Rachel Maddow from MSNBC's "The Rachel Maddow Show"

Ali Goldstein, Associated Press

Cable news is the 2012 frontrunner

  • Article by: JOHN RASH
  • Star Tribune
  • February 10, 2012 - 8:40 PM

Transcending traditional media forms, a relatively new medium is now the No. 1 source for campaign news.

Social media? Well, maybe next election.

Instead it's cable TV, according to a new Pew Research Center poll.

Just like the candidates, voters are sticking to cable, the destination for the debates that have defined the 2012 race. Pew reports that 36 percent of Americans regularly get their campaign news from cable news networks.

That number is down from 38 percent compared with this point in 2008, but other media have declined more dramatically from four years ago. Local TV news fell from 40 percent to 32 percent, and network news from 32 percent to 26 percent. Local newspapers don't need to print any Extra! election editions, either -- they fell from 31 percent to 20 percent (at least the ones on front porches -- the ones online are among the top Internet information sources).

As for the Web, it's up only 1 percentage point, to 25 percent. And while it may be a social-media election to many political and journalism junkies, it's not to most people. As a top online source for campaign news, Facebook's 5 percent showing and Twitter's 2 percent reveal that, "Social media is just that: It's not a news source; it's a social network," said Carroll Doherty, associate director at Pew.

Of course, the early, earnest adapters to getting news from online and social-media sources were the youngest cohort. But unlike 2008, they seem to view 2012's election as old news: 42 percent of those aged 18-29 regularly learned about presidential politicking online four years ago, but now only 29 percent do.

Younger people also tend to vote more Democratic, and with Obama's nomination uncontested, fewer are following the race. The percentage of Americans following election news very closely is down from 34 percent in 2008 to 29 percent today. And it's not just 18- to 29-year-olds: Interest inched up 1 percentage point for those aged 65 and older, but declined for everyone younger.

"Cable was always going to be used by a younger demographic, coming at the expense of networks," Doherty said. Now, seniors are "seeing where the coverage is and voting with their remotes."

Those of all ages voting with their remotes will soon do the same at the ballot box. Many will vote believing that much of the campaign coverage on which they based their decisions had "a great deal of bias." A record-high 37 percent of overall voters say so. Republicans register even higher, at 49 percent. And the numbers are numbing when self-identified Tea Partiers are asked -- 74 percent. By comparison, 32 percent of Democrats agree.

This partisan split over media bias wasn't always so, well, partisan. In 1989, a political and media lifetime ago, the numbers were almost identical: 25 percent of Republicans and 24 percent of Democrats. Like the perception of media bias itself, what's happened since then is open to subjective interpretation.

"For some people, it's sources other than mine that are biased," said Doherty. "I'm thinking about the other guy's source, and the other guy is thinking about my source. And bias itself has become such a part of the political debate ... when [some] consider the mainstream media kind of a hostile institution towards Republicans."

Cable's prime-time programs, politicized and personalized, amplify the divide, said Dr. Natalie Stroud, an assistant professor at the University of Texas and the author of "Niche News: The Politics of News Choice."

"My research shows those who use like-minded media become more polarized. They like their party more; they dislike the other party more. And those people who become more polarized are more likely to use like-minded media. So that suggests a spiral."

This spiral is matched by the one in political ads. Pew reports that advertising is still the top method candidates and interest groups use to connect with voters. In fact, 72 percent have already seen a campaign ad, and their use will only spike with Obama's embrace of once-scorned super PAC money.

So, on the rise are campaign commercials, cable news networks with sharp partisan perspectives, and charges of bias. Declining are ostensibly objective sources such as TV news and newspapers, as well as depth of interest in the political process, if not the outcome.

It all ought to make for an interesting Nov. 6. Although it's Nov. 7, and governing our polarized society, that the winner -- and we --should be worried about.


John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist.


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