When the political press becomes the polarizer

The relentless micro-coverage of Hillary Clinton’s emails as secretary of State is an ominous sign of what’s to come from the political journalistic establishment as it heads into 2016.

In the days since the controversy first broke, coverage of the Clinton email saga has overshadowed many arguably more serious issues — such as the federal government’s imminent breach of the debt ceiling in mid-March.

The 24-hour barrage, the breathless reportage of “scooplets,” and an extreme bias toward conflict-driven, personality-focused stories are unfortunately emblematic of what’s now normal practice in the political media — an approach that’s only about to intensify. The Washington Post recently reported that even as newsrooms are generally slashing staffs and budgets, political desks are locked in an arms race for the biggest and splashiest staff. According to the Post, some big-name editors are commanding million-dollar salaries, while even relatively green reporters now fetch six figures.

All of this is why political journalism might be fanning the flames of the polarization that it both decries and eagerly covers. And in fact, centrists and political moderates are among the first victims of today’s politics-as-reality-show political coverage.

{mosads}For one thing, the bias toward conflict-focused coverage creates a reality distortion field where the context for any proposal becomes a pitched battle between two opposing forces. Differences in opinion are magnified into “rifts,” and disagreements morph into “feuds.” And moderates — who are inherently inclined to compromise — are almost inevitably cast as the villains.

A case in point is the recent introduction of a raft of economic policy proposals from the New Democrat Coalition, a group of House moderates.

Dubbed the “American Prosperity” agenda, the New Democrats’ proposal was a two-page policy framework that shared many, if not most, of the same priorities outlined by President Obama in his State of the Union push for “middle-class economics” and favored by ultra-orthodox Democrats as well: better access to child care; more affordable college; homeownership; help for small business; and campaign finance and tax reform.

While the New Democrats’ press release described the intent of the agenda as an effort to unite the party, it nevertheless earned this headline from The Hill: “Centrist Dems ready strike against Warren wing.” National Journal chose a similar tack, pitching the New Democrats’ effort as “an intra-party fight” and a “return to squabbling ways.”

On the one hand, it’s not hard to understand the appeal of these headlines for reporters, fighting to be heard in the scrum. Thanks in part to its provocative headline, The Hill’s story garnered 4,300 Facebook likes and 2,266 comments and spawned a multitude of blogposts from the progressive left — in other words, it struck social-media gold. It’s doubtful that a story focused on the actual policy specifics would have elicited the same passion.

Still, the damage to serious policy conversation is incalculable.

By essentially mischaracterizing a sincere effort by moderates to overcome what had been a legitimately divisive relationship between the center and the left in the past, the press rewarded the polarizers and punished those willing to compromise. When few enough elected officials are willing to stick their necks out to offer ideas that aren’t rigidly orthodox on one side or the other, this kind of coverage only reduces the incentive to bridge the growing chasm between the left and the right.

Polarizing press coverage may also reinforce another troubling development: the growing polarization of the public. According to research by Pew, the “median” Republican today is more conservative than 94 percent of Democrats, and the “median” Democrat is now more liberal than 92 percent of Republicans.

Other research, by University of Pennsylvania political scientist Matthew Levendusky, shows that partisan media may serve to reinforce these divisions. Through a variety of experiments aimed at measuring partisan media’s impacts, Levendusky found that exposure to polarizing media can make people “a little more extreme, a little less positive toward the other side, more unwilling to compromise, and more willing to ascribe negative traits to the leaders of the other party.”

A final consequence of current trends in political journalism is ironic, given the immense resources given over to political coverage: Americans may end up even less informed than ever about the policy choices the nation must make. And so long as serious policy efforts have little chance of winning equally serious coverage from the press, politicians have even less reason to offer solutions that make sense.

Kim is editor and co-founder of the centrist policy site Republic 3.0.

Tags Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton Journalism Matthew Levendusky New Democrat Coalition New Democrats political journalism Political media reporting
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