Americans Increasingly Seeking Out Media Outlets That Confirm Pre-Existing Partisan Views
The release of the House Select Committee on Benghazi’s comprehensive final report last week raised more questions that it answered for Dana Constant, who is convinced that the response to the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Libya is part of a massive government cover-up that goes much further than the actions of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In fact, the high school teacher doesn’t believe anything in the House Republicans’ critical report that detailed lax security before the attack and political hand-wringing during the 13-hour assault on the U.S. diplomatic outpost and nearby CIA annex where U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
She also doesn’t believe the Obama administration is telling the whole story about the night of the Benghazi attack — or even why U.S. officials were there in the first place.
What really happened?
“We’ll never know,” said Ms. Constant, a registered Democrat who teaches in Prince George’s County, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C.
Still, the perceived intrigue doesn’t shake her determination to vote in November for Mrs. Clinton, the likely Democratic presidential nominee.
“Hillary was used as a scapegoat for something much deeper that needs to be investigated,” she said.
Ms. Constant’s views are not entirely unusual. American voters increasingly put their own stamp on the news and events that shape political debates and campaigns, according to experts.
“What we see now is a much greater tendency of people to see the world the way they want it to be as opposed to the way it really is,” said Marc J. Hetherington, a Vanderbilt University political science professor who studies voter behavior and presidential elections.
He said that Americans increasingly view news and current affairs though a partisan lens and search out media outlets that reinforce their pre-existing views, creating what academics call an environment of “partisan-motivated reasoning.”
“There’s always been this tendency because, you know, partisanship is important. We want to think of our side as winning and the other side as losing,” said Mr. Hetherington. “But these partisan assessments are twice as strong now as they were in the 1980s, when we first discovered this stuff happening.”
Indeed, widespread coverage in mainstream media, including most cable and network TV news, described last week’s Benghazi report as shedding little new light on the attack and not revealing anything that incriminated Mrs. Clinton. But conservatives didn’t see it that way.
U.S. Air Force retiree Mark Teeter, an independent with conservative political views, said the Benghazi report only reinforced his belief that the inadequate U.S. response to the attack was entirely driven by political considerations by President Obama and Mrs. Clinton.
“It only reinforced my opinion that we could have been there in 10 minutes if they said, ‘Get ‘em out of there,’” said Mr. Teeter. “There’s no possible way I’ll vote for her.”
Americans’ negative opinions of the other side also have grown more intense, Mr. Hetherington said.
“The biggest development in politics, in my view, over the last 15 years is that partisans of one side have come to hate — really hate — the other side, the other party,” said the professor, who explored the issue in his recent book “Why Washington Won't Work.”
“When you don’t like and don’t trust the other side, you’ll believe the worst about them — you’ll believe anything,” he said.
Sue Cleveland, a delegate to the Republican National Convention, readily blamed Democrats when her presidential candidate, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, lost a hard-fought primary race to presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump.
“I really feel a lot of what happened in the primary is Democrats coming over to support Trump to muddy up the primary,” said Ms. Cleveland of Texas. “I even thought [Mr. Trump] and Hillary are good friends.”
The expansion of news sources in the Internet Age, offering radically competing interpretations of the same basic information, also makes it easier for candidates to dismiss unfavorable coverage.
Mrs. Clinton first complained of a “vast right-wing conspiracy” in the 1990s to explain away alleged improprieties by her husband, President Bill Clinton, in the midst of his impeachment battle.
These days she avoids using the phrase that has become widely mocked in Republican circles, but the same explanation is implied every time she complains about being under attack for the last 25 years — and it resonates now more than ever with her supporters.
Mr. Trump similarly discards news coverage that he views as unfavorable. He regularly accuses cable TV news channels of cherry-picking polling data to downplay the success of his campaign.
He took on The Washington Post for the way it covered his campaign, making it one of a number of news organizations denied credentials to cover his campaign events.
“Based on the incredibly inaccurate coverage and reporting of the record setting Trump campaign, we are hereby revoking the press credentials of the phony and dishonest Washington Post,” Mr. Trump tweeted last month.
His supporters ate it up.
In this way, the splintering of the news media has made it less powerful, said Duke University political science professor Sunshine Hillygus, who specializes in American voter behavior. “Once people start questioning not just the information but the source of the information, it reinforces that [political] polarization.”
Michael Reed, a 56-year-old registered Republican in Delaware, said he didn’t bother with news coverage of the Benghazi report because he already had made up his mind about the attack and about Mrs. Clinton.
“I already don’t have a lot of respect for the woman. She can’t seem to lie fast enough,” said Mr. Reed, an engineer. “I already have my opinion.”
He felt the same way about Mr. Trump’s series of speeches last week outlining his position on trade and the economy, which included promises to pull the U.S. out of the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal and force Canada and Mexico to renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement.
“My opinion is we don’t have much choice this year for president,” he said, adding that he hopes Mr. Trump would win and shake up the political establishment in Washington.