Picture a newsroom in America and a newsreader, suitably vanilla-looking and a tad like an overgrown Ken doll, who leans over a desk and says to a female colleague, “Social scientists have concluded that the country is more polarised now than at any time since the Civil War.” The two debate: can the American public digest the delivery of impartial news or does widespread partisan divide mean that facts are only accepted along political party lines?
As part of the first episode of Aaron Sorkin’s HBO drama The Newsroom, the scene may be fictional but the issue is not. A survey released last month shows that Americans are more divided across political lines than they are over race, gender or age. Divide in Washington from the House of Representatives to the Supreme Court has stalled action on everything from national debt to healthcare. And during an election year, fuel has been added to the public fire by TV news stations courting their viewer demographic through undisguised political allegiance.
June saw one of the worst examples of cable news outlets flexing their factional muscles. Coverage of the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall vote between incumbent Republican governor Scott Walker and Milwaukee’s Democrat mayor Tom Barrett did nothing to conceal the divergent loyalties of MSNBC on the left and Fox News on the right. With its competitors broadcasting coverage more akin to a pep rally than a news programme, CNN decided that nonpartisan coverage equated to minimising the event to a ticker tape at the bottom of a screen playing scenes from the Queen’s Jubilee. There have only been three gubernatorial recall elections in US history and this was the first that saw an incumbent governor win. Yet anyone turning on their TV for coverage of the unprecedented event would have been at a loss to find anything intelligent.
Last week saw the release of a poll showing that Americans’ confidence in their TV news was at an all-time low. Only 21 per cent said they had considerable confidence in television news media, a six-point drop from last year and 25 per cent decrease from 1993. While painfully partisan news coverage is one reason viewers may question the validity of American cable news, networks are also making factual errors. When the Supreme Court recently ruled to uphold the constitutionality of Obama’s Affordable Care Act, both CNN and Fox reported on the result inaccurately. While CNN issued an apology, Fox stuck to their guns, saying they reported the facts as they came in and, rather than apologise, criticised coverage of the event on other networks.
One of the most poignant aspects of this particular error was that this Supreme Court ruling on Obamacare was a rare example of fractious Washington abandoning simple party politics. When the conservative Chief Justice John Roberts sided with his four liberal colleagues, it was a sign that the partisanship the court was becoming known for could be overcome. Perhaps the TV news outlets were so surprised with the result that they simply didn’t have the ammunition to cover it.