current Republican Party. Matt Levendusky wrote recently about research showing that partisan media make already-extreme voters even more extreme.

I mostly have questions:

  • Have partisan media replaced the old "neutral" news media as a means for elites to communicate with each other? If so, does that make it harder for elites to communicate across the party divide?
  • To what extent do the economic incentives of partisan media create perverse party incentives -- due to partisans flocking to party-aligned media in search of "red meat," especially when the rival party is in office? Is this phenomenon symmetrical between the parties?
  • What role have party-aligned media played in the growth of the conservative marketplace?
  • To what extent are politicians informed and misinformed by partisan media? Are there differences between Democrats and Republicans?
  • How do the publicity incentives for politicians created by partisan media affect Congressional careers and action?
  • How does partisan media affect the transmission of party talking points to rank-and-file voters? Does it differ by party? And how, precisely, does any of that matter?
  • How constrained are individual reporters, analysts, and opinion leaders within the party-aligned media? Are they independent actors, or merely transmitters of party talking points? To what extent do those within the partisan media actively organize with party groups or factions?
  • What is the role, if any, of the partisan media in the series of high-profile Republican primary upsets over the past few election cycles?

Note that to a large extent, these are mostly elite-level questions, not questions about how partisan media influence voters. I've seen research addressing some of these questions, and there may be more that I've missed. But I'm not convinced that we really have a handle on most of this topic.

My general sense is that partisan media is an important part of the polarization story. Not the cause, but an influence. But there's also a lot here we still don't know. As our parties get bigger and more complex, there's a lot more to learn.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    (Jonathan Bernstein covers U.S. politics for Bloomberg View. He is co-editor of "The Making of the Presidential Candidates 2012." Follow him on Twitter at @JBPlainblog.)

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