An Echo Chamber in Every Household?

Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press argued in yesterday’s New York Times that while over the long term American public opinion has consistently made rational choices, that process may be threatened by the abundance of information “short-cuts’ now available to all of us all the time.

Writing in the Week in Review section of the Sunday Times, Kohut contends that sources for information are now “more bountiful — and arguably more partisan — than ever before: 24-hour cable news in a variety of flavors (CNN, Fox News Channel, CNBC); the Internet (Drudge, Slate, Salon and a universe of blogs); radio (Limbaugh, Franken); and, of course, newspapers (USA Today, the Wall Street Journal [and the Times itself]).”

Based on a nationwide survey of 3,000 adults taken in late April and early May, Kohut concludes that “this free-wheeling bazaar of news choices has generated an audience that is increasingly self-segregating,” with Republicans watching Fox while Democrats watch CNN, and that “perceptions of ‘media credibility’ … are now more driven by ideology and partisanship than at any point in nearly 20 years.”

Eager to offer both sides himself, Kohut notes that Cass R. Sunstein, a professor of law at the University of Chicago, has written that the Internet’s ability to provide personalized news — to permit users to filter out what they don’t care to hear — poses a threat to democracy itself. But he also cites author James Surowiecki, who suggests in The Wisdom of Crowds that “under the right circumstances, groups are remarkably intelligent, often smarter than the smartest people in them.”

And to finish up, he calls on Maxine Isaacs, a lecturer at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who somehow manages to be simultaneously sunny and cynical on the topic. Isaacs observes that “[t]he public’s judgment has been pretty good over the past 75 years, when we pretended we didn’t have a partisan media. Everyone knew that we did. It’s now just more overt.”


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Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.