Informed electorate? Not if trends hold

Voters hard-pressed to sort facts from friction

My attention this week should properly be focused on the best-actor and best-picture races but, candidly, the cast of characters now inhabiting the political stage seems more engrossing.

The nation’s ideological temperature is already soaring and the head-to-head presidential campaign hasn’t even started yet. Even a political junkie like George Clooney admits he could not have created anything as off the wall as the Newt-Mitt-and-Rick show for one of his films.

Hence while this year’s Oscar race has rated high on spending but low on passion, events in the real world seem steeped in passion but underwhelming in intellectual content.

So here’s the inevitable question: While Oscar voters have dutifully seen the films and done their homework, will voters at large prepare themselves even minimally on the important issues of the day?

We are heading into an extraordinarily polarizing political battle, with major issues at stake, but will the public simply be numbed by the projected $2 billion in campaign advertising?

Where (if anywhere) do voters get their news? Studies show a continued decline in readership of newspapers and news magazines; further, news shows on broadcast TV have been losing viewers over the long term. A new study by Pew Research finds that cable news was cited by 36% of respondents as their key source of campaign news compared with 26% for network news and 20% for newspapers. When asked to name sources of online news, 5% cited either Facebook or the New York Times. According to Prof. Jonathan Taplin of USC, studies indicate that people tweet and retweet links from the mainstream media — a hint that people may be digesting fragments of mainstream media news second- or thirdhand.

Proponents of the social media are also quick to profess a growing role for entities like @MentionMachine as “the newest campaign benchmark.” The problem, as Politico points out, is that there still seems to be no relationship between the most mentions on Facebook chatter and the outcome of primary elections.

The news chiefs of the broadcast networks are trying to re-energize their presentations, each taking a different route. “Viewers pick what matters to them, and we are trying to be adaptive,” Ben Sherwood, president of ABC News, told the New York Times. Hence ABC is trying to humanize the news with Diane Sawyer radiating nightly empathy; NBC’s Brian Williams is arguably the best-known anchor — he even does periodic turns at comedy on Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show.”

While both NBC and ABC stress lifestyle angles, CBS is focusing more intently on hard news, with its “Evening News” anchor Scott Pelley fulfilling the profile of the more traditional anchor, formal in approach and elocution. Pelley led with news from Syria the same day others led with Whitney Houston.

The chairman of CBS News, Jeff Fager, has shrewdly implanted the “60 Minutes” brand over all of the network’s news coverage (Fager still oversees “60 Minutes,” and Pelley remains one of its anchors). So when “60 Minutes” breaks a hot interview, such as its recent session with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, its insights were sprinkled across the CBS spectrum of news shows. (“60 Minutes” is up 8% this year in the 25 – 54 demo).

Fager, himself a news junkie, has made several surprise moves this year to underscore that commitment. He’s challenging the feel-good “Today Show” with a morning news team headed by Charlie Rose. He has instructed his news directors to pursue stories they deem important, even if those stories defy audience research. He also has urged correspondents in the field to pursue personal reporting rather than supplying standard summaries of events in the region. Ratings of CBS News reflect this invigoration.

While the broadcast networks try to serve up their news objectively, as does CNN, Fox News and its smaller rival MSNBC believe their viewers prefer rants to facts. The typical Fox News viewer, it seems, wants to hear his favorite polemicist denounce the evils of entitlements even as he prepares to go to the bank to cash in his entitlements.

So the coming months will shed light on at least one important question: Just how uninformed does the American public aspire to become?

After all, they have nothing at stake except their economy and their culture.

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