Intolerance in the Air

We have red states and blue states. We have the ABCs of abortion, the Bible, and the so-called Constitution-in-exile riding on a Supreme Court nominee. What’s next–drums and bugles and another fratricidal donnybrook?

The lines have long been drawn. Here’s how USA Today began a story in March 2004: “President Bush is running for a second term in a more polarized atmosphere than any president since the Gallup Poll began measuring the partisan gap in presidential job approval. To the extent that Republicans love Bush, Democrats loathe him.” Nothing’s happened since to calm the waters.

A journalism professor named Wayne Wanta recalls reading this article or one like it last year and wondering, what’s going on in this country? Wanta’s executive director of the University of Missouri’s Center for the Digital Globe, and his inclination was to blame what he knew best. “Our first thought is that the Internet has a role in this,” he tells me. “Since it has so much information out there, people could become very selective in what they’re exposing themselves to and seek out information that supports their originally held views.”

Wanta decided to follow his hunch and look for correlations between our polarized atmosphere and the ways people get their information. With the help of Stephanie Craft, an assistant professor, and Mugur Geana, a graduate student, he reexamined data from a 2003 Pew Research Center survey that had touched on Americans’ convictions and media choices in order to tease out his own conclusions.

One thing the three of them ran into is a body of opinion that says the whole notion of polarization is overblown. For instance, in a column written last October, Gallup competitor Lou Dobbs reported that most Americans, regardless of party, agree on a lot of the basics: outsourcing and NAFTA are bad, corporations have too much power, universal health care is worth paying higher taxes to get.

“Then why do we continue to hear about an increasingly polarized America?” Dobbs asked. He offered an explanation that had been provided by Morris Fiorina, a professor of political science at Stanford. According to Fiorina, “The upper stratum of the political class in the United States–the candidates, the activists, the interest group leaders–they are in fact more divided than they have been in quite a while. And these are the people everybody sees in the media.”

In other words, Americans in general aren’t terribly polarized, but we think we are. It’s human nature for individuals to identify with groups, and these days groups define themselves and are defined by the media in terms of their passions and their enemies. To belong, it’s become necessary to despise.

“Political polarization is at its zenith in the United States. Or not.” So begins “News Media Choices and the Polarization of Attitudes,” the study Wanta and his colleagues finished this spring. They allow Dobbs his skeptical two cents’ worth, but they’re less interested in measuring polarization than in meditating on its wellsprings. “Does one’s source of news . . . play a role in polarization?” was the question they set out to answer.

Wanta’s suspicions about the Internet are widely held. A long magazine article in last Sunday’s Washington Post presented two women bloggers who occupy realms they themselves call the “right blogosphere” and the “left blogosphere.” Reporter David Von Drehle explained, “Bloggers scan for bits of evidence that fit into their existing views and then generalize from there. . . . The supply of raw material . . . is virtually infinite. The Internet contains billions–trillions?–of discrete tiles of information, from which a diligent network of bloggers can create any mosaic they choose.”

Yet the study told Wanta he was wrong about the Internet.

“If you get news from the Internet you tend to be less polarized,” he says. “New Media Choices” calls this finding counterintuitive, because “with unlimited content on endless topics, the Internet offers users the option to read only information that supports their point of view.” That’s the picture the Post painted. But the Internet is such a Sargasso Sea of opinion that not even the nimblest pilot can avoid disagreement. Besides, Von Drehle described a medium still so new that the bloggers he profiled, though politically poles apart, seemed to regard each other as sisters under the skin.

It turned out that newspaper readers were even less polarized than Internet users, and Wanta’s study calls this finding counterintuitive too. “Since newspapers can provide information that is more in-depth than television, readers could feel more confident about their opinions because they are better informed,” it states. “This apparently is not the case.” But an opinion confidently held doesn’t have to be rigidly held. With the possible exception of Tom Cruise lecturing Matt Lauer on psychiatry, informed people comfortable with the conclusions they’ve come to can afford to be tolerant of people who come to different ones.

So who’s intolerant? “Radio listeners were highly polarized,” Wanta and company found. “Apparently, respondents who got their information mainly from radio are being exposed to content that is somehow increasing extremist views. Certainly, radio talk show content, such as on shows hosted by Rush Limbaugh and other political commentators, could be at fault here. Conservative listeners could be having their views reinforced by the talk shows, leading to attitudes that are continually becoming even more conservative.”

Wanta is intrigued by the nature of radio. “It decays,” he tells me. “You listen to the radio, and ten minutes later you can’t revisit it. It’s done. The Internet, blogs–you can go several times a day and read the same postings over and over again. I have a newspaper on my lap right now, and I could be reading it a couple of hours from now. Radio–it’s there, you listen to it, and it’s gone. A different kind of information processing is involved.”

Radio is understudied, says Wanta. “There’s some research that suggests people are using the Internet to find communities,” he notes. “I don’t know why they wouldn’t use radio for the same purpose. If I’m listening to Al Franken I want to be like Al Franken, so I’m going to be on the far end of being liberal. The same thing with Rush Limbaugh.”

But radio communities are tyrannies. They are no place for dissenters. It’s easy to go online and be a contrarian. Try to argue with your favorite radio talk show host, some guy you agree with 90 percent of the time, and he’ll bury you.

News Bites

“ANONYMOUS SOURCES,” shouts the cover of the July Editor & Publisher. “The great debate continues: But is the crackdown going too far?” Not to worry.

On July 15 the big news on the Judith Miller front was that Karl Rove had told the grand jury that Robert Novak told him Valerie Plame was a CIA officer. The New York Times heard about this testimony from “someone who has been officially briefed on the matter” but couldn’t be identified because special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald had said no one could discuss the case. The AP, whose story ran in the Tribune and dozens of other papers, got the same dish from someone “in the legal profession” who’d been “briefed on the [grand jury] testimony.” The Washington Post heard it from a “lawyer involved in the case.”

So the press had no qualms about publishing this scoop from an unnamed source who went behind Fitzgerald’s back, thereby reinforcing every prejudice reporters complain Fitzgerald holds against them. Then again, this busy source might not have gone behind Fitzgerald’s back. This source might even have been Fitzgerald. For that matter, it might have been Rove, except that Rove’s a college dropout, not a lawyer.

But one thing we discovered as the truth started oozing out is that reporters have treasured the president’s hatchet man as a primo source of unsourced information.

Roger Ebert promised the other day in a Sun-Times op-ed that if Federated Department Stores, the new owner of Marshall Field’s, changed its name to Macy’s he “would never darken its doors again.” I would: I gawk at acts of folly. Of course I’d never spend a dime at “Macy’s” on State.

Federated clearly wants to go ahead with the name change and is now doing some sort of survey of Field’s customers. But rebranding an old Chicago institution can’t be done by waving a wand. An aggressive marketing campaign will be required, and that will mean hundreds of thousands of extra dollars spent on advertising.

So even if the Chicago papers think the name change would be incredibly stupid, it’ll be interesting to see if they say so.

When London was bombed, American commentators cast about for something sympathetic to say and came up with the notion that the terrorists had attacked the wrong country: the Brits’ stiff upper lip would see them through. If Hitler’s blitz couldn’t bring London to its knees, this certainly wouldn’t.

I happened to visit Madrid two months after the bombings there, and that city seemed its usual self. It had no blitz in its past, but during the civil war it endured a three-year siege by Franco’s army. And life went on.

In a huge city life always goes on. If and when terror strikes Chicago, the corpses–yours and mine perhaps–will be carted away. But as the BBC will undoubtedly assure its audience, Chicago–the city that burned to the ground in 1871 and sprang back more pugnacious than ever–will go on.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Wesley Bedrosian.