The media, neutrality, and partisianship
Sarah Palin said last week that for the Republican message to get through, the “filter of the mainstream media” had to be “erased.” But if the 2008 campaign has proved anything, it’s that the media is hardly the monolithic, agenda-setting force it may have once been in ancient times before cable and the Internet. Today, citizens get to pick the “filters” they want—and human nature being what it is, many opt for ones that feed their preconceptions. A liberal may occasionally hold his nose and check out Fox News or the Drudge Report, just as a conservative may take a wary glance at MSNBC and The Huffington Post. The purpose of these incursions, though, is not to give the other side a fair hearing but to spy on the enemy camp.
Plenty of news organizations still aspire to neutrality, of course. But no matter how fair their coverage, and their aggressiveness in covering both campaigns, partisans can always retreat to their own alternative universe, where any news story that helps the other side or hurts theirs is deemed agenda-driven and irrelevant. In recent days, MSNBC viewers and readers of liberal websites such as Salon.com were treated to a barrage of stories about a likely Barack Obama landslide, and reports that the McCain campaign was already imploding in an orgy of recriminations. Fox and National Review Online, meanwhile, were trumpeting a few polls suggesting the race was tightening, while highlighting Joe Biden’s gaffes and the latest charges about Obama’s radical associations and beliefs. It’s almost over. But on Nov. 5, there will be no consensus about what it all meant.