A sharp cable-news divergence opened up during prime-time hours, the study found: “Polarization was driven by all three channels, but there was a sharper turn to the left in 2016 among MSNBC and CNN than there was a right turn [at] Fox News,” says one of the study’s co-authors, Yphtach Lelkes, an associate professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania, speaking to the prime-time gap under Trump.
The study’s authors — the others are Columbia University Assistant Professor of political science Eunji Kim and University of Utah Assistant Professor of political science Josh McCrain — didn’t reach their conclusions by scouring transcripts for commentators calling Trump a liar. The methodology here was more sophisticated. They used the Stanford Cable News Analyzer, a tool that monitors cable-news appearances, to determine how much screen time “political actors” receive on the networks. They “quantify” the partisan tendencies of these commentators by examining their political donation histories.
The study doesn’t factor in the political leanings of the cable-news anchors themselves, in part because these folks have made few, if any, political donations. The idea, accordingly, is to assess programs by the people invited to talk politics on air.
The findings jibe with general understandings of the medium. Fox News, for instance, rates more conservative than CNN and MSNBC throughout the study period. Sean Hannity’s Fox News program is furthest to the right among programs evaluated by the study, with Nicolle Wallace’s late afternoon MSNBC program — a locus of fierce Trump critiques — furthest to the left.
The analysis goes deeper, showing that despite the ideological gap among the networks, they all tended to move in similar partisan directions over the course of the study, which looked at the period from Jan. 1, 2010, to March 4, 2021. Which is to say, all three networks generally moved rightward over the last six years of the Obama presidency, even though Fox News was further to the right. And all of them moved leftward during the Trump years — and, yes, that includes Fox News.
There’s one exception to that assessment, however, and that’s prime-time programming. In this category, the study found a divergence between Fox News on the one hand and MSNBC and CNN on the other hand. No longer did Fox News and its competitors head in the same direction. It’s a stark graphic illustration of our times:
(Note: The value on the Y axis shows the study’s campaign-finance-based analysis of political bias, with positive scores indicating more conservative views and negative scores more liberal views.)
The first three of the graphs above show a trend in which all of the top cable-news networks during their non-prime-time programming — so, mornings, afternoon and full-day overall — drifted right in the pre-Trump years and moved left in more recent years at roughly the same cadence. The prime-time category, however, blows up that trend, as the Fox News hosts tack to the right.
The data tracks with what news consumers experienced on an anecdotal level. As Trump’s lies and outrages mounted, rational news analysis, even some of it on Fox News’s daytime shows, exposed them. CNN and MSNBC flooded their airwaves with this form of pushback. Fox News’s prime-time hosts, meanwhile, tossed aside credibility and decency — and consistently rooted for Trump or attacked his critics.
Lelkes says that the divergence was “asymmetric,” considering that CNN and MSNBC turned more decidedly leftward in prime time than Fox News did rightward. “Fox News was always more extreme to the right than these others were to the left,” says Lelkes. “These others seem to have caught up.”
Two key caveats: One, the study’s focus on campaign contributions leaves out relevant content considerations. During the period under consideration, several conservatives on Fox News came on air to promote Trump’s “big lie” that the 2020 election had been stolen. Liberal voices on CNN and MSNBC did no such thing. In other words, sometimes “polarization” is a way of saying one side is telling the truth and the other isn’t.
Two, CNN’s migration toward liberal commentary got a boost from external forces. Recall that CNN was first among equals as a target for media attacks from Trump, whose White House started stiffing CNN on interview requests in early 2017. Trump himself called for a boycott of the network later that year. Had Trump taken a less hostile approach, perhaps CNN’s lines in the charts above would have been flatter. Consider, too, that Zucker’s move to hire Trumpites to round out CNN’s political coverage drew condemnation from critics, the Erik Wemple Blog included. This was a fraught time to run a news network.
Chris Licht, Zucker’s successor, visited Capitol Hill this week to speak with lawmakers on both sides of the political divide, as reported by Axios — another step in his effort to stress that the network is a place where Democrats and Republicans alike are welcome to share their viewpoints.
Once upon a time, cable news burst with conflict. Segments pitting liberal pundits against conservative ones blew up into much-tweeted polemics, most of them meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Such moments are becoming less frequent because of the very dynamic plotted on the study’s charts — namely, that segments on the cable news networks increasingly rely on people who agree with the network’s hosts.
We here at the Erik Wemple Blog never thought we’d be nostalgic for dumb cable-news fights.
By Erik Wemple
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