Hewlett Wants to Improve Media to Fight Polarization. Will It Get Anywhere?

Once upon a time, Washington, DC, was teaming with reporters from newspapers all over the nation. These journalists followed events inside the Beltway with an eye on what mattered to readers back home. So, for example, when Chris Dodd first started as a junior U.S. senator from Connecticut, he had around a dozen reporters from state newspapers watching his every move. Yet decades later, when Dodd was a powerful committee chair handling financial reform, not a single reporter from Connecticut papers was keeping tabs on him. 

Amid relentless cutbacks, many regional papers long ago closed their Washington bureaus. Meanwhile, the ranks of bloggers and opinion writers, as well as niche industry reporters, has swelled in the nation's capital. These days, a senator is more likely to get his knuckles rapped by the Weekly Standard or Daily Kos than a newspaper back home. 

This trend, part of a larger story of political polarization and a decline of unbiased media information, is the focus of research by the Pew Research Center that's being financed with a $200,000 grant from the Hewlett Foundation. The study is examining local and state media in Washington, building on earlier Pew research.

Hewlett is supporting this work as part of its "Madison Initiative," which seeks to take on political polarization and gridlocked government. The aim "is to promote a well functioning democratic process, something of value in and of itself,” Daniel Stid, the director of the Madison Initiative, wrote in Inside Philanthropy last year. 

Pew isn't the only outfit getting Hewlett money to study media. In a recent conversation, Stid described other research the foundation is supporting to explore how to bring "more civility and less partisanship to the media." 

The role of media in feeding ideological warfare and gridlocked government is complex. "It's clear that the media is caught up in polarization," Stid says. But it's hard to sort out cause and effect. Is the media itself helping drive polarization? Or simply catering to the tastes of a more divided and strident public? Hewlett is backing research to "sort that all out," and to identify how to improve media in ways that improve the functioning of Congress and civic life writ large

The American Press Institute is another research outfit getting foundation money, and funds have also gone to the communications scholar Natalie Jomini Stroud, who leads the Engaging News Project at the University of Texas at Austin. This effort looks specifically at how to temper the toxic realm of online news, where comments sections often teem with vitriol. 

Hewlett isn't just trying to understand media and polarization, it's backing efforts to make things better. So, for example, to address what Stid calls the "decimination of state and local coverage of Congress," Hewlett gave a grant to the nonprofit Texas Tribune to cover that state's large congressional delegation. The theory here is that such coverage will make Congress more responsive to voters back home, as opposed to the ideological players that increasingly drive politics. 

Money has also gone to the long struggling Washington Monthly, which has received $370,000 to help revive its fortunes. You can see why Hewlett likes this outfit: Founded in an earlier, less ideological time, the Washington Monthly has stuck with a technocratic "what works" approach to policy journalism that has become increasingly rare. Hewlett wants to amplify voices like this, and it has also given money to National Affairs, a right-of-center journal that's become a hot spot for a younger, more pragmatic set of conservative thinkers who would rather improve government than destroy it.

All this sounds well-meaning and there's no disputing the importance of the problem Hewlett is tackling. But here's what we're wondering: Can shoring up tiny places like the Washington Monthly and funding research really do much in the face of such juggernauts of ideological news as Fox, Rush Limbaugh and MSNBC? 

The role of Fox News, the number one cable news network (by far), is especially worth flagging. An October 2014 Pew study found that 47 percent of conservatives relied on Fox as their main news source and a number of studies have looked at the "Fox News Effect"—how the network may legitimize extreme views, elevate false or exaggerated claims, and otherwise fan ideological fervor on the right in ways that drive polarization and affect political outcomes. 

Stid, though, questions the premise that Fox is driving anything. He leans toward the view that people are "partisan to begin, not because they're watching partisan news," and cites an article by Markus Prior of Princeton on “Media and Political Polarization." After surveying the literature, Prior writes: "evidence for a causal link between more partisan messages and changing attitudes or behaviors is mixed at best."

In any case, Stid notes that the bigger problem is that the vast majority of Americans don't consume news at all. Some five million people watch the O'Reilly Factor every night, while many tens of millions may watch shows like the Walking Dead

It's a fair point, and there's definitely an unresolved "chicken and egg" question around polarized news. Still, anyone who has lived through the past two decades—a period in which Fox News helped bring down Bill Clinton, made an early call for George Bush in the 2000 election, destroyed ACORN, fired up the Tea Party, and waged war on Obamacare—might feel that Hewlett is ignoring a pretty big elephant in the room. Indeed, it's hard to think of a single institution that has played a more poisonous, polarizing role in recent American life than Fox News. (MSNBC has help solidify ideological fervor on the left to a much lesser extent. It's not a dominant news source for progressives, nor is the majority of its audience liberal.) 

In addition to questioning such claims about Fox, though, Stid points out that cable news is a multi-billion-dollar industry, and taming this beast is beyond the scope of Hewlett's work. "We can't do much to offset that."

In fact, several efforts are underway to reduce the influence of Fox News that Hewlett could conceivably fund. Media Matters and other watchdog groups work every day to document the journalistic abuses of Fox News and hold the network accountable. 

Yet even if Stid did agree that Fox is a big problem, Hewlett would be unlikely to fund a liberal group like Media Matters because, as Stid has explained, the foundation aims to improve the process rather than take sides. "We are partisans for representative democracy," Stid wrote in IP last year. 

When the Madison Initiative was first launched, we echoed the view of some leading political scientists that the extreme right has been the main driver of polarization in recent years, and we argued that Hewlett wouldn't get very far with, well, a "fair and balanced" strategy. Its hands-off approach to cable news and talk radio underscores our earlier point. Hewlett's media grantmaking is nibbling at the margins while ignoring a 24/7 onslaught of partisan propaganda that reaches millions of people and fires up the most activist elements of the American public. As Markus Prior's paper noted, "Ideologically one-sided news exposure may be largely confined to a small, but highly involved and influential, segment of the population."

We might add that Fox has targeted heavy fire at some key Hewlett priorities over the years, like curbing climate change, advancing reproductive rights, and promoting the Common Core. Fox News isn't just a chief culprit fueling the trend Hewlett is fighting with the Madison Initiative; it's also an active opponent of the foundation's other top goals. Yet Hewlett is happy to leave the problem of curbing Fox to other funders. 

Regardless, the bigger flaw of the Madison Initiative may relate to scale. As Stid and Hewlett president Larry Kramer readily concede, polarization is a huge, multi-faceted phenomenon. Can even the largest foundation hope to make a dent in this problem? Judging by how the media grants amount to drops in a raging ocean, that seems unlikely. 

This raises an interesting question about whether foundations always need a plan for success. Hewlett is totally right that polarization is a threat to American democracy. An argument could be made that it's better to do something to try to combat this problem than to do nothing. So whatever one may think of Hewlett's strategy, many will find it hard to fault the foundation for at least trying to end a growing civil war in American political life.