Rash Report: The nation's new digital divide

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 17, 2011 - 10:51 PM

No, not income inequality and online access, but the Internet's ideological gap between left and right.

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The 'digital divide' seems wider than ever.

No, not the differences in Internet access caused by income inequality. Great strides have been made bridging that gap ever since the issue was dramatized by a photo-op of President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore wiring a California high school to make sure its lower-income students had equal Web access.

No, today's yawning digital divide is between left and right, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. That ideological gap -- a gulf, really -- separates the Netroots Nation and RightOnline confabs taking place in Minneapolis this weekend, almost within earshot of each other.

This divide's impact is profound -- for digital media, sure, but just as much for politics, and thus for citizens, at a time when the state and the nation face enormous problems that polarization aggravates.

Even media scholars and experts wonder whether digital media mirrors, or causes, these divisions.

"To what extent was this deterministic?" asks Seth Lewis, assistant professor at the University of Minnesota's School of Journalism and Mass Communications, whose academic work involves the impact of digital media.

 "Did the technology change society, or was it that people constructed the technology to suit longstanding cultural patterns already in existence?"

Answering his own question, Lewis calls digital media "an enabler," saying it "has created the kind of context in which partisanship and this kind of [political] organizing can really thrive in a way that was never possible before."

Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, the influential organization that tracks trends in media, believes that "the media don't invent or create conditions like polarization, but they can reinforce and strengthen any phenomenon that they help express. It is not the cause or root of political polarization any more than the National Enquirer is the cause of schadenfreude or celebrity gossip in American culture."

Both are right, up to a point. The Web can catch a lot of like-minded people. But so, surely, can other media forms.

Consider yourself a progressive? According to Pew data from last September, so do 62 percent of Rachel Maddow's viewers and New York Times readers, just above the 61 percent of National Public Radio listeners who describe themselves that way.

Or maybe you're a Tea Party supporter. If so, you're probably watching Fox News' Sean Hannity instead of MSNBC's Maddow, as 75 percent of Hannity's viewers hold the same views, just below the 76 percent of Rush Limbaugh's listeners who are self-described Tea Party supporters. (The same self-designation makes up 35 percent of Wall Street Journal readers.)

The splits go on, with the Pew data detailing divisions between Christian conservatives and gay-rights supporters, as well as between NRA backers and environmentalists.

About the only thing each group agrees on is their distrust of rival media sources: 85 percent of Times readers and 84 percent of Journal readers say they "trust a few sources more than others." So do 84 and 81 percent of Limbaugh's and NPR listeners, respectively; and 90 and 77 percent of Hannity and Maddow viewers, respectively.

This distrust of other sources isn't limited to questioning opinions. It undermines trust of reported facts, too.

"One of the big shifts in public life today is that 30 or 40 years ago the political grist -- the facts -- were pretty widely shared," said Lewis. "There aren't a lot of shared facts anymore. We pick and choose our truth based on our particular interest."

Lewis is especially concerned that fundamental facts of science are increasingly viewed through an ideological lens.

"The idea of empiricism is being questioned as never before," he said. "When you become divorced from empiricism in politics and public life, you start to enter the realm of fantasy and belief -- which is great for religion, but doesn't always work for shared ideas on how governance ought to work among a broad, diverse populace."

Minnesota has less than a fortnight for a GOP Legislature and a DFL governor to avoid a state government shutdown. And while no one knows how long a Democratic president and a Republican House of Representatives have to spare Americans a fiscal Greek tragedy of our own, a reckoning over our recklessness lurks, spooking Wall Street and Main Street alike.

Building the necessary coalitions to solve these problems is more challenging in a political and media environment that's fundamentally different than the three-network, two-newsweekly and one-newspaper-town landscape that helped build a post-World War II political consensus that seems long gone.

Most still get their news from so-called mainstream media sources such as local TV news and newspapers, leaving new media free to cater to those who like their politics hot. "Cable or blogs or other forms of media can be ideological precisely because they're niche," Rosenstiel says.

But this only divides society in yet another way, says Lewis, isolating the key constituency that sways political outcomes: independent voters.

"People who are partisans are becoming more and more partisan, while other people seem to be pulling away and tuning out from politics entirely," Lewis says.

All the same, we've been here before -- with governance and with media. As grave as our fiscal and economic picture is, the reason we call this the Great Recession is that there was a Great Depression long ago.

America survived a civil war and two world wars. And we've adopted and adapted to new media forms as well -- newspapers themselves (which once were highly partisan), radio, television.

Besides, digital media is still called "new media" because it is, well, new. It's likely to evolve, and may yet reach its potential to pull us together.

"The Internet is a medium that should allow us to embrace and make sense of complexity better than anything else we've had before -- we're not limited to 10-second soundbites," says Lewis. "We still haven't quite figured out how to make this medium really work in the way that it could."

"We are so in the infancy in understanding the impact of digital democracy," says Rosenstiel, who describes today's era on the Web as "sort of the early 1930s in the history of radio."

The Internet is only a tool; it's what we do with it that counts. It can just as easily unite us as it can divide us.

And just maybe some divides will be bridged this weekend, the old-fashioned way, with face time instead of Facebook. Because at least in one way, there's very little dividing the partisan participants in Netroots Nation and RightOnline, as both groups made the Hilton their main hotel for attendees.

John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.

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