In September 2009, the U.S. government urged its citizens to be vaccinated against the h1n1 (“swine flu”) virus after the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control labeled the outbreak a global pandemic. In the year ending in April 2010, according to the cdc, this flu strain killed from 9,000 to 18,000 Americans.
On the face of it, the government’s call to take precautions against an impending epidemic might seem wholly nonpartisan — merely an attempt to spare Americans from serious illness or worse. Nevertheless, the reaction to this appeal was divided sharply along party lines, observes Matthew Baum, Kalb Professor of Global Communications. A survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that Democrats were about 50 percent more inclined to get inoculated than Republicans, and Baum identified a key reason: the fractured media marketplace, in which consumers increasingly get their news from sources that cater to their political leanings and with little attempt at objectivity. The Fox News commentator Glenn Beck, for instance, strongly warned his viewers against following the government’s advice, as did the conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh. People who relied on more liberal media outlets were more likely to comply with the public health recommendations.
Baum describes this situation as an erosion of the “information commons.” From the 1950s to the early 1990s, when three major television networks ruled the airwaves, large numbers of Americans kept abreast of current events through news programs that purported to provide balanced, nonpartisan presentations. The cbs anchorman Walter Cronkite, a dominant figure in this era, was often called “the most trusted man in America.” The emergence of vast numbers of cable TV stations, starting in the late 1980s — combined with the proliferation of political talk radio shows and popular blog sites such as the Huffington Post on the left and Michellemalkin.com on the right — has substantially diminished the influence of and audience for network news. This pattern will become stronger, Baum predicts, as the dissemination of news becomes more fragmented, customized, and “niche-oriented”— in part through the application of technologies like those employed by Netflix, iTunes, and Google, which try to give people what they want on the basis of past preferences.
The trend could have a dire effect on public health programs in addition to flu immunization campaigns, because such efforts, Baum argues, “cannot succeed without public acceptance of the premises upon which they are based.” But its consequences could be far more extensive, he says, “since the loss of the information commons is a problem for democracy in general.”
“Party polarization is worse today than it’s been since the 19th century,” he adds, a fact that has largely paralyzed the Obama administration. “The public isn’t as polarized as Congress yet, but those effects can filter down throughout the country.” Changes in the media world that push people toward what Baum calls “self-segregated information streams” will tend to reinforce divisions within the population at large, making it increasingly difficult to reach consensus on important issues or even on less pressing matters.
“We’re not likely to get back what we had in the latter half of the 20th century,” Baum concedes, but he considers it unwise to abandon the notion of an information commons altogether. Although it will be hard, given the number of choices consumers have today, “there are things we can do to tip the balance back in the other direction.” Just as we once had an equal-time rule and a fairness doctrine, which required U.S. TV and radio broadcasters (with some exceptions) to give airtime to people with opposing political viewpoints, the government could require current news sources, such as Internet aggregator sites, to reserve some portion of their offerings for public-affairs-oriented content. “I think there is an overriding need for something like that,” Baum says, “but we first have to muster the will to do it.”
— by Steve Nadis