Are Culture War Activists MORE Likely to Read from the Other Side?

It has become a tired cliche that our society has grown more culturally segregated due to the fact that we only read/see/hear those ideologically driven news outlets with which we already agree.  An interesting piece in this morning’s New York Times describes a study of media consumership that challenges that common wisdom.  According to a study by Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro of the Booth School of Business at the University of Chicago, people who read/view/listen to news and information from one side of the political spectrum are MORE likely to also read/view/listen to sources from the other side.

“Internet news consumers with homogeneous news diets are rare,” the authors wrote.

As James Warren of the Chicago News Cooperative suggests, the problem might not be that hardened culture warriors are clustering farther and farther apart in the newsiverse, reinforcing their own stereotypes and preconceived notions.  The problem might be, Warren suggests, that too many Americans are not reading/viewing/listening to ANY news at all.  Though some news consumers frequented sources from both left and right, larger numbers of Americans consumed very little news from any source.

What does this mean for our understanding of the culture wars?  Morris Fiorina has suggested that the hype of culture war has been overblown.  Fiorina argued that most Americans were centrist, but journalists and politicians eager for attention stressed extreme positions.  Perhaps this study bolsters Fiorino’s argument.  The study’s authors found that most online news consumption clustered around centrist sites such as Yahoo and CNN.  I find that heartening.

Some might say that another, gloomier interpretation is more obvious.  According to the study, listeners to Rush Limbaugh were more likely than the average American to also spend some time on perceived left-leaning sites such as the New York Times.com.   And visitors to the leftist MoveOn.org were more likely than the average American to also visit right-leaning sites such as FoxNews.com.  One interpretation is that those readers and viewers were interested in hearing both sides of an issue.  The most obvious interpretation, though, is that each side is only conducting reconnaissance.  Both sides, in other words, scan through the news outlets from the other side in order to expose their foibles and weaknesses.

So, perhaps these ardent culture warriors are only reading their enemies in order to disprove them.  Even so, I consider that a good thing.  Even if culture warriors are only trying to disprove one another, the fact that they are familiarizing themselves with the “enemy” will mean that they have some sense of what other people are thinking.  This study, in any case, seems to give support to a hunch that Americans are not as far apart culturally as some have suggested.