"It’s making us feel like the opposition is evil": How cable news hurts democracy — and how to fix it

TV like Fox News is entertaining, but it's making us hate politics — and each other, UPenn professor tells Salon

By Elias Isquith
June 6, 2015 4:00PM (UTC)
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Megyn Kelly, Sean Hannity, Mike Huckabee, Bill O'Reilly (Fox News)

Have you seen this video before? It’s a clip from a Wednesday-night episode of CNN’s “The Lead with Jake Tapper.” It features the eponymous anchor — playing the role of dogged, hard-bitten, widely respected and unbiased newsman — and Pamela Geller, the professional bigot I’m supposed to refer to as an “anti-Islam activist,” instead. The two of them have it out over the recent killing of one Usaama Rahim, an alleged terror suspect who was recently killed by Boston police. Thankfully, Rahim didn’t come close; but, reportedly, he had planned to kill Geller as an act of vengeance for her “activism.”

If you haven’t seen the clip — maybe because you find it difficult to listen to Geller, even though you think the threats against her life are, of course, deplorable in the extreme — you’re not necessarily missing much. It’s a pretty run-of-the-mill segment of its type. But that hardly means your initial instinct against watching it was wrong. It hardly means you won’t find the experience, relatively genteel as it was, to be viscerally unpleasant. Indeed, according to a new book from a professor of political science and communication at the University of Pennsylvania, your reaction was as natural that of a dog who smells trouble up ahead and decides to walk another way.

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The way Professor Diana C. Mutz, author of “In-Your-Face Politics: The Consequences of Uncivil Media,” sees it, that’s not just a problem for CNN. It’s a problem for democracy, too. “[A]s someone who wants an informed public,” Mutz says, “I want [cable news] to have audiences.” But how informed can an audience be if it’s asked to choose between loud-but-frivolous distractions like Pam Geller — or, as more and more people are choosing, not watching at all? And why is it that viewers in America are, by and large, presented with such limited and, well, terrible choices?

Building off of her own research, as well as the insights of experts throughout the social sciences, Mutz tries to not only answer these questions, but to point the way toward a better kind of cable news, too. Recently, Salon spoke over the phone with Mutz about what cable news does to viewers, how its format has changed, what’s spurred on these changes, why they’ve locked networks like CNN into a self-defeating formula, and how they can look abroad to find a way out. Our conversation is below, and has been edited for clarity and length.

What do you mean by “in-your-face politics”?

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By “in-your-face politics,” I really mean to state two aspects of modern political television that are both increasingly prominent. One is the level of incivility in the political discourse we witness on television; interrupting one another, talking-on over one another, raising voices, and so on.

The second aspect is a lot more subtle; it operates below the radar of what most of us are noticing about political television. It is that the way human beings are framed on political TV has changed substantially. We see [talking heads] from a close-up perspective far more than we used to.

That might seem to be a pretty minor change, but it has important consequences for the way that people respond, emotionally, to the images on the screen. It’s rooted in evolutionary psychology and how people respond to those that appear to be close to them physically.

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You mean the camera’s zoom — and how much it’s focused on the face of a speaker or debate participant — influences how people feel about politics?

What appears to happen is that, when we see representational imagery — like a person on a television screen — we respond to it in very much the same way that we do other humans in our environment. Even though we know there’s no real person there, we react far more strongly if that person appears to be physically close to us. If you see a train coming toward you on a movie screen, you pull your head back, as if it’s going to hit you.

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On a cognitive level, we know these images are just images; but, on the other hand, our brain processes them as if they are real. For example, if a person you disagree with politically is at a cocktail party with you corners you, is up close, in your face, pushing these view that you really don’t like, you become far more intense in your dislike for that person as a result of their physical proximity. The normal thing we do when we disagree with someone in face-to-face physical space is that we back off.

Right. We try to avoid heightening the conflict.

But on television, we are exposed to a lot of people and ideas that we really don’t like, in a very intimate way, in a way that probably wouldn’t occur in our face-to-face lives. What I find from a whole series of laboratory experiments, as well as data-gathering from representative population samples, is that [television’s in-your-face politics] intensifies people’s dislike for whatever politician they disliked already. It’s not changing our minds; it’s making us feel like the opposition is evil, and it's contributing to their demonization.

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Does Fox News do this more than MSNBC? Or HLN more than CNN? Or is it more of an across-the-board habit?

It does appear to be an across-the-board shift. When we track[ed] what that coverage looked like, even on something like the six o’clock evening news programs, the anchors appear closer to us; their bodies take up more of the screen. Our TVs have gotten bigger as well, so it feels as if they are closer to us, even if the shot is the same. All kinds of changes within the news have contributed to making it even more in your face, visually.

But TV news also emphasizes conflict a lot more than it did in the past. It’s definitely the case that there is a lot more incivility out there since the rise of cable. It’s not strictly a conservative phenomenon, which I know is something that many people think. We see this increase across the board — even on more liberal types of programming. What I suggest in the book is that this is really a reaction to increased market competition.

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How so?

Now that we have so many programs we can watch at any given point in time, what happens is that, unless you spice things up — make it melodramatic, include a lot of incivility and intense emotion — people don’t watch.

What we see, increasingly, is that despite all the additional political programming we have these days, fewer people [are] watching. It’s a small number of people who watch a lot of political television; they are the political junkies. But [television is] losing a lot of the middle; [it is] losing the people who don’t live and breathe politics, but who nonetheless might be drawn to it.

Let’s start with the positive effects of in-your-face politics, if there are any.

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There are definitely some positive consequences. What we showed in our experiments [is that] people find it far more riveting and attention-grabbing — and they say they are far more likely to watch that program again — if they watch an “uncivil” version of [a] program. We also find that their recall of what the candidate said is far greater in an uncivil, in-your-face kind of presentation than it is in a boring, PBS-kind.

People basically get bored when it’s not very lively. They don’t pay close attention and, as a result, they don’t learn as much. So both drawing people to watch and helping them recall what they have watched are positive consequences of this type of television. That’s why producers do it — they want audiences and, as someone who wants an informed public, I want them to have audiences, too.

But as you said before, this model has its costs.

Incivility has unintentional, negative externalities. What we show repeatedly is, in addition to the demonization of the opposition that I mentioned before, [viewers] also come away thinking that politicians are not like you and me, so they don’t trust them. We get much, much lower levels of trust in government — trust in politicians, trust in all kinds of institutions — among those who recently watched the uncivil version [of TV news] than those who watched the civil version.

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Because they violate social norms [of maintaining some distance] that we have come to expect from people, we lower our evaluations of politics and politicians — even though [we know] it’s TV. It’s a real quandary, because we need political television that is interesting to watch so it will draw viewers in. But the consequences are quite negative.

What would a better model look like? Is there a happy medium you’ve come across elsewhere in the world?

Politics has a lot to provide excitement. It’s a competition, and people love competitions. They love feeling involved in competitions that unfold over time. Some other countries have already come up with innovations to try to draw members of the public who wouldn’t necessarily be politically involved into the process.

One of my favorites is in Korea. A Korean network, for example, during their coverage on election day, they don’t just put lots of graphs and numbers on the screen for people to watch. If you vote there, you basically take a selfie and it uploads automatically to the network. So all day long, people watch in order to see their selfies on the TV screen.

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It’s like how people hope to be on the jumbotron when they go to pro-league game.

There are also countries, like Canada, that do really interesting programming. For example, they have a program called “Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister,” and it’s like “American Idol,” except the people who are the contestants on it are political wannabes — particularly younger folks who aspire to be in politics. The real pull, from my point of view, is that the judges are all former prime ministers.

People like to be involved; they like to feel like their voices are heard. Historians tell us that the heyday of mass voting in this country was when politics was truly more of a social event than it was a sit-at-home-and-study-your-referenda [event]. In the sense that we prefer a kind of educational model of how people should become informed rather than a model where they become informed through participation, I think we now take our politics a little too seriously.


Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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