Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Power of the Media

I spotted this article in the Telegraph which is a great reminder how much influence the media really has. People's view of the world can be incredibly incorrect based on what information they receive.

In this case the story is about Putin's Russia and how Russians believe their economy is flourishing even as it is crashing.

And sure enough, at a time when their country is locked in its worst financial crisis in a decade, they are more optimistic about the economy than they have ever been. According to opinion polls, 57 per cent reckon it is flourishing, up from 53 per cent in July.

The survey's findings are a triumph for the state, proving that the Kremlin has not lost its touch when it comes to manipulating fact. Obeying orders from the top, Russian television has banned the use of words such as "crisis", "decline" and "devaluation". Coverage of the mayhem in the country's stock market, where shares have fallen by 75 per cent since August, is scant.

When you look at a situation like this, you can begin to understand how a dictatorship can stay in power by manipulating public opinion. You realize that America's actions could have far less to do with how we are viewed by the world than what the media in individual countries around the world reports. That is, America may be viewed negatively by many countries around the world not for what we have said or done, but what governments around the world tell their people that we have said or done. And what is reported can be completely divorced from reality.

In America, the diversity of the media provides a good explanation for why we are so divided as a country. It is my conclusion that people's political views greatly rely on, or are reinforced by, which media outlets they get their news from. Of the people that pay attention, you have about 40% that primarily listen to talk radio, read conservative blogs/newspapers, and/or watch Fox News. There are another 40% that primarily watch ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, or MSNBC, or read liberal blogs/newspapers. The remaining 20% watch/read/listen to a mix.

The reason for the country's division is that the two groups of 40% are not only fed a totally different set of opinions, but even a completely different (and conflicting) version of the facts. I don't have time to cite examples right now.

I would like to see a move toward more reasoned debate. Instead of news consumers remaining in their 40% bubbles, some outlets need provide a worthwhile discussion between both sides that goes beyond a 5 minute yelling match between hyper-partisans.

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