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How politically polarized media is driving our alternative realities

April 20, 2017 at 6:35 PM EDT
These days, where Americans get their news is as different as how they vote. Researchers have found that the proliferation of news sources on cable TV and the internet has upended the relationship between news outlets and their audiences. John Yang takes us to Arizona to examine how people pic their news sources and the impact that has on how they perceive the world around them.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: But first: The ouster of Bill O’Reilly from the FOX News Channel is an earthquake inside the conservative news media machine that many say, over the years, has contributed to the polarization of America.

Tonight, we look at one aspect of the two Americas what we’re calling news divisions.

White House correspondent John Yang went to Arizona recently to examine how people get their news and the impact that has on how they see the world.

JOHN YANG: Marcus Huey, Ken Block, and Delia Salvatierra all live in the Phoenix area and call themselves news junkies. But that’s where the similarity ends. Their sources of news are as different as their politics.

Salvatierra is a Democrat who voted for Hillary Clinton.

DELIA SALVATIERRA, Democrat: The New York Times, The Washington Post, CNN, and The New Yorker are sort of the foundational things that I surround myself with.

JOHN YANG: Huey is a Republican who voted for President Trump.

MARCUS HUEY, Republican: As a voting member of the Republican Party, I would say anything that comes out of FOX, I pretty much take to the bank. If something comes from Laura Ingraham, I pretty much take that to the bank.

JOHN YANG: And Block, an independent, voted for Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson.

KEN BLOCK, Independent: I kind of bounce all over the board. I have Twitter and a news feed on my phone. So, you know, I take a little bit of everything.

JOHN YANG: None of that surprises Thom Reilly, director of the nonpartisan Morrison Institute for Public Policy at Arizona State University. He’s one of the authors of new a study examining where voters get both news and commentary.

THOM REILLY, Morrison Institute for Public Policy, ASU: Well, voters today basically have this cafeteria type format, where they can choose from personalized news sources that not only serves to inform them, but also reinforces their world view.

We want to hear stuff that we believe in, or just kind of particularly in a very polarized world. So, I do think we’re seeing this, people going back to what — they feel safe.

JOHN YANG: The researchers found that the proliferation of news sources on cable TV and the Internet has upended the relationship between news outlets and their audiences. Instead of voters being shaped by news, Reilly says news is being shaped for voters.

THOM REILLY: What we’re seeing is that, particularly with a lot of Internet sources, is they’re appealing to a base, and they’re attracting a wide audience, and it’s growing. And they’re responding to what voters want, instead of vice versa.

JOHN YANG: It used to be that politicians and candidates would appeal to a base, but now you’re saying that news outlets are appealing to their base?

THOM REILLY: And they’re shaping it, yes, yes.

JOHN YANG: Democrat Salvatierra grew up in a conservative Republican household and found her own brand of politics in college at the University of California, Berkeley. She now runs her own immigration and criminal law practice.

DELIA SALVATIERRA: I think the press has become increasingly important. And I think once the new administration attacked certain organizations as fake news, it only empowered me to listen to those news organizations even more.

And whereas before I could flip back and forth between maybe FOX News and CNN, I don’t trust FOX News, because it is so overwhelmingly endorsed by the administration.

JOHN YANG: But you’re deliberately seeking out opinions, commentary that reinforce your views?

DELIA SALVATIERRA: Yes, I think so. I think I do that naturally. I wish that I could tolerate watching FOX News a little bit more, but I can’t, because it’s usually the same time that I’m watching Anderson Cooper or Don Lemon, and they’re asking questions. They’re asking legitimate questions. They’re pushing the envelope. And they’re asking the questions that I have, that are aligned with my views.

JOHN YANG: Huey, the Republican, is a retired small business owner. He and his wife, Lorri (ph), view the world through a very different news prism.

MARCUS HUEY: I try to get up a little bit before 7:00 — 7:00, I’m in the breakfast room. I have FOX News on. I have The Wall Street Journal down in front of me, and then I have my iPhone next to me. And if there’s no breaking, urgent news on the TV, then the first thing I do is, I will go check my phone, and look through my Facebook wall to see anything that I might have missed through the night.

JOHN YANG: You said whatever you hear from Laura Ingraham and from FOX, you feel pretty much — you feel confident in?

MARCUS HUEY: I have a track record and history with them. And I feel they both have been reliable and haven’t really let me down that often.

Breitbart, I feel good about it, but if it’s some kind of a startling headline, I might hold back and look for other opinions. CNN and MSNBC, I feel it may not be fake news, but I feel that those organizations, unfortunately, I think they would like to see Trump be a one-term president.

JOHN YANG: Block, an Uber and Lyft driver, says he voted Libertarian last year as a default.

KEN BLOCK: The thing I’m most pleased with is the fact that Hillary Clinton didn’t get in the White House. That was my concern. I couldn’t vote for Trump at the time, no, and I don’t know if I could now.

JOHN YANG: A self-described cynic, Block grew up in a Democratic household and became the black sheep Republican. With what he calls the recent political circus, he declared himself an independent.

While he drives, he prefers a right-leaning talk radio station. At home, he watches CNN and NBC News in the morning and at dinner time. His smartphone, with his Twitter account, is never far away. He is an equal-opportunity critic when it comes to some of the news sources most frequently mentioned by voters in the Arizona State Morrison Institute study.

Who do you distrust the most?

KEN BLOCK: Wolf Blitzer.

JOHN YANG: Why?

KEN BLOCK: He has just become more of a grandstander than anything else. Everything is breaking news, every day, every moment. Everything can’t be breaking news. It’s not possible.

JOHN YANG: Do you watch FOX?

KEN BLOCK: Not so much anymore. I used to. I felt that was one-sided, more so than the combination of all the other outlets. And I guess there was an element of distrust.

As citizens, we don’t know what we don’t know. We’re only given so much information.

JOHN YANG: How do these three voters, with their selected sources for news, view one current big story?

Do you believe that the Russians tried to interfere with the election?

DELIA SALVATIERRA: Has suspicion around this issue remained? Absolutely.

MARCUS HUEY: Do I believe they tried to influence the election for Donald Trump? That seems like a stretch. You have the Clintons, who have received tens of millions of dollars, either through — personally or through their foundation, from the Russians. In my mind, I would think that, if Putin has somebody he would be cheering for, it would be Hillary Clinton.

KEN BLOCK: I believe that they did. I don’t know if it’s to the extent they are being accused of, but I believe that they did.

JOHN YANG: The Arizona State Morrison study found that independents like Block can help bridge the alternative realities of polarized partisans.

THOM REILLY: If you talk to different people, and you’re open to different ideas, that perhaps on a larger national scale can lead to more compromise.

JOHN YANG: As he drives his customers, Block says sometimes the best way to get along is simply to change the channel.

KEN BLOCK: A lot of times, my customers have just gotten off a plane, and they will hear something that just happened, and, oh, turn it up, turn it up, turn it up. Or, conversely, they will say, I have been listening to that all day. Can you please turn that off? Can we have some music?

JOHN YANG: If they can agree on that.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m John Yang in Phoenix.

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