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Are Fox News and MSNBC Leading To a ‘Less-Informed But More Opinionated Public’?

Former CBS Marketwatch CEO Larry Kramer blogs about MSNBC and Fox News on his blog, C-Scape. In a nutshell, Kramer argues that today’s busy media consumer, lacking the time to dig in to issues themselves, instead relies on cognitive shortcuts to familiarize themselves with what the “correct” opinions are, based on their preexisting ideology.

In Kramer’s opinion, Fox News and MSNBC are at the heart of this problem, which he says is “a bad thing for democracy” and leads to a “less-informed but more opinionated public.”

It is, frankly, easier for someone to turn on either Fox News or MSNBC, listen to the frequent opinion expressed, right or left, and benchmark themselves against that opinion rather than forming their own opinion based on independent thinking.

So if a new Supreme Court Justice was named tomorrow, more people would check out what Fox and MSNBC said about him or her, and then quickly decide whether or not they were in favor or opposed to approving the candidate. “If Fox (or MSNBC) like him, so do I,” a viewer can decide, (or the opposite) based totally on that viewer’s political stance and how it relates to Fox or MSNBC.

Kramer is an incredibly smart and well-respected TV executive, but in this case he seems to miss the mark in at least two ways:

First: the problem of opinion fragmentation and people going to outlets that reinforce their existing beliefs is hardly a new phenomenon. If the problem has gotten worse over the last few years, it is more likely to be due to the Internet than an ideological shift in TV news.

The Web has thousands of politically and ideologically charged websites of every stripe, allowing people with similar tastes and opinions to get the news they are interested in, through the filter they find most palatable.

This leads to the second point: most people in this country do not watch cable news.

On any given weekday night in primetime, an average of around four million people watch MSNBC, Fox News and CNN combined. By comparison, approximately 80 million people watch TV in primetime on any given weekday.

The top program on cable news this year was FNC’s “The O’Reilly Factor,” which was viewed by just over three million people on average.

Even assuming that plenty of people don’t tune in every day but still watch occasionally, the actual number of regular TV viewers that watch any of the cable news channels is tiny compared to the vastly more popular entertainment and sports programming available across the dial.

In other words, the viewership of cable news–while vocal and loyal–is probably too small to be directly responsible for a less-informed public. Apathy or the Internet are far more likely culprits, assuming you agree with Kramer’s supposition in the first place.

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