We live in an age of media saturation, where with a few clicks of the remote—or mouse—we can tune in to programming where the facts fit our ideological predispositions. But what are the political consequences of this vast landscape of media choice? Partisan news has been roundly castigated for reinforcing prior beliefs and contributing to the highly polarized political environment we have today, but there is little evidence to support this claim, and much of what we know about the impact of news media come from studies that were conducted at a time when viewers chose from among six channels rather than scores.
Through a series of innovative experiments, Kevin Arceneaux and Martin Johnson show that such criticism is unfounded. Americans who watch cable news are already polarized, and their exposure to partisan programming of their choice has little influence on their political positions. In fact, the opposite is true: viewers become more polarized when forced to watch programming that opposes their beliefs. A much more troubling consequence of the ever-expanding media environment, the authors show, is that it has allowed people to tune out the news: the four top-rated partisan news programs draw a mere three percent of the total number of people watching television.
Overturning much of the conventional wisdom, Changing Minds or Changing Channels? demonstrate that the strong effects of media exposure found in past research are simply not applicable in today’s more saturated media landscape.
Venezuela's most prominent community television station, Catia TVe, was launched in 2000 by activists from the barrios of Caracas. Run on the principle that state resources should serve as a weapon of the poor to advance revolutionary social change, the station covered everything from Hugo Chávez’s speeches to barrio residents' complaints about bureaucratic mismanagement. In Channeling the State, Naomi Schiller explores how and why Catia TVe's founders embraced alliances with Venezuelan state officials and institutions. Drawing on long-term ethnographic research among the station's participants, Schiller shows how community television production created unique openings for Caracas's urban poor to embrace the state as a collective process with transformative potential. Rather than an unchangeable entity built for the exercise of elite power, the state emerges in Schiller's analysis as an uneven, variable process and a contentious terrain where institutions are continuously made and remade. In Venezuela under Chávez, media activists from poor communities did not assert their autonomy from the state but rather forged ties with the middle class to question whose state they were constructing and who it represented.
Forty years ago, viewers who wanted to watch the news could only choose from among the major broadcast networks, all of which presented the same news without any particular point of view. Today we have a much broader array of choices, including cable channels offering a partisan take. With partisan programs gaining in popularity, some argue that they are polarizing American politics, while others counter that only a tiny portion of the population watches such programs and that their viewers tend to already hold similar beliefs.
In How Partisan Media Polarize America, Matthew Levendusky confirms—but also qualifies—both of these claims. Drawing on experiments and survey data, he shows that Americans who watch partisan programming do become more certain of their beliefs and less willing to weigh the merits of opposing views or to compromise. And while only a small segment of the American population watches partisan media programs, those who do tend to be more politically engaged, and their effects on national politics are therefore far-reaching.
In a time when politics seem doomed to partisan discord, How Partisan Media Polarize America offers a much-needed clarification of the role partisan media might play.
Newton Minow’s long engagement with the world of television began nearly fifty years ago when President Kennedy appointed him chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. As its head, Minow would famously dub TV a “vast wasteland,” thus inaugurating a career dedicated to reforming television to better serve the public interest. Since then, he has been chairman of PBS and on the board of CBS and elsewhere, but his most lasting contribution remains his leadership on televised presidential debates. He was assistant counsel to Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson when Stevenson first proposed the idea of the debates in 1960; he served as cochair of the presidential debates in 1976 and 1980; and he helped create and is currently vice chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has organized the debates for the last two decades.
Written with longtime collaborator Craig LaMay, this fascinating history offers readers for the first time a genuinely inside look into the origins of the presidential debates and the many battles—both legal and personal—that have determined who has been allowed to debate and under what circumstances. The authors do not dismiss the criticism of the presidential debates in recent years but do come down solidly in favor of them, arguing that they are one of the great accomplishments of modern American electoral politics. As they remind us, the debates were once unique in the democratic world, are now emulated across the globe, and they offer the public the only real chance to see the candidates speak in direct response to one another in a discussion of major social, economic, and foreign policy issues.
Looking to the challenges posed by third-party candidates and the emergence of new media such as YouTube, Minow and LaMay ultimately make recommendations for the future, calling for the debates to become less formal, with candidates allowed to question each other and citizens allowed to question candidates directly. They also explore the many ways in which the Internet might serve to broaden the debates’ appeal and informative power. Whether it’s Clinton or Obama vs. McCain, Inside the Presidential Debates will be welcomed in 2008 by anyone interested in where this crucial part of our democracy is headed—and how it got there.
In Screening Culture, Viewing Politics Purnima Mankekar presents a cutting-edge ethnography of television-viewing in India. With a focus on the responses of upwardly-mobile, yet lower-to-middle class urban women to state-sponsored entertainment serials, Mankekar demonstrates how television in India has profoundly shaped women’s place in the family, community, and nation, and the crucial role it has played in the realignment of class, caste, consumption, religion, and politics. Mankekar examines both “entertainment” narratives and advertisements designed to convey particular ideas about the nation. Organizing her study around the recurring themes in these shows—Indian womanhood, family, community, constructions of historical memory, development, integration, and sometimes violence—Mankekar dissects both the messages televised and her New Delhi subjects’ perceptions of and reactions to these messages. In the process, her ethnographic analysis reveals the texture of these women’s daily lives, social relationships, and everyday practices. Throughout her study, Mankekar remains attentive to the tumultuous historical and political context in the midst of which these programs’ integrationalist messages are transmitted, to the cultural diversity of the viewership, and to her own role as ethnographer. In an enlightening epilogue she describes the effect of satellite television and transnational programming to India in the 1990s. Through its ethnographic and theoretical richness, Screening Culture, Viewing Politics forces a reexamination of the relationship between mass media, social life, and identity and nation formation in non-Western contexts. As such, it represents a major contribution to a number of fields, including media and communication studies, feminist studies, anthropology, South Asian studies, and cultural studies.