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Austin Cline

Political Talk Shows Damage the Political Process

By June 25, 2006

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The political talk shows which feature people of opposing positions yelling at each other have become a staple of television today. Perhaps inspired by Jon Stewart's pointed criticism while on CNN's Crossfire, some have been taking a second look - and are disturbed by what some of the data indicates.

The Summer 2005 Wilson Quarterly discusses the article “The New Videomalaise: Effects of Televised Incivility on Political Trust” by Diana C. Mutz and Byron Reeves, in American Political Science Review (Feb. 2005). It discusses experiments on people watching political talk shows:

In one version, the actors carried on a polite discussion, while in the other they interrupted each other, rolled their eyes, and generally misbehaved. All of the viewers found the “uncivil” show more entertaining, but differences emerged when they were given an opinion survey shortly after watching the two programs. On the whole, those who saw the uncivil show suddenly recorded decreased levels of trust in politicians and the political system generally.

As bad as the incivility is, more important may be the fact that such experiences are unnatural for people:

[A]s the electrodes Mutz and Reeves attached to some viewers showed, [the experience] produces a physiological reaction much like the one created by real conflict. That, the two researchers conclude, is the source of the turnoff: “When political actors . . . violate the norms for everyday, face-to-face discourse, they reaffirm viewers’ sense that politicians cannot be counted on to obey the same norms for social behavior by which ordinary citizens abide.”

For whatever reason, people can’t quite pull themselves away from these shows — they only continue to exist because of their decent ratings. Perhaps people are drawn to these shows in the same way they are drawn to stare at car accidents. Regardless of the reason, it’s certainly not healthy psychologically for the viewers and it’s not healthy for the political process in general.

Whether the media corporations do anything about this remains to be seen. Ideally, journalists would have a strong interest in promoting healthy political debate and a healthy political climate, but that doesn’t appear to be the case here. Too many journalists are complicit in the situation and it’s taken a comedian to point out what should have been obvious to everyone. It’s rare that these talk shows do anything of value, and they don’t do anything of value that couldn’t be achieved better in some other format.

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Hmmm, given their behavior on these shows, perhaps it is a good thing that Americans don’t trust politicians or the political process.

Even before political commentary shows degenerated into shout-fests, I was losing interest in them though. Most shows’ idea of a “balanced debate” is to have the conservative/Republican view, opposed by the liberal or Democratic view…and nothing else. Most politicians & partisan commentators are quite predictable in what they’re going to say on a particular issue, and most of what they say is just spin instead of real content. It’s little wonder the American public has come to view modern “debates” as mere entertainment, or at most as a means to validate their own personal political beliefs.

I put part of the blame on the American people for not demanding more informative debates. But most of the blame, I think, should be split evenly between politicians & commentators who treat these shows as popularity contests, and the media who unquestioningly go along with them.

July 10, 2006 at 5:27 pm
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