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EchoChamber.com: Is the Net Polarizing U.S. Political Dialogue?

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The Internet is seething with political vitriol, with so many partisan message boards, niche political sites and Weblogs. But the public's taste for ideological journalism might be more for theater than for closing itself to opposing viewpoints.

The rise of conservative talk radio. The impeachment of Bill Clinton. Iron-clad congressional districts created by gerrymandering. The controversy in Florida in 2000 and Bush v. Gore. The rise of the Fox News Channel. The second War in Iraq. The new Air America liberal radio network. These are some of the dominoes that have led to increased partisanship and divisiveness in U.S. political discourse.

While people on the left and right can turn beet-red with anger on TV shows such as ABC's "This Week," CNN's "Crossfire" or Fox's "Hannity & Colmes," the Internet provides innumerable forums and political sites so anyone can fire off a torrent of rhetorical brickbats. The Web is the birthplace of "flamers" and "trolls," people who launch no-holds-barred attacks on others with opposing views.

And from NewsMax to Salon to the Guerrilla News Network, you can find political news served up online to your partisan tastes. But despite the rise of so much partisan noise, it's hard to say without a doubt that we're living in the most divisive time, or that the Net is to blame. Research in the area is relatively sketchy, and the Net still provides a vast galaxy of diverse opinions and objective journalism.

In January, Pew Internet found that 67 percent of Americans prefer getting news from sources that don't have a political point of view, while 25 percent prefer news sources that share their point of view. Scott Keeter, associate director for the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, told me that people who use the Net are even less likely to say they want news from sources with their viewpoint.

"We have serious questions about how well most people understand the whole concept of news sources with a political point of view," Keeter said via e-mail. "Most people can easily say they think the press is biased, but it gets confusing after that. I came away from the testing with the belief that the public generally likes the idea of news shows where opinions are presented and discussed, as long as they think both sides are represented. People may gravitate to places they feel comfortable with -- places others may see as highly biased -- but if you ask them they will say that these sources are fair and unbiased."

Other researchers believe that ideological journalism is just another way to serve a niche audience. Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, says that the recent State of the News Media 2004 report showed a demand for targeted media in general, and not just ideological media.

"We are in an on-demand world," Rosenstiel said via e-mail. "People want what they want when they want it. They don't want a one-size-fits-all news. For those who want to make their niche a conservative audience, that has given them a comfortable spot. But I really believe the larger phenomenon is targeting -- whether it is a bicycling magazine or other targeted groups. People want depth and some context they trust. For some this is ideological. But for others it is something else. It is part of fragmentation."

The danger of echo chambers

While news futurists have dreamed of the day people could create their "Daily Me" -- a newspaper or Web site with only the news they want (and agree with) -- one prominent political thinker believes this could lead to a closed-minded society and the eventual ruin of democracy. Cass Sunstein, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School and Department of Political Science, warned of the dangers of fragmented media online in his book "Republic.com" and follow-up essay "Echo Chambers."

Sunstein believes that like-minded people discussing an issue amongst themselves tend to move to more extreme viewpoints. He also found that "pro" and "con" shows such as "Crossfire" actually produced more hardened opinions for viewers, rather than opening their minds to opposing views. In "Republic.com," Sunstein even suggested that the government might have to step in and force Web sites to link to opposing opinions.

The book was originally published in 2001, but Sunstein recently told me he's softened his view on government regulation. "I didn't say that such regulation is necessary; only that it's worth considering," he said via e-mail. "I'm not sure I still think so ... The major point I'd emphasize is the risk that when like-minded people speak mostly to one another, there's more division and polarization and less mutual understanding. This is a serious problem for American democracy. Lots of options are good, but it's not so good if people sort themselves into echo chambers."

Sunstein expounds on the idea of group polarization in the "Echo Chambers" essay, which focuses on the 2000 election fracas. "If Republicans are talking only with Republicans, if Democrats are talking primarily with Democrats, if members of the religious right speak mostly to each other, and if radical feminists talk largely to radical feminists, there is a potential for the development of different forms of extremism, and for profound mutual misunderstandings with individuals outside the group," Sunstein wrote.

The Guerrilla News Network fancies itself an antiestablishment, anti-corporate Web site with music-fueled political videos. Most of its work has been critical of George W. Bush, but its top editors say GNN wants to take on powerful Democrats and Republicans. Executive editor Anthony Lapp? says the site's forums are much more open to opposing viewpoints than partisan forums such as Free Republic or Democratic Underground. Creative director Stephen Marshall says GNN hopes to give more space to conservative voices in the future.

"When I read AlterNet and TomPaine.com, I love them," Marshall told me in a phone interview. "But I also feel they only reflect one side of the spectrum, and they only sustain this idea of a divided world, where we only honor opinions that make sense to us. Hopefully the future will be about challenging ourselves. We'd like to build a more holistic approach in the future."

Silent majority in the middle

While partisan media might bark the loudest, more objective journalism still gets the most bites from readers and advertisers. The top 20 global news sites ranked by Nielsen//NetRatings are dominated by ideologically vanilla outlets such as AOL News, CNN.com, MSNBC.com, Knight Ridder newspaper sites, and USAToday.com.

Bill Powers, media columnist for the moderate National Journal, intuitively thinks that most people are not hardcore right- or left-wingers, and have more complex views of divisive issues. "You get the feeling from reading [ideological] sites that everyone is white or black, or red or blue," Powers told me in a phone interview. "I think we know from experience that they're not. People who go to one menu for their opinions are oddities. They are the exception."

So why do so many people gravitate to partisan media? Powers says it's all about good theater. "When you listen to Limbaugh or NPR or watch Fox, they all are interesting performances," he said. "Even if I don't agree with Limbaugh, he really puts on a good show. It's an engaging way to present ideology. There are a lot of liberals who tune into Fox because they have a really interesting presentation. Part of it is doing the product well. If you do the show well, with good actors, people will want to buy tickets to it."

People who don't take sides -- or have more subtle and conflicting takes on issues -- are considered boring or wishy-washy or even flip-floppers. Rick Heller, one of the bloggers of the Centrist Coalition, told me the political center is still missing online because of a "passion gap." He says that "moderates are temperamentally less motivated to expound their views on blogs" than lefties or righties.

Heller told me via e-mail that the increasing partisanship in the United States has created a need for mediators and bridge builders, and he hopes that the 100-plus members of the Coalition can do that online -- perhaps with the help of moderate elected officials.

Though Heller is a blogger, he said that political blogs are creating a wedge between liberals and conservatives online. "I do think that blogs contribute to the partisanship, because we're less journalists than pundits," he said. "I consider myself and other bloggers who are not professional journalists to be in the minor leagues of journalism, learning the ropes and making lots of mistakes. Most of us are duplicating, at a lower level, what newspaper columnists and radio talk shows already do."

Still, there are plenty of blogs such as CJR's Campaign Desk and Taegan Goddard's Political Wire that provide links to both sides of the spectrum. Political Wire, in fact, has roundups of left-wing and right-wing blogs, which Goddard told me has been very successful because people on each side of the spectrum want to know what's happening on the other side.

The good side of partisan media

Of course, not everyone thinks ideological journalism is such a bad thing -- in moderation. Michael Cornfield, research director at the Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet at George Washington University, says that respectful debate has its place.

"I wouldn't be so quick to equate partisan/ideological with coarse and bad if I were you," he told me via e-mail. "There's nothing wrong with partisan dialogue, provided that it is grounded in facts, oriented to policymaking, and suffused with respect. True, some of the online dialogue doesn't meet those standards. But we can criticize, and click elsewhere."

Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, who started the popular progressive blog, Daily Kos, says that objective journalism isn't really possible because of reporters' inherent biases. He told me via e-mail that partisan media has the advantage of being open about its biases, so readers know what they're getting.

"Is there value in objective journalism?" he said. "I think the wire services should strive for it as much as possible. But ultimately, such news is boring. There's nothing drier than wire copy. But news with attitude is fun. Exciting. It gets the blood boiling. It makes us react and take action, whether in approval or anger. I absolutely believe that as more Americans become aware of the partisan news outlets available to them that they will gravitate in that direction."

And not every ideological site takes a monolithic stance on issues. Jonah Goldberg, editor at large at the National Review Online, says that his site has showcased a wide range of conservative political opinions.

"[NRO] shows that there is a lot more heterogeneity to conservatism than the mainstream media will concede," Goldberg told me via e-mail. "We showcase the arguments within conservatism when many liberals think conservatives all think one thing."

While Goldberg believes that there are more "amateur" pundits now than at any time in history -- thanks to call-in shows, blogs, etc. -- he doesn't believe that low-end online operations can beat out larger operations.

"I do believe that NRO is often much better than Salon and Slate at the things we are good at," he said. "But Slate and Salon have enormous, massive advantages in terms of [financial] resources. Everyone talks about how bloggers are 'citizen reporters,' but 99 percent of the time that's bunk. A handful do great 'you are there' stuff, but the vast majority simply pick over the morning news like everyone else."

So perhaps the most intense ideological debates online are just a loud minority drowning out an overall populace that is much more moderate and apathetic. But until someone comes up with an entertaining centrist radio show or Web site, we can expect the attack dogs of the left and right to continue to garner bigger audiences on the air and online.

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Related Links
ABC News: "This Week"
Air America Radio
AlterNet
Bill Powers: On the Media
CJR's Campaign Desk
CNN
CNN: "Crossfire"
Cass Sunstein's "Echo Chambers" essay (Acrobat file)
Cass Sunstein's "Republic.com"
Centrist Coalition
Daily Kos
Democratic Underground
Fox News Channel
Fox News Channel: "Hannity & Colmes"
Free Republic
Guerrilla News Network
Institute for Politics, Democracy & the Internet
Knight Ridder newspapers
MSNBC
National Journal
National Public Radio
National Review Online
NewsMax
Nielsen//NetRatings
Pew Internet Project report
Pew Research Center for the People & the Press
Political Wire
Project for Excellence in Journalism
Rush Limbaugh
Salon
Slate
State of the News Media 2004
TomPaine.com
USA Today
University of Chicago Department of Political Science
University of Chicago Law School
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Rick Heller, Centrist Coalition blogger

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Jonah Goldberg, National Review Online editor at large

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Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, founder of Daily Kos

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Cass Sunstein, University of Chicago law and political science professor

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Bill Powers, National Journal media columnist

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Scott Keeter, associate director for the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press

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