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Media tackles debt debacle

Posted by Kara Miller, Culture Club  August 1, 2011 09:52 AM

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It's worth asking how we ever ended up with such an implacable, divided Congress - a Congress that sniped about the debt ceiling right up until the moment it faced disaster.

And a few media outlets have floated potential answers.

At ABC, long-time political reporter and former anchor Cokie Roberts has suggested that the problem is technology. Once, Congresspeople spent weekends in Washington, watched their kids grow up together, and shared after-work drinks. Now, lawmaking occurs mostly from Tuesday to Thursday - at which point almost everyone tries to grab a flight home to their districts.

On CBS, the talk this morning was, instead, about gender. "Too much testosterone," White House correspondent Bill Plante said of negotiations, "is toxic." Congressional correspondent Nancy Cordes noted that, during the debt talks, some men have been unwilling to cross the hallway to talk to each other. And anchor Erica Hill wrapped up the segment by saying: "hopefully, all these men are watching this morning."

Not surprisingly, CNBC's Jim Cramer was more blunt. "Forget these guys. They can't come up with anything." Cramer admitted that he had spent a nervous weekend worrying about the gold in Fort Knox.

But here's another explanation for the debt impasse - which is at least as plausible, though not discussed much.

Perhaps the media itself has added to pre-existing geographic, gender, and racial divisions. Statistics show that viewers of Fox News tend to lean heavily Republican: in 2010, almost 80% of viewers said they would vote for the GOP.

CNN and MSNBC's viewers lean the other way, though not quite as heavily. Nearly 60% said they planned to vote Democratic in 2010.

And it's not just that viewers choose the media outlets that suit their views. The outlets themselves feel compelled to offer reassuring, rabid anchors (particularly in prime time), who make viewers feel that they're unerringly brilliant - and that those in the opposing party are unquestionably idiotic.

Indeed, many cable personalities have beome so vociferous that it makes some of them uncomfortable. In an interview this spring with The Washington Post, MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell admitted: “If it were up to me, we’d be doing a PBS show. I’m trying to train my show instincts to what works in this environment... a Jim Lehrer show or a Charlie Rose can’t happen here."

Perhaps not, but divided media seems to increasingly threaten the viability of divided government.

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About the author

Kara Miller is an Assistant Professor of English, specializing in journalism, at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth. She also serves as a guest panelist on WGBH-TV's “Beat the Press” and contributes to 89.7 FM WGBH (NPR). More »

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