Different News for Different Views

Article excerpt

In a nation of growing red or blue allegiances, the media too are beginning to take on more overtly partisan hues. And it may be reinforcing the political cleavage in the country.

The selective perspectives are evident from coastal lobster-trap country to the land of longhorn cattle.

Up in Bar Harbor, Maine, Michael Boland works overtime during the summer feeding the locals and tourists that crowd into his restaurant, Rupununi's. But no matter how busy he is, he tries to disappear every afternoon at 4:30 so he can head to his office upstairs and tune in to "Democracy Now" on the radio - an unabashedly left-of-center analysis of the day's events.

"I rely on it for my progressive take on the news," he says.

Down in Schertz, Texas, Stace Cunningham is just as determined to get a spin he's comfortable with. He spends most days in his lab, where he's got 15 computers for his work as a security consultant for a Fortune 500 company. But he keeps one computer set to www.NRAnews.com, a website operated by the National Rifle Association, so he can hear an assessment of the world that he believes is truly fair - particularly where gun issues are concerned.

"The show is a breath of fresh air," he says.

From the conservative Fox News Channel to the liberal radio startup Air America to political blogs of every philosophical stripe, Americans can now pick and choose a news source to fit their ideological bent. Even the big screen, these days, offers up politically charged fare - most notably with Michael Moore's "Farehnheit 9/11."

The trend toward partisanship in the media, though nascent, has many political experts worried. If everyone simply reads or listens to news that reinforces their own opinions, there may be less room for compromise - a key foundation of this nation's government. An already polarized country could become even more deeply divided at every level. Already, stories of friends or relatives who can no longer talk politics - because they're ideological opposites - are common water-cooler fare. Signs of the times include caustic political humor and candidates tossing profanities at the other party.

While others admit the growing politicization of news does create potential problems, they instead see the emergence of new sources of information as a welcome expansion of the nation's political dialogue. To them, the high-voltage talk shows and websites are signs of a public increasingly engaged on important issues - from Iraq to the role of religion in society.

Indeed, most Americans who tune into these alternative sources still tap into mainstream media as well. In addition to listening to "Democracy Now," Mr. Boland reads three newspapers a day. And Mr. Cunningham looks forward to the NRA's Cam & Company show so he can compare it with what he sees on the nightly news.

"For democracy, the thing you worry about is a world in which people don't get exposure to the other side," says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania. "And we're not in that world yet."

How, and why, viewing habits are changing

Still, there is evidence that the media-browsing public is getting more partisan right alongside the press.

A recent Pew Research Center study found that since 2000, the number of Americans who say they watch Fox News Channel regularly jumped from 17 percent to 25 percent, and most of those new viewers describe themselves as "politically conservative." Struggling against an apparent Republican-viewer revolt, Fox rival CNN has managed to draw in a growing number of Democratic-leaning viewers.

The trend is driven by several factors - some originating with the news outlets and others rooted in the public at large.

On a basic level, more-opinionated news is what the public seems to want in this so-called 50/50 nation, with feelings fanned by battles over the Iraq war, gay marriage, and the Florida recount of the 2000 election. …