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Thomas Patterson and Media Polarization

When Sep 09, 2014
from 04:30 PM to 06:00 PM
Where Foster Auditorium
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View the poster of the Fall Semester 2014 Speaker Series on Media and Deliberation


Political polarization has become a defining feature of American politics. The signs are everywhere, from policy deadlock in Washington to scathing TV ads on the campaign trail. The roots of this development lie in our politics, particularly the partisan realignment that took place after the collapse of the New Deal coalition.

The media have helped fuel the rise of political polarization. The “new” media system that has emerged from the rise of cable television, the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine, the decline of traditional news outlets, and the proliferation of political websites is far different from the “old” system. It’s a system where information outlets have a strong incentive to distort partisan differences and appeal to partisan bias.

The story of the media’s contribution goes beyond the story of Fox News, MSNBC, and partisan talk show hosts. We—the citizens—are part of the story. We have a preference for information that confirms our political biases and a stubborn resistance to disconfirming evidence.

The combination of polarizing messages and human nature has proven to be toxic. The American public has become increasingly misinformed about public affairs. Citizens’ versions of reality are increasingly divorced from the facts, confounding efforts to get our politics back on track.


Thomas E. Patterson is Bradlee Professor of Government and the Press at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Before coming to Harvard in 1996, he taught for more than two decades at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship.

His most recent book, Informing the News (2013), explains the decline in the quality of news information and what could be done to strengthen it. A past book, The Vanishing Voter (2003), looks at the causes and consequences of declining electoral participation. His book on the media's political role, Out of Order (1993), received the American Political Science Association’s Graber Award for best book in political communication of the previous decade. An earlier book, The Unseeing Eye (1976), was named by the American Association for Public Opinion Research as one of the 50 most influential books on public opinion in the past half-century. He also is author of Mass Media Election (1980), which received a Choice Award, and two general American government texts, The American Democracy (now in its 11th edition) and We the People (now in its 10th edition).

His research has been funded by Carnegie, Ford, Markle, Knight, Smith-Richardson, Pew, and the National Science Foundation. His current project, funded by a grant from the Carnegie and Knight foundations, is aimed at strengthening journalism practice and education.

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