It's Not Just Political Districts Our News Is Gerrymandered Too

Nov 2012

I read an interview this last week with someone who gets his news from a narrow band of information providers.

He reads The Wall Street Journal, a really good newspaper that tilts right on its editorial page and sometimes in its news coverage. He also reads The Washington Times, a more reflexively conservative publication, and listens to “the talk guys” on the radio during his commute to work. We know which ones, because liberals don’t do well on the radio.

Even though he lives in Washington and works in government, he dumped his subscription to The Washington Post. He explained: “It was the treatment of almost any conservative issue. It was slanted and often nasty. And, you know, why should I get upset every morning?” He added that The Post was “shrilly, shrilly liberal.”

Just another guy in Washington who can’t stand hearing anything that doesn’t comport with his worldview? Well, this one happens to work on the United States Supreme Court.

As Justice Antonin Scalia might say, “Boom!” His interview with Jennifer Senior in New York magazine suggests that the tendency to limit one’s sources of information to avoid dissonance is not the province of a bunch of narrow-minded, politically obsessed characters who send mass e-mails from their mother’s basement.

Political analysts trying to explain the current standoff in Washington are quick to point to redistricting as helping to foster ideological extremism in Congress. Representatives have been skillfully gerrymandered into safe districts of like minds where they can do as they please, listening only to reflections of their own thinking without fear of political consequence.

But given that politics in its current form is threatening to produce a crisis that threatens to create financial mayhem on a global scale — while striking one more blow against claims of American “greatness” — perhaps something more complicated than sketching out voting districts is at play. The polarized political map is now accompanied by a media ecosystem that is equally gerrymandered into districts of self-reinforcing discourse. Justice Scalia and millions of news consumers select and assemble a worldview from sources that may please them, but rarely challenge them.

As I flipped through cable channels over the last week, the government shutdown was viewed through remarkably different prisms. What was a “needless and destructive shutdown” on MSNBC became a low-impact and therapeutic “slim-down” over at Fox News.

But cable blowhardism would not be such a good business if there hadn’t been a kind of personal redistricting of news coverage by the citizenry. Data from Pew Research Center for the People and the Press on trends in news consumption released last year suggests people are assembling along separate media streams where they find mostly what they want to hear, and little else. Fully 78 percent of Sean Hannity’s audience on Fox News identified as conservative, with most of the rest of the audience identifying as moderate and just 5 present as liberal. Over on MSNBC, conservatives make up just 7 percent of Rachel Maddow’s audience.

It isn’t just politicians that are feeding their bases, it is the media outlets, as well. The village common — you know, that place where we all meet to discuss our problems, relying on the same set of facts — has shrunk to the size of a postage stamp, surrounded by the huge gated communities of like minds who never venture into the great beyond.

But if you look past cable, talk radio and traditional media, there is another layer of self-reinforcing messages that may be having an impact. As Eli Pariser described in “The Filter Bubble,” search companies rely on algorithms to predict what users want to see based on past clicks, meaning that users are moved farther away from information streams that don’t fit their ideological bent.

To put it another way, you and I might find very different results when we enter the word “shutdown” on Google. The skillful custodians of search can produce what Mr. Pariser describes as “personal ecosystems of information.”

To take that one step further, think of your Facebook feed or your Twitter account, if you have either. When you pick people to follow, do you select from all over the map, or mostly from among those whose views on culture and politics tend to align with your own? Thought so.

Unless you make a conscious effort to diversify your feeds, what you see in your social media stream is often a reflection, even amplification, of what you already believe. It’s a choir that preaches to itself.

In the spirit of real discussion, I decided to leave my lane, if that’s what it is, and talk to John Podhoretz, a twice-a-week columnist for The New York Post and the editor of Commentary magazine. He’s a conservative, but not a strict ideologue, as evidenced by the recent scolding he issued in The Post to “my fellow conservatives who are acting as the enablers for irresponsible G.O.P. politicians.”

“Right now, people have more choices than they have ever had,” he told me. “Hannity and Maddow are right next to each other on the cable dial. But what makes it different is how unwelcoming everyone is to everyone else. People just don’t cross over in their habits, or if they do, they are made to feel very uncomfortable.”

“What’s different is the intensity level, the level of vituperation,” he said, adding that he had been on the receiving end of some of that by suggesting that the Tea Party was goading fellow Republicans into a suicide mission. “You can dial up the intensity level by following 200 more people who think like you on Twitter or by turning on MSNBC or Fox News.”

More often than not, when we tune in to cable or fire up the Web, we are staring into the mirror, not looking out a window. If we did look out a window, we’d see government officials talking past and around one another as they all fall down a flight of stairs, perhaps a perfect reflection of the people they represent.
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