Editor's note: The following editorial appeared Tuesday in the (Minneapolis) Star Tribune.
"The Rally to Restore Sanity," Jon Stewart's answer to cable competitor Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally, will take place Oct. 30 on the Washington Mall. The "Daily Show" host hopes to counter extremism of "the loud folks ... the 15 to 20 percent of the country" who seem to dominate about 80 percent of the discussion.
But if Stewart wants his "Million Moderate March" to convince conservative and liberal loudmouths to "take it down a notch for America," he may be missing half of his target audience. According to a new poll from the Pew Research Center, Stewart's viewers are just as politically polarized as Beck's. Seven percent of Americans say they regularly watch the "Daily Show," while 7 percent tune in to the "Glenn Beck Show" on the Fox News Channel. But rarely, if ever, the twain shall meet. Among self-described conservatives, the number drops to just 3 percent for Stewart, but spikes to 19 percent for Beck. Self-described liberals merit a polling asterisk for Beck, but 14 percent are part of Stewart's audience.
This partisan polarity projects beyond cable opinion shows to the broader news environment itself. Fox News' audience is composed of 60 percent conservatives, 26 percent moderates and only 9 percent liberals. MSNBC, the anti-Fox, has an audience of 30 percent conservatives, while 38 percent describe themselves as moderates and 30 percent call themselves liberal.
The poll paints a picture not just of a society divided, but a media industry united in its desire to cater to them.
Despite the deep divisions, there's some good news for society, and democracy, in the Pew poll: Americans are consuming more news. This should make for a more informed citizenry. And even though November's mid-term election lacks the electricity of 2008's presidential race, with the average time spent with the news up from a decade ago there may be higher-than-expected turnout.
The news consumption numbers are striking, considering how so many of us are pressed for time. Just as in 2000, on average, Americans get 57 minutes of news from traditional sources such as newspapers, radio or TV. But now we've added about 13 minutes from online news sources, for a total of about 70 minutes a day. And because it's harder to track, these sums don't count time spent consuming news on digital devices like cell phones or PDAs.
While "new media" accounts for the overall growth, what's equally notable is the resiliency of "old media." This is part of a pattern repeated throughout modern media history. Radio, after all, didn't displace movies, and film didn't die due to TV. Sure, some platforms have disappeared. Albums yielded to 8-tracks. Then came cassettes and CDs, and now iTunes. But people are still listening to music: With rare exceptions, like the telegraph, most media is additive, not reductive.
Clearly, professional standards for reporting and editing still matter to many readers, viewers and listeners. And smart media consumers rely on mainstream media sources for the best firsthand reporting and analysis from places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Indeed, this very reporting typically forms the basis of the nontraditional blogging and commentary that is driving some of the surge in new-media consumption.
With technological transformation a constant, expect our ability and willingness to consume more news to continue to grow. Call us self-interested if you'd like, but our hope is that Americans will grow tired of the purely partisan echo chambers and seek a broader range of opinions before forming their own. As Stewart would suggest, it also wouldn't hurt if we'd all take it down a notch.