How American politics went bonkers

There’s a school of thought that says that the increasingly partisan nature of American politics on cable news. Liberals and Conservatives segregate themselves into different televised echo chambers that reinforce their prejudices. The Economist’s Lexington column presents a different view:

Yet those who blame Fox and MSNBC for dividing the country should check their sums. Markus Prior of Princeton University has dug into data, much of it unpublished, from ratings companies who remotely track viewing habits in sample households. His conclusion is that Americans fib about what they watch, and that large majorities simply shun cable news. Perhaps 10-15% of the voting-age population watch more than 10 minutes of cable news a day, a share that rises modestly before exciting elections. For most individual news shows (including hybrids like Jon Stewart’s satirical “Daily Show”), 2m viewers counts as a wild success. That is the equivalent of 0.8% of voting-age Americans.

In 1969 half of American homes tuned into the big networks’ evening newscasts (it helped that their cautiously high-minded, eat-your-greens reporting was all there was to watch at dinner-time). The advent of cable gave those bored by politics somewhere to flee. If obsessives now dominate political debate, Mr Prior suggests, the real culprit is not Fox but choice. Fiery partisans continue to watch lots of news, but other Americans prefer football or “The Real Housewives of Atlanta”.

The changes are not over. News-lovers are greying (hence all those arthritis ads on TV). For several years most young Americans have told Pew that they do not “enjoy” following news, in any medium. They don’t seem to be changing their minds as they age. In time, politicians may be begging for any coverage at all.

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