Does Media Partisanship Matter?

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Does Media Partisanship Matter?

In case anyone had any remaining doubts about the corruption of public television in Poland, a new survey by CBOS demonstrates starkly what has happened since the current government of Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice, or PiS) took over in 2015. There are three major television news networks in Poland: one public (Telewizja Polska, or TVP), and the two major private networks, TVN and Polsat. Americans, accustomed as we are to the pitifully small market share of our public TV stations, would be surprised by the situation in Poland (and many other European countries), where public stations dominate the airwaves. That was true before PiS came to power, and it remains true today.

After the elections of October, 2015, the new PiS-appointed management of TVP purged the network of anyone deemed insufficiently loyal to the new ruling party, all the way down to the sports and entertainment correspondents. At the time they justified this by pointing to the fact that the director of the public TV network has always been a political appointee, and that with each change of government there has been a change in management. That’s true, but those changes cannot be remotely compared to what has happened during the past two years. As I’ve written previously, the public TV news has become an embarrassing, unwatchable exercise in propaganda, as overt and unapologetic as anything one would see on Fox News in the United States, or on the news shows before 1989 in Poland. Every appearance or action of President Duda or Prime Minister Szydło is publicized with glowing coverage, while the protests of the opposition are described as the machinations of anti-Polish forces in league with nefarious foreign elements. There’s an abundance of information aimed at stirring up fears of immigrants, refugees, and Muslims in general, even though Poland has only the tiniest communities from the Arab world or North Africa. International figures like Donald Trump, Victor Orbán, or Marine Le Pen are shown in the best possible light, while advocates of liberal constitutional democracy are maligned.

I could offer a more careful media analysis to prove the claims in the last paragraph, but I don’t have to: the Polish viewers make the case for me. Back in 2012, a survey showed that 30% felt that the public TV news supported the government, then led by Donald Tusk and Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform, or PO). 44% considered these channels to be mostly nonpartisan.  Significantly, the figure was almost identical for TVN, while even fewer felt that Polsat had a clear ideological leaning. 

The transformation wrought by PiS could not be more obvious. While a somewhat larger group feels that TVN supports the parties of liberal constitutional democracy (which, to be honest, it does), there are few who pretend that TVP remains an independent news source.  Almost 2/3 of those surveyed recognize the public media as a government mouthpiece – a figure so high that it must include quite a few PiS supporters. Presumably, they want their media to be openly supportive of the state. Meanwhile, Polsat has retained a consistent image because the network has tried to avoid contentious topics as much as possible.  This leaves their news show somewhat bland, which might help explain their low ratings. 

The interesting upshot of this is that the news media might have less influence than we tend to imagine. There haven’t been any dramatic changes in party preferences over the past year, though PiS has fallen and Platforma gained a little bit.  The aggregate polling for the past month gives us this breakdown:

The major difference between this picture and the election results from 2015 is that PiS has lost quite a few percentage points to other right-wing parties, while Platforma has gained vis-à-vis the other parties of the center and left. But the overall picture hasn’t changed all that much.  In other words, the over-the-top propaganda of TVP, even though it is still watched by so many millions of Poles, hasn’t shifted the needle much.  Similarly, the equally explicit (though less tendentious) defense of constitutionalism and liberalism on TVN has failed to convince very many former PiS voters to step out against Jarosław Kaczyński’s rule.  We tend to place a great deal of our hopes and concerns onto the media, but perhaps this whole sphere is less important than we used to think (or less important than it once was).

About Author

Brian Porter-Szucs

Brian Porter-Szucs is a Thurnau Professor of History at the University of Michigan, where he specializes in the history of Poland, Catholicism, and modern economic thought.

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