Friday, December 17, 2010

The Partisan Press

Liberals are having plenty of fun at the Maryland study out now showing that Fox News viewers are especially misinformed about current events (here's the study summary, pdf).  Fair enough, and this adds to what we konw about how information is transmitted and, to some extent, how Fox can affect information flows.  That's good to know.

What I think we know a lot less about, however, is how the partisan press functions -- not just Fox News, but MSNBC talk shows, and radio talk, and partisan blogs.  Specifically, how much autonomy do these partisan outlets have?  What sort of constraints, on topics or opinions, do they have?  How do those constraints operate?  I know we've had a couple of flaps recently about leaked internal Fox News memos about how to word certain things, and that those dictates corresponded with GOP talking common is that?  How top-down is it?

My guess is that most constraints are real, but not especially heavy-handed or, in most cases, top-down.  They work the way a lot of things work in our party system: through networks, and through informal pressure and influence.  In other words, Rachel Maddow starts talking about filibuster reform because the liberal guests she has on are all interested right now in filibuster reform, and activists in her audience are interested in filibuster reform -- not because the White House or the DNC or the Majority Leader's office told MSNBC to tell her to push filibuster reform.  Although I should add: we do know that both parties do send out talking points, and presumably talk show hosts and their producers are reading them.  More likely, Maddow has other very real, if informal, constraints; if she suddenly revealed she was secretly pro-life and began dedicating a segment every night to how Democrats should have more diversity of opinion on abortion, her credibility with her audience would disappear rapidly, and MSNBC would soon replace her with someone liberals could love and trust.

That also raises the point that there must be some sort of interaction between profit and partisan motivations for partisan media outlets.  And then there are career incentives for individual writers, talk show hosts, and editors and producers. 

But that's all speculation.  I'm not even sure how someone would go about studying this, but if we're to have a partisan press -- and that seems pretty certain -- then we're gonna have to learn exactly what that means, and how it works. 

(If anyone knows of good studies already done, please drop a comment!  I'm aware that there have been studies like the Maryland one showing the effects of the partisan press, and also that there have been people who have documented the differences between what Fox and, say, CNN show, and that's all good too -- but I'm interested in something that's slightly different).


  1. This is a great question. Just speculating, I think that the current focus of the research on the new partisan press could be a product of a) the (deserved) success of "misinformation" worriers in getting that angle on the agenda; and 2) the fact that studies of the type done by this Maryland group are more amenable to quantitative analysis than the project you're outlining.

    But I would love to see someone seriously take up this line of research -- I imagine someone who's already studied the operations of informal party networks might be well-equipped?

  2. Maddow and other liberal pundits are guided in a particular direction by ... informal pressure and influence.

    Hannity and other right-wing pundits are guided in a particular direction by ... edicts issued directly from network bosses. (That's not speculation; that's based on evidence.)

    Is this really that hard to understand?

  3. I don't know if Michael Schudson has studied this question exactly -- probably not -- but he's my go-to guy on the sociology of the press, so I suggest starting with his work.

  4. This was a research project idea of mine about 6-7 years ago, but I could never figure out how to actually get at the transmission mechanism. My question was how do the GOP talking heads get to the same phrasings so fast? I just couldn't figure out a way to get an accurate answer. Is it emails? Blast faxes? Regular "training?" Or, it that there is so little variation in the backgrounds of GOP talking heads that the come to the same phrasings naturally?

    I could just never figure out how to actually answer the question. I could demonstrate that they do adopt similar phrasings, and could possibly even do that as the day goes on, but I could never figure out how to get at the mechanism. (I immediately discounted the notion that they would tell me how)

  5. Schudson is very good on the other end of this process, the decline of the partisan press and the emergence of the objectivity norm in the first part of the 20th century. He discounts the standard explanation -- that neutrality was good for publishers' business interests, because it meant you didn't offend half your potential audience -- in favor of a sociological model, in which objectivity was a marker of journalists' developing sense of their work as part of a profession.

    I don't think he's published anything that looks seriously at the mechanisms behind the reversal we're seeing now. But he's a super-nice guy, you could just email him to ask.

  6. Further to Greg's summary of Schudson: Journalists' "developing sense of their work as part of a profession" was also, in his view, tied to the (a-)political ideals of the Progressive movement, with its belief in nonpartisan expert analysts. On this, see especially Schudson's 1982 Daedalus essay "The Politcs of Narrative Form," which does a very interesting sort of "controlled experiment" by comparing news coverage of State of the Union messages over the years. The result is a theory with remarkable power to explain what we see in traditional mainstream news coverage. Yeah, I'd like to know what he makes of the new (old) Fox/MSNBC model, so if you do e-mail him, as Greg suggests, please let us know what he says.

  7. Part 2.

    4) In addition to the talking points, there are telephone lines available mainly for TV/radio appearances, the talking head calls in with the passcode number and gets the latest talking points and arguments of the day. This keeps everyone on message. The GOP sponsors extensive training on TV appearances, how to keep your message on point (SOCO -- single overriding communication objective).

    5) Obviously, there are meetings, lunches, conferences, conference calls, mail list communications all devoted to coordinating the overriding message. Rewards when you do. Punishment when you don't.

    If only they put this much effort into developing good conservative policy, eh?

    Obviously, the Dems have nothing on a comparable scale to this massive, coordinated message machine. Oh, I could tell stories! I'd love to see you follow through with your research, Prof J. There is much, much to be learned.

  8. Andrew is right. As far as Faux is concerned, and likely CNN too, as they are continuing to drift farther right. The left is different. Look at the blogs. They all have different hobby-horses. Look at Duncan Black(aka Atrios). Or Marcy Wheeler(aka Emptywheel). Or Digby. Or Glenn Greenwald. Is anyone going to tell them what to write about? They'd surely never follow talking points from the WH or DNC or other "official" Democratic Party source. They value their independence. OTOH, Matt Yglesias and Ezra Klein are obviously looking to become the next David Brooks. More so Klein. Once he was hired by Kaplan, he's become a power-worshipping goof. So there are all types.

  9. I agree with everyone that Schudson is first-rate. I know his stuff about the earlier era somewhat, and I love his book on Watergate.

    On the rest...there's an Iron Law of Politics about this, that one always believes that the other party is far more organized, better at spin and other technical stuff, etc. That's not to say that in all ways both sides are exact equals, but I'm hearing a lot of Iron Law stuff in some of these comments. For example: yes, there are certainly people on the left who won't follow a party line...but there are actually quite a few people on the right, too, like that. No question that there's nothing like Fox News on the Democrats' side, though.

    My general guess is that there are market-driven differences; there's more of a market for conservative orthodoxy than there is a market for liberal orthodoxy (although libs shouldn't kid themselves; there certainly is such a market, and it's just a guess that it's smaller). But that's mostly just a guess.

  10. Given how my Fox watchers can be so completely in the proaganda bubble, and how they have a response to every fact that should pop the bubble a little, I wonder if somewhere there is a psychologist in chief helping ro orchestrate this all. Could this nearly cult like devotion to exaggerated information just happen via casual system. When I see Fox pounce of really random things it makes me wonder why that bit of trivia got inflated on that day. For example, a few weeks ago, the right wing media went nuts over the Obama "get in the back" of the car and let me drive metaphor? It was designed to make their white viewers think that the black president was discriminating against them. Do fake issues that go so deeply into the audience psychology and fears just get chosen by the show writers at random? I doubt it.

  11. No reason for speculation on any of this. There are literal Talking Points Memos that go out every day. This explains why the Right talks about the same things every day all day long as if each pet complaint was a breaking news story. Don't speculate. Go get your hands on the faxes from the RNC and from the think tanks. Then, get your hands on the emails from the news directors. That's how it's done. There's really no mystery about it.

  12. Anon 7:52,

    Yes, of course, there are talking points sent out (by both sides, by the way). But we also know that there are stories that start out in the partisan press, and the politicians (and formal party organizations) only take them up later. We know that when Bush says that his buddy should be on the Supreme Court, they don't all go along. This is a *lot* more complex, and I really don't think we understand it all that well.

  13. My general guess is that there are market-driven differences; there's more of a market for conservative orthodoxy than there is a market for liberal orthodoxy (although libs shouldn't kid themselves; there certainly is such a market, and it's just a guess that it's smaller).

    Of course there is. Corporations bankroll things like AEI and the Heritage Foundation. Do corporations bankroll TAP and CAP? Who bankrolls MediaMatters? Would CNN have co-hosted a GOP debate with the TeaParty 20 years ago? Of course not. When are they going to sponsor a debate with BraveNewFilms, Mother Jones or DailyKos?

  14. Yes, of course, there are talking points sent out (by both sides, by the way).

    Mr. Bernstein:
    You should know that it's not the same thing. People like Atrios might be on the DNC mailing list but that doesn't mean they tailor their posts for the day around what the get. OTOH, we know Faux Noise and the GOP are one, basically. Do you really think the DNC(and most DC Democrats) like seeing Lt. Dan Choi, Michael Moore and Jane Hamsher on TV as much as they are? Or do you think they liked Bill Moyers agitating for single payer? Or Democracy Now! None of them fall in line like Faux Noise does for the GOP.

  15. Start with Michael McGerr:

    One of the reasons we have very few good studies of this is that almost everyone assumes the partisan press is a "fallen" form, inferior to the standard model of a non-partisan, outwardly objective press. To cure yourself of that, go with Christopher Lasch, The Lost Art of Argument:

  16. (Way way late to this party, Matt Jarvis, if you still seek a reply to your question, here's one):

    Assuming you took a cut at looking at it from a sequential perspective; or, do specific pundits publishing a talking point get more, near-instantaneous validation than others? Does that near-instantaneous validation start a groundswell that also appears to be instantaneous?

    I could envision a situation where, say, Krauthammer publishing an opinion at 9:30 AM had a 92% probability of being cited on Fox by 10 AM, while a Peggy Noonan opinion had only an 11% chance. If so, you have a hypothesis: out of the next 10 Krauthammer columns, 9 or so should be cited on Fox by the top of the hour. 1 of Noonan's. Etc.

    Seems likely that the answer, which research might be able to 'prove', is that certain pundits are triggers for consensus. For while consensus seems instantaneous, one huge branch of right wing orthodoxy (AM radio) is mostly in the afternoon, long after the day's spin cycle has been established. AM radio jocks are thus likely spin followers posing as thought leaders.

    So when Krauthammer publishes an oped in the morning saying, We really don't want gays in the military, and Fox was planning to go with a bit on 'We hate illegals' soon thereafter, is it really that hard for Fox to switch to the anti-gay message? Thinking it might not be.

  17. P.S. A related inquiry might be: if there are consensus triggers, likely concentrated in the morning when the news of the day breaks, what happens when spin-worthy events occur offcycle?

    Example: last Thursday, Visa and Mastercard were having perfectly pleasant days in the stock market, each slightly ahead of indices, when the evil Obama Administration announced that its Financial Reform bill would include a provision capping debit card fees at $0.10 per transaction, quite a bummer for Visa and Mastercard, which pulled in $0.44 per transaction in 2009. The announcement was made at 2 PM; Visa and Mastercard spent the next hour - the last hour of Rush Limbaugh's radio show - each plummeting more than 15%.

    The question then - and I honestly don't know the answer - does Rush Limbaugh or, later, Radio Hannity or Michael Savage, comment? Or do they risk humiliation by ranting about the evil control freak excesses of the Obama Administration, even as Krauthammer is penning tomorrow's (trigger) piece = "The usurious Democrat-run banks got what they deserved, soaking the little guy..."

    Okay, the Krauthammer piece is a bit hard to imagine. In general though, when spinworthy stories, like the shiv in Visa/Mastercard, break offcycle, do they get spun? Or are there only certain 'spinners' in the orthodoxy, such that others stay mum, for fear they will contradict the spinners, and themselves look dumb?


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