Zero Sum
How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress. — Neils Bohr
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Posted Nov 8th, 2010 by ravi    / Permalink /

Commenting on the Stewart/Colbert non-rally in the NYRB, Janet Malcolm approvingly quotes David Carr from the New York Times:

Most Americans don’t watch or pay attention to cable television. In even a good news night, about five million people take a seat on the cable wars, which is less than 2 percent of all Americans. People are scared of what they see in their pay envelopes and neighborhoods, not because of what Keith Olbermann said last night or how Bill O’Reilly came back at him.

This Malcolm calls a “brutal truth”. But is this really true? And what sort of truth is it?

Five million may be 2% of all Americans, but is it the same 2% that “take a seat on the cable wars” each night? Malcolm and Carr do not tell us.

Further, should the percentage be calculated against the entire population? Or the adult population (approximately 225 million)? Or the households (about 105 million in 2000)? (source: US Census Bureau QuickFacts)

Even as a percentage of households, this audience amounts to only 5%, but this ignores the vaunted “network effect”. In other words, what of the influence of this audience as they disperse into workplaces, Starbuckses and Elk Lodges to magnify the voices of their liking?

In polling the citizenry on the bizarre notion that Barack Obama is a Muslim, the Pew Research Center (about as reputable as polling outfits get, from what I can tell) found that 18% of Americans subscribe to this idea and 43% say “they do not know what Obama’s religion is”. And only 46% of Democrats are of the opinion that Obama is a Christian.

Where would the people polled gain these impressions? We know the answer because Pew asked them:

When asked how they learned about Obama’s religion in an open-ended question, 60% of those who say Obama is a Muslim cite the media. Among specific media sources, television (at 16%) is mentioned most frequently.

And these beliefs, Pew finds, have a political price:

Beliefs about Obama’s religion are closely linked to political judgments about him. Those who say he is a Muslim overwhelmingly disapprove of his job performance, while a majority of those who think he is a Christian approve of the job Obama is doing. Those who are unsure about Obama’s religion are about evenly divided in their views of his performance.

A summary consideration of the matter also hints to us that pocketbook/neighbourhood issues (the concerns contrasted by Carr against the screeds of cable commentators) are not mutually exclusive with the opinions expressed on television. Often, it is in these media that personal experiences of economic or security concerns are corralled into political viewpoints.