02 March 2009

Does the Press Hurt Democracy?

The latest issue of The New Republic features several alarmist items about the decline of the newspaper industry and its possible consequences for the nation. Predictions run from the further dumbing-down or polarization of the American public to the spread of political corruption in the absence of the one effective journalistic watchdog. The editors are particularly disturbed about a Pew Research Center survey taken in 2007, in which 36% of respondents believed that the press "hurt democracy." I decided to take a closer look.

The survey shows that overall distrust of the news media has fluctuated between 1985, when 23% of those polled said the press "hurt democracy," to 2007. The peak of distrust, by this measure, actually came in 1999, when 38% of participants agreed with the premise. That year showed distrust by Democrats and Independents at its peak, most likely due to anger over coverage of President Clinton's scandals. Democratic anger subsided afterward from a peak of 36%, but has picked up since 2004, probably due to frustration over George W. Bush's reelection and an increased conviction that the "Mainstream Media" was biased in favor of corporate and reactionary interests. Independent distrust ebbed at 22% in 2002, but has gone up past 30% since then. That's probably due to independents believing that the media have grown polarized by partisanship.

Even when Democratic and Independent anger at the media was at its peak, Republicans hated it more. Their 1999 figure was 39%, in this case most likely due to anger at Clinton escaping removal from office. The GOP mood cooled to a low of 31% in 2003, while W. was still popular, but shot up past 40% in 2005, and reached 48% in 2007. Here I'd guess the Republicans were blaming the media for the public turning against their President. Unsurprisingly, Republicans are also by far most likely to believe that the press is "often inaccurate," "politically biased in their reporting," and "too critical of America." Democrats have the low scores in all these categories. Pew also found that Republicans who considered Fox News as their main information source were much more likely to answer yes to all the above questions than Republicans who consulted other sources.

So while indifference to traditional news media like daily papers is a widespread phenomenon that probably crosses partisan and ideological lines, the outright hostility that so distresses The New Republic, itself a centrist journal bordering on neoliberalism, seems to be fueled mostly by reactionary anger at any entity that dares question the decisions or principles of the Republican party. The question probably should have been whether the press hurts the GOP rather than whether it hurts democracy. For that matter, whether democracy hurts the Republican party, or vice versa, might be interesting subjects for discussion. Still, distrust does seem to be growing everywhere. Whether that's inspiring people to turn to other news sources, or whether people distrust the established media more because they're already consulting alternative sources, is a question for another time.

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