The Unique and Damaging Role Fox News Plays in American Media

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Obvious in broad strokes but now confirmed and with a sense of scale.

But this leading assessment of the face most associated with the right-wing cable network misses an important secondary assessment included in the Martin-Burns report. Fox News, the president believes, is “one of the most destructive forces in the United States,” as reporters have put it. It’s the most important revelation because it recognizes the extent of Fox News’ influence even beyond the elder Murdoch.

There are four elements aside from Murdoch that make Fox News a particularly damaging part of the American media landscape: its strength on the political right, the demonstrated way in which it shapes the beliefs of its viewers, its grip on Republican power and the opinions of its leadership.

Fox News has unique partisan power

In December, The Washington Post and the University of Maryland conducted a national poll that included an assessment of where people get their information about politics and government. Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, various sources – CNN, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, NPR, The Times, The Post – were identified as a top news source by at least 3 in 10 people. Among Republicans , however, only two were: local television and Fox News.

This has always been the reason Fox News wins the ratings battle. Cable news viewership is leaning toward more Republican demographics in the first place, and CNN and MSNBC are vying for a similar viewership base — viewers who also participate in news from other media outlets. Fox News’ strength with 43% of the country (the percentage of Republican or Republican-leaning independents, according to Gallup) gives it a clear audience advantage.

Most Americans don’t care about grades, of course. So it’s important to put this into a more useful context: Fox News has a wider audience than its competitors – a largely politically homogenous audience. And new research reinforces that this consistency isn’t just a function of Republicans choosing Fox News, but of the network filtering what it shows its viewers.

The network shapes the way its viewers see the world

On Sunday, David E. Broockman of the University of California, Berkeley and Joshua L. Kalla of Yale University published a paper documenting a years-long experiment focused on measuring the effects of cable news coverage and Fox News in particular. In September 2020, researchers paid Fox News viewers to watch CNN, measuring compliance with a series of quizzes about what they saw. At the end of the month, they measured the difference in how these viewers understood current events with how a control group of Fox News viewers did.

The experiment “found evidence of multiple effects on viewers’ attitudes about the news, political preferences, and ratings of key political figures and parties,” Broockman and Kalla write. “For example, we found strong effects on attitudes and political preferences regarding COVID-19. We also saw changes in the ratings of Donald Trump and Republican nominees and elected officials. Participants in the experiment even began to recognize Fox News’ way of presenting reality: “Participants in the group became more likely to agree that if Donald Trump made a mistake, Fox News wouldn’t cover it – that is, Fox News engages in filtering out partisan coverage.”

The central idea of ​​this article is to introduce a different understanding of how the media shapes the understanding of the world. It’s not just about framing (how news is presented) but also about filtering (what news is displayed).

It was an interesting month to conduct the experiment. Researchers found that what CNN viewers saw was largely coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and Trump’s failures to limit the spread of the virus. It also covered mail-in voting security, contrary to what Trump was touting as he braced for his likely re-election defeat. On Fox, the main coverage focused on how the left has embraced “extreme” racial ideology and downplayed the pandemic. There was also some of the programming focused on the alleged risks of mail-in voting. In other words, much of what Fox News showed was exaggerated or untrue.

CNN has not escaped criticism; the researchers found that “Fox News was much more likely to report facts favorable to Republicans while CNN was much more likely to do the same for Democrats.” But they also found that exposing Fox News viewers to another point of view, while promoting recognition of Fox’s biases, was nonetheless short-lived. The impacts of the experiment “greatly diminished when treated participants mostly reverted to their previous viewing habits.” This is a particular skill of Fox News: when reality imposes itself, the network quickly neutralizes it.

Fox News has a grip on political leaders that is unmatched elsewhere

Because so many Republicans watch Fox News and because the network is keen on shaping its viewers’ understanding of events, it’s necessarily a potent force in Republican politics. A Democratic leader can be on Rachel Maddow’s show on MSNBC or be interviewed for NPR and reach many Democrats, but it’s not the same thing. Go to Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show and you’re guaranteed not only a large group of heavily Republican viewers, but also a chance to shape the narrative of the network and the right for the next 24 hours. Maddow does it for the left on occasion; Carlson and his colleagues do this regularly.

One effect is that Republican officials often clearly target Fox News coverage as a political tactic. When lawmakers like Senators Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) ask exaggerated questions of President Biden’s Supreme Court nominee, ones whose applicability is limited to actually serving on the bench , they do this with the understanding that anything that can be presented as undermining the president or the left will move to high rotation on the network. And since Fox News is leading the conversation for half the country, its priorities tend to spill over to other outlets as well.

When Blackburn asked contestant Ketanji Brown Jackson how she defined “woman” on March 22, she went from an average of one mention on Fox News a day in the previous week to five mentions a day in the week. starting March 22. support from Republicans, the incentive to create conflict and amplify the network’s partisan views is strong.

It’s not just Rupert Murdoch

Those who don’t pay much attention to the media industry can still understand Rupert Murdoch as the guide to Fox News. These days, however, Murdoch’s son Lachlan oversees Fox News’ parent company. He understands the power of the network, saying in an interview last month that the channel competes more with network TV than with its cable counterparts. This is partly bluster; it is also the recognition of the lock of his network on the political right.

So how does young Murdoch view politics? He gave a speech last week in which he criticized the alleged unwillingness of Americans to fight for our country in the unlikely event of an invasion (Murdoch himself is British) and compared the New York Times to Russia’s ongoing efforts to stir up division in America. .

He had specific criticism for Nikole Hannah-Jones, head of the project, and her assertion that “all journalism is activism”. In saying this, she underlined the motto of this journal; “democracy dies in darkness” is not a neutral statement.

“We have to try to be fair and precise, and I don’t know how you can be fair and precise if you claim, publicly, that you have no feelings about something that you clearly do,” he said. she told CBS News. Fox News covered his remarks by contextualizing them with comments from the right-wing activist organization NewsBusters.

Murdoch didn’t even get into Hannah-Jones’ explanation on his point. He simply raised the “activism” line and offered his analysis: “That’s wrong. And it did a lot of damage. »

It is true that activism under the cover of journalism has done and continues to do great damage.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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