If President Obama Only Reads the New York Times, He’s Like Most Americans

Most people who aren't required to be informed would prefer not be.

Yesterday, in an article published in The New Republic, an unnamed former Obama adviser mentioned offhandedly that the President reads just one newspaper: The New York Times. That might seem like a lot to the average American—less than a quarter of whom even glanced at a newspaper yesterday—but when you’re the top decision maker of a country as multifaceted and influential as ours, there’s an expectation that you’re considering a range of independent (as in non-administration) sources on topics of import. The story was picked up by a handful of media outlets and created a minor stir on Twitter before it was drowned out by the sound of explosions at the Boston Marathon.

If the reports are true—and there’s evidence to suggest they probably aren’t—it turns out the President is like the majority of Americans who choose what they want to see, read and hear in the media and then track down the source most likely to deliver it.  While journalists may be the exception to the rule (I read both the The American Conservative and The American Prospect just about every day), it turns out that most people who aren’t required to be informed would prefer not be. A study published in 2009 in the journal Communication Research found that when given the choice, college students are nearly 60 percent more likely to pick news stories that fit their ideological position, and will spend a third more time reading them than stories that present an alternative viewpoint.

There’s nothing especially Earth-shattering about this finding. By a well-studied process known as selective exposure—or “confirmation bias”—human beings naturally gravitate towards people and platforms that share their beliefs. But while the inclination to favor friendly voices over those we find provocative may be organic, thanks to an increasingly diverse media menu, it has never been easier to lock ourselves in our own little information bubbles than it is today.

Who spends the most time inside tends to vacillate over time. In the wake of the Vietnam War, reactionary forces among the Democrats pushed the party’s agenda further to the left, leading to accusations that progressives were insular and out of touch with America.  The proliferation of new, niche political publications catering to the left helped close the circle. The end result was the Reagan revolution of the 1980s and 12 years of Democratic exile from the White House.  In the 1990s, it was the right’s turn, only this time regulatory and technological changes made it possible for conservatives to undertake a more complete exodus from the mainstream. The abandonment of the Fairness Doctrine and the birth of cable television—which removed the major networks from the equation—provided the perfect platform for partisan media to mature. And conservatives brilliantly exploited it.  The rise of the Internet and social media led to the creation of smaller and stronger information bubbles than ever before.

The left has spent years trying to catch up—and while MSNBC recently gained the distinction of being named the most opinionated cable news channel, the right still has a near monopoly on virulently partisan media. The strength of the conservative media bubble was especially apparent during the 2012 presidential election, when even mathematical formulas were viewed with suspicion if they were calculated by the wrong person. As RedState blogger Ben Domenech succinctly put it after Romney’s loss: “The right is suffering from an era of on-demand reality.”

You don’t even have to be a news consumer to recognize that many politically active Americans develop their opinions first and then find the evidence to support them. But how much does it really matter?  Maybe not as much as we think. Temple University political science professor Kevin Arceneaux and his colleagues conducted a series of experiments using cable news content—including the Rachel Maddow Show and Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor—and found that most people who gravitate towards highly partisan sources of media are already polarized, and their exposure to partisan programming of their choice has little influence on their political positions. On the contrary, people tend to become more polarized when they are forced to watch media that contradicts their beliefs, the report found. Some theorists have gone so far as to claim that partisan media is a good thing because it encourages political participation.

I’m not sure I buy that. What good is participation if it is based on faulty, or patently false, intelligence? Imagine you’re a military leader preparing to storm an enemy position; would just any old intelligence do or would you want the most accurate assessment of the facts on the ground you could get your hands on? Why should participatory government be any different? Partisan media is guilty of spreading so much conjecture and misinformation that one recent survey found that people who exclusively watch Fox News are less informed about domestic issues than people who consume no news at all. That’s probably something to be worried about. As for Obama and The New York Times, I’m not in favor of a President reading just one newspaper, but I’ll say this, he certainly could have done worse in his choice of source.