While media outlets have done their part to amplify polarization across the U.S., journalists also have the resources to mend rifts and build community, alumni media professionals and faculty experts said during a lively panel discussion April 19.
The panel, “Transcending Echo Chambers: Political Polarization and the Media,” was the centerpiece of Andrew Morse’s residency as Zubrow Distinguished Visiting Journalist in the College of Arts and Sciences (A&S).
“There’s been an increase in the perception of erosion of trust in media. People have divided to camps: red jersey and blue jersey. It’s made people so suspicious of the other side there isn’t room for conversation,” said Morse ’96, president and publisher of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He said that with quality, innovation and an appeal to local community, journalism can keep media out of the bubbles that have formed around national politics – and might even pop a few.
The event also featured S.E. Cupp ’00, host of “S.E. Cupp Unfiltered” on CNN; and Matthew Hiltzik ’94, president and CEO of strategic communications and consulting firm Hiltzik Strategies.
Bringing a scholarly perspective to the discussion was Alexandra Cirone, assistant professor of government (A&S), who researches ways to fight polarization and misinformation. Ray Jayawardhana, the Harold Tanner Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and professor of astronomy, served as moderator.
One way to track polarization over the past few years is to pay attention to the ways media outlets respond to one another, said Cupp, whose CNN show explores the intersection of politics and the media.
“Media outlets used to be a community. We were aligned with the goal of keeping people accountable. But in the Trump era, we all went in our separate camps. Suddenly, some of us in the media became adversarial,” she said. “That’s a shame, for us in this community, but also for readers and viewers. We’ve incentivized you to pick media teams. Instead of the media being as stop gap in corrosion, it’s contributed to it.”
Polarized politics and polarized coverage feed on each other, Hiltzik said, holding up gerrymandered congressional districts in several states as an example. As both parties create districts that are more extreme, candidates have to go even further to the right or the left to win in the primaries – with media there to tell the story.
“That’s the normalization happening in the media – people hearing about those races,” he said. “The electorate has become attuned to that negativity. Combine that with the fact that media is obsessed with the idea that there has to be a horserace.”
Partisan animosity is increasing, Cirone said: “We’re worried that media is helping to fuel this polarization.”
Scholars may theorize that people mistrust media, Morse said, but he learned on the job at CNN that when something important happens, people turn on the TV or go online, “because despite these perceptions of polarization, people still trust that in the moment that that outlet is going to deliver,” Morse said.
In addition to the panel, Morse visited classes and met with faculty members, postdoctoral researchers and students, including the Klarman Fellowships Program and the Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity.
On April 18, he participated in a career conversation sponsored by the A&S Career Development Office, moderated by Vee Clipperman ’23, a literatures in English major and senior editor and former editor-in-chief of the Cornell Daily Sun.
“A free, vibrant press is important for democracy, so we are delighted to support journalistic excellence and engagement with the Cornell community through the Zubrow Distinguished Visiting Journalist program,” Jayawardhana said. “It is a pleasure to see the ways Andrew Morse has applied his broad Arts and Sciences education to pursue innovation in the media. We in the college have enjoyed lively and meaningful exchanges of ideas, best practices and cross-disciplinary perspectives during his campus visits.”
It’s been a special experience, Morse said, to be back on campus, “on the other side of the podium” in some of the same lecture halls where he was once a student, such as associate professor of classics Athena Kirk’s “Hieroglyphs to HTML” class.
“Having a chance to come back to Cornell and immerse myself in campus life again has been such an honor and such a pleasure,” he said.