The Outlet Is The Option, A Thesis Time Capsule: Preface
Twelve years ago seems like an eternity. I was a graduate student at Georgetown studying the relationship between media consumption and political socialization. I had spent the Fall 2004 semester interning at the brand new Center for American Progress, the highlight of which may been watching John Podesta dance to "Drop It Like It's Hot" at the company holiday party. Who could blame him for letting loose? Only a month prior George W. Bush had won the right to remain at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. It would be hard to overstate how sullen the atmosphere was at CAP the day after the election. But in the intense and (for some) depressing political climate of the 2004 election season, I found the ingredients for lemonade.
I had observed a shift, both in the ideological positioning of news outlets and the habits of political news consumers, that wasn't as obviously present only a few years prior. Fox News had established itself as the conservative counterweight to what many on the right asserted as the liberal bias of CNN. Progressives launched Air America to stake out some talk radio ground that had been (and continues to be) dominated by conservative commentators. And media consumers, particularly of my generation, seemed to be abandoning traditional "news" programs for the political satire of the Daily Show. As much as Jon Stewart insisted that the show was purely comedy, younger viewers were tuning in for their news with a side of laughs.
This evolving and increasingly polarized media landscape, coupled with the intense partisanship of the 2004 presidential election, led me to wonder "are people seeking news primarily from outlets that they believe align with their political beliefs?" and "do people still perceive (and value?) any outlets as being unbiased?" These questions may seem quaint in our current "fake news" and "post truth" era, but I think the answers I started to uncover help explain a trend that has brought us to the present situation.
Over the next several weeks, I'm going to unpack and republish my graduate thesis "The Outlet is the Option: How American 18 to 29 year-olds’ political media habits predicted their vote choices in the 2004 presidential election." My hope is to evaluate whether my findings and analysis hold up, and to spark some conversation about new models for political reporting that build, rather than erode, social trust.
My interest in the relationship between political ideology and media outlets emerged during my tenure as editor-in-chief of my undergraduate institution’s student newspaper. During the 2002-2003 academic year at the University of Richmond, I oversaw the editorial content, layout, staff, and budget of the weekly tabloid so cleverly named, The Collegian. Well before my stint as editor, I had developed a personal political ideology, which I did not try to conceal. I was an unabashed, bleeding heart liberal (though I believe such labels are often misleading). Nevertheless, I understood the line between objective journalist and political advocate, and I did not intend to cross it as editor of the only campus news source.
For university news, The Collegian was the newspaper of record. In the UR campus community, it was a mass medium. It was also considered by some self-declared conservatives to be a liberal news source, and therefore, unworthy of their readership. Despite my own political leanings, I decided to make a genuine effort to balance the newspaper and win over the campus conservatives. My first task as editor was to select a staff. Though I was primarily concerned with assembling the most capable group of editors, I was also careful to reserve mid and senior-level positions for people who had shared with me their moderate and conservative beliefs. As a next step, I sent letters to conservative campus organizations asking them to regularly contribute to the op-ed section and notify us of any events they felt we should cover. Though perceived news value was my ultimate determinant for running or emphasizing a particular article, I tried to achieve somewhat of a balance with politically charged material.
Apparently these modest efforts were no match for the polarized politics of the early 21st century. In February 2003, a conservative campus organization calling itself the Liberty Society announced that it would begin publishing its own newspaper. Just a month before, the group received national news coverage for its inflammatory anti-affirmative action “bake sale” in which Society members sold baked goods to people of different races at different costs. Now the Liberty Society had responded to an offer on the web site of the Leadership Institute’s Campus Leadership Program to “fight the liberal media monopoly on your campus by publishing your own independent conservative publication!” Publicly, The Collegian welcomed the competition in the name of viewpoint diversity. But privately, my ideologically diverse staff was puzzled by the news. We could not figure out how we had collectively supported liberal causes or stifled conservative voices in the paper.
After some contemplation, I decided the Liberty Society’s decision to publish an independent paper had little to do with the actual content of The Collegian. The group was riding high on the wave of national media attention, and it saw the potential for a niche market – campus conservatives. The Liberty Society believed that this untapped student population would respond positively to a publication that reinforced their ideology and policy positions, and gave them a one-sided forum to air grievances against the perceived rampant liberalism on the pages of The Collegian. The success of the new paper would depend on the readership and support of these students. The publication ultimately never got off the ground, but the business model was not largely flawed. Politically aware youth of competing ideologies were beginning to hunger for news that reflected their views.