New media era dawns in U.S.


Increase in talk shows, Web sites changes way Americans form opinions, make decisions

WASHINGTON � Carol Stinson of Royal Oak isn�t concerned about CBS anchor Dan Rather�s admission that he relied on a now-suspect document to question President Bush�s military background. She�s a cable news fan.

�They make no bones about their biases,� said Stinson, 39, a declared Republican who looks for alternatives to network news. �I go out of my way to watch news that might be delivered from a different viewpoint.�

Reactions like that to the CBS report illustrate a shift in the way many Americans get their news and information. Gone is the long-standing reliance of almost all Americans on a handful of mass media outlets that reported the news in similar ways. Instead, hundreds of new outlets offer Americans distinctive approaches to stories, and many people have gravitated to the outlets that they believe most reflect their own views.

At the same time, increasing numbers of people are relying on new forms of media such as Web logs and Internet sites to supplement and even replace newspapers, magazines, radio stations, and both broadcast networks and cable TV channels.

The result, some say, is a nation in which news consumers sometimes believe only what they see, hear or read on the outlets they prefer � and label as biased or false the information that doesn�t jibe with their points of view.

That kind of choice has ripple effects not only for mainstream media, but also for the way society forms its opinions and the way politicians and other idea salespeople get their messages to the public.

�The question is how do people get engaged in public life, political dialogue, issues of the day, how do they get engaged,� said Jay Rosen, a journalism professor at New York University and author of

�Just because journalists prefer to present information first and let opinion come after that, for some people argument is the way they get engaged in public life and political issues of the day, and argument is the way they get interested in seeking more information. They go with arguments that make sense to them.�

Tobe Berkovitz, associate dean of communications at Boston University, said some consumers are much more likely to purposely tune into news with a viewpoint.

�The more partisan you are, the more you tend to look for news that reflects your values, your opinion, your ideology,� he said. �People who are less partisan are probably more open to different news sources.�

But some news hounds like Judy Daubenmier of Brighton are upset with the trend toward news with a viewpoint.

�I really think a democracy depends for its effectiveness on a well-informed citizenry and access to information that has been independently analyzed,� said Daubenmier, one of eight people who volunteered to spend several weeks watching Fox News to document instances of biased journalism. Their data was used to produce the recent documentary �Outfoxed� and the Weblog

�I wonder if the end result won�t be a society where even basic facts are in dispute because everything is presented from a certain point of view,� added Daubenmier, a historian and former journalist.

Al Kwasniuk, 54, of Walled Lake says it�s difficult to take any news reports at face value these days.

�Nothing really strikes me as 100 percent true anymore,� he said. �I miss the old days when you knew what was what.�

But to him, the fuss over Rather and CBS is seemingly out of proportion. �He just screwed up, that�s all,� he said.

CBS initially dismissed as partisan griping any questions about its report, which featured apparently forged documents about Bush�s National Guard record. But a steady stream of concerns fueled by Internet conversations known as Web logs, or �blogs,� kept the debate alive while other mainstream media investigated their authenticity.

Rosen said the proliferation of Internet commentary puts some of the fact gathering in the readers� hands even though they often link to traditional news organizations.

�People who rely more on the Internet and Web logs are putting together their own news rather than assuming a package put together by a journalist,� Rosen added. �There�s a more active participation.�

Though the young are more computer savvy, older adults are now quite active on Internet logs and get some of their news off the Web, Berkovitz said.

That makes it that much harder to reach a mass audience now with traditional media or to target specific groups, he said.

During the 1970s and 1980s when he worked for former U.S. Sen. Donald Riegle, former Gov. James Blanchard and U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, all Michigan Democrats, he said news was disseminated on three television stations and about seven radio stations.

�You now have nine TV stations, 50 cable outlets, 22 radio stations � there�s many more media options, and I�m just talking about reaching voters,� Berkovitz said. �Now you are pounding away on the Internet. You log on to anything and you are getting essentially political ads.�

The gulf separating 2004 from, say, the mid-1960s cannot be exaggerated, says Larry Sabato, author of �Feeding Frenzy: Attack Journalism and American Politics.�

�Back in the �60s, watching the evening news was a kind of national town meeting,� he said. �Today, every one of my students (at the University of Virginia) has a different set of news sources. They bookmark them. They rarely even look at the news channels on TV.�

Sabato argues the present system carries pluses and minuses.

�You�ve lost that national town meeting, but here�s the good: As long as you choose wisely, you get better news from more perspectives,� he said.

The optimist in him thinks the present balkanization of political opinion and news outlets is not necessarily permanent.

�Over time,� Sabato said, �inevitably, people will branch out more widely, simply because they�re going to find they don�t fully understand what�s happening. Anyone who�s even slightly curious will broaden the scope of their sources.�

It�s an optimism that Mary Ann Watson isn�t sure she shares.

�Because I�m in contact with college kids every day,� says the Eastern Michigan telecommunications professor, �I�m leaning toward the pessimistic.

�I don�t see an interest on their part in news that corresponds with the critical times the nation is facing.�

She�s afraid there could be an ugly ripple effect on the democratic system.

�The bottom line is that democracy only works when you�ve got a legitimate Fourth Estate.�