Presidential elections always challenge the press: The pace of events and competitive pressure invariably war with the media's duties to provide balance and perspective. Readers, viewers and listeners inevitably become more critical news consumers as their personal preferences solidify. This year, the polls instruct us, the country is likely to approach November so exquisitely divided that serious analysts actually wonder whether Michael Moore's anti-administration agitprop might tip the electoral scales.
This situation - with all the extraordinary demands it is bound to make - comes at a time when an ever-growing share of the news media is increasingly unsure of its direction, and the public's trust in what it reads, sees and hears has fallen to levels unmatched in recent memory.
The issues can be seen most clearly in the knock-down, drag-out fight among the all-news cable television networks. What began as a normal struggle over ratings has become the contemporary media equivalent of the Spanish Civil War, a vicious battleground in which new technologies and strategies are being tested with daunting implications for the future. Actually, the war is between Fox and CNN. The third network, MSNBC, is sort of like the Catalan anarchists - slaughtered by everyone.
Its slogan notwithstanding, Fox News is the most blatantly biased major American news organization since the era of yellow journalism. But by turning itself into a 24-hour cycle of chat shows linked by just enough snippets of news to keep the argument going, Fox has made itself the most-watched of the cable networks.
Fox's winning formula is essentially talk radio by other means: All opinions are shouted, and contrary views are admitted only if they agree to come on camera dressed as straw men. To anyone prone to tune in AM radio, it's a familiar caldron, a witches' brew of rancor, sneers and resentment stirred for maximum distortion.
A certain number of people find it entertaining - much, one supposes, as others do bull baiting or cockfighting. The problem is that because it is popular within the relatively small universe of cable news viewers - the medium's most popular show actually has an audience about the size of a good metropolitan newspaper - and because it's cheap to put on the air, the other two networks are attracted to the model.
Troubling as that may be, it pales beside what has happened to the cable news audience. According to a recent survey by the independent Pew Center, more than half of all Fox News viewers describe themselves as political conservatives. That is 12 percent more than four years ago. Meanwhile, 50 percent of CNN's viewers call themselves liberals or independents. Among the Republicans polled in Pew's 3,000-person national sample, Fox is the most trusted source of news. Democrats most trust CNN.
The cable news audience, in other words, is increasingly dividing itself along partisan lines, seeking not information but confirmation.
Popular beliefs about the credibility of other news organizations also divide increasingly along partisan lines. Pew found that only half as many Republicans as Democrats view ABC, CBS and NBC news as credible. The GOP respondents voiced a similar skepticism about National Public Radio and Public Broadcasting's NewsHour.
The country's three nationally circulated newspapers fared little better. Asked whether they believed "all or most" of what they read in The New York Times, only 14 percent of the Republicans surveyed and 29 percent of the Democrats said yes. USA Today is believed by 14 percent of the Republicans and 25 percent of the Democrats. Most surprising was the fact that only 23 percent of Pew's GOP respondents felt they could believe all or most of what they read in The Wall Street Journal, which has one of the nation's most consistently and coherently conservative editorial pages. One in four Democrats trusts the Journal's reporting.
Pew's portrait of a news audience fractured along ideological lines carried consistently over into other media. "The audiences for Rush Limbaugh's radio show and Bill O'Reilly's TV program remain overwhelmingly conservative and Republican," the center's analysts wrote. "By contrast, audiences for some other news sources, notably NPR, the NewsHour, and magazines like The New Yorker, the Atlantic and Harper's, tilt liberal and Democratic, but not nearly to the same degree."
(Before we declare the apocalypse too loudly, it's worth recalling that similar things have happened in earlier periods of national distress. During the depths of the Depression, for example, the pro-Nazi, anti-Semitic radio priest Father Charles Coughlin had an audience twice that of the popular Limbaugh. At the time, the country's population was half what it is today, and there were no portable radios and only a handful in cars.)
The greater danger for America's people and the press is that what we now call partisanship will harden further into what the Founders detested as "faction."