Almost 60 million people watched the first sparring of presidential candidates Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama – up from the 52.4 million television audience of the first debate in 2008, neither figures including those who watched the debate via C-SPAN, PBS, Univision, or the internet.

Unfortunately, these higher numbers of debate watchers weren’t good news to everyone – both CNN and ABC posted lower ratings the first debate of 2008. Is this indicative of the perceived slow death of non-partisan television news? Both Fox News and MSNBC recorded a jump in ratings.

Bennett and Iyengar’s address the question in their essay “A New Era of Minimal Effects? The Changing Foundations of Political Communication” if audience fragmentation and isolation from the public sphere has eliminated the need for mass media. They state, “Information channels have proliferated and simultaneously become more individualized.”

There are many things working against non-partisan news networks. There are infinitely more channels for citizens to inform themselves — the advent of the internet, explosion of social media sites and transition of media to now contain soft journalistic blog pieces offers both information and opinion. With so many messages available, do citizens trend toward views they already concur with?

With Fox News ratings consistently double of that of both CNN and MSNBC, Bennett and Iyengar pose that biased news may be a “recipe for market success”.  This is very reflective in MSNBC’s more recent uptick in ratings, as it has re-formulated its programming to mirror that of Fox News, with primetime hours filled with talking heads of a particular partisan lean.

The effect this can have even on partisans is striking. Perhaps the most fascinating part of Bennett and Iyengar’s piece is an example of this:

“Media users will be more attuned to resisting any messages that prove discrepant; thus, we would expect to observe reinforcement effects even when voters encounter one-sided news at odds with their partisan priors. For example, after the revelations in the news media that the Bush Administration’s prewar intelligence claims were ill founded, the percentage of Republicans giving an affirmative response when asked whether the United States had found WMD in Iraq remained essentially unchanged, while at the same time the percentage of Democrats giving a ‘‘no WMD’’ response increased by about 30 percentage points.”

This reinforcement is captivating – I believe it is too early to tell the long-term implications, and whether or not it will only reemphasize the partisan divide gripping the country.

In any case, ratings showed that in the same time slots, partisan shows, such as Hardball with Chris Matthews on MSNBC (CNN usually has higher ratings than MSNBC) outperformed CNN’s nonpartisan Situation Room. The same was the case for the morning shows – Fox & Friends brought the highest ratings, but Morning Joe beat out CNN’s Early Start/Starting Point. Perhaps this is an indicator of the future?


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