After a heated exchange between President Trump and CNN reporter Jim Acosta during a post-election news conference Wednesday, the White House suspended Acosta’s credentials. Acosta and his network have been the administration’s primary targets for more than two years; the president watches hours of cable news daily, and CNN is the network he loves to hate. While far more Americans get their news from broadcast networks and local stations than from cable news, Trump’s devotion to cable has elevated the political importance of those networks, which remain plagued by myths.
CNN’s “Crossfire,” born in 1982, has routinely been held up as the avatar of punditry, blamed for ruining American politics by reducing news to left-said-right-said coverage. In 2004, Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” appeared as a guest and tore into hosts Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson, begging them to “stop hurting America” with their punchy, polarizing show. When CNN canceled “Crossfire” a few months later, network President Joe Klein sided with Stewart. “I agree wholeheartedly with Jon Stewart’s overall premise,” he said, pledging to give up on “head-butting debate shows.”
But “Crossfire” was a copy, not an innovation. Long before cable outlets began delivering round-the-clock coverage, network news programs pioneered left-right roundtables. In 1971, CBS’s “60 Minutes” introduced its “Point/Counterpoint” segment, pitting conservative segregationist James J. Kilpatrick against liberal Nicholas von Hoffman and then Shana Alexander. Other networks soon followed suit, experimenting with political punditry throughout the 1970s. Even the hallowed halls of public television beat cable news to the punch. In early 1982, PBS launched “The McLaughlin Group,” a roundtable show featuring pundits like Pat Buchanan and Eleanor Clift. If you want to lament, as Barack Obama did in 2010, that political commentary has devolved into “Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots,” you’ll have to start with the networks, not cable.
The trope holds that conservatives mainline Fox News like a two-pack-a-day smoker inhales cigarettes. It’s even become a subgenre of confessional journalism, where people share their stories of parents radicalized by Fox News. As filmmaker Jen Senko described her own father’s addiction in an interview with the Daily Beast, “His entire life became consumed by the agendas that were inundating him on the radio, the television, and through the mail.” The news channel’s bright colors, attractive hosts and constant repetition of conservative talking points could be addictive for some, including the president, who is estimated to watch about five hours of television per day.
But with viewership on the very best days hitting 2.5 million in prime time, Fox News fans account for only a small fraction of conservatives in the United States. Those on the right are far more likely to tune into talk radio than cable news. Radio ratings work differently from television ratings, but Rush Limbaugh says he has the equivalent of 10 to 12 million listeners a day (he hits around 14 million per week). And the three broadcast network news shows draw a combined 22 million viewers a night.
Fox News is absolutely influential: It shapes what other outlets cover, feeds the conservative media ecosystem and gives the president his morning talking points. But when it comes to actually watching Fox News, only a fraction of conservatives imbibe.
Fox is an easy scapegoat to blame for the GOP’s lurch to the fringe. “The right-wing echo chamber breeds extremism, intimidates Republican moderates and misleads people into thinking that their worldview is broadly shared,” Nicholas Kristof explained in the New York Times in 2013. Or, as commentator David Frum put it, “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us, and now we’re discovering we work for Fox.”
It’s true that Fox makes conservative viewers even more conservative (and more likely to vote Republican). But overall, the outfit is more weather vane than bellwether, responding to the direction of the base and the GOP instead of setting a course for those groups to follow. Take immigration: In 2013, at the urging of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Fox News hosts gave favorable coverage to the immigration bill that Rubio hoped to push through the Senate. The conservative base resoundingly rejected Fox’s pivot, and hosts like Sean Hannity quickly scurried to anti-immigration positions. And in 2016, when Fox News hosts appeared lukewarm toward Trump, the presidential candidate pilloried them until they fell in line. After his election, the network dumped its anti-Trump commentators and built a prime-time lineup that reflected — rather than created — the new direction of the party.
MSNBC, with its blue palette and its starring role for Rachel Maddow, seems awfully like the political opposite of Rupert Murdoch’s empire. Back in 2013, Dylan Byers wrote in Politico that “one of the great media stories of the 21st century is the rise of MSNBC as a counterbalance to Fox News and a powerful platform for the progressive agenda.” The New York Times’ Alessandra Stanley dubbed the network “Fox’s liberal evil twin,” while conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin argued in The Washington Post that it was even worse: Fox News delivered real news, she argued in 2013, while MSNBC just dished out liberal pabulum.
But these parallels are wrong, both historically and in the present. While Murdoch and Roger Ailes founded Fox News with the intention of establishing a conservative network, MSNBC was launched as simply a chattier, more Gen-X version of NBC News. Even after the network “leaned in” and attempted to develop into a Fox News for progressives starting in 2006, it has never played the same role as Fox. That’s partly because the left doesn’t have the same suspicion of “mainstream media” and partly because MSNBC still tries to model balance. Its morning show is anchored by a conservative, former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough. (The reverse would be unthinkable for Fox.) And it has become whiter and more conservative in the Trump era. Melissa Harris-Perry and Al Sharpton are both out at the network, while Nicolle Wallace, White House director of communications under George W. Bush, now anchors the 4 p.m. hour.
NBC’s Chuck Todd blames the “Roger Ailes-created echo chamber” at Fox for the dissolution of trust in American journalism. Trump blames CNN; in Wednesday’s news conference, he declared, “When you report fake news — which CNN does a lot — you are the enemy of the people.” But while faith has dropped sharply in the decades since the rise of cable news (CNN launched in 1980, Fox and MSNBC in 1996), the cable channels have not been the primary drivers of that decline.
Trust in journalism began to weaken during the Vietnam War, when reporters dutifully repeated the government’s lies about the trajectory of the conflict. It rebounded during Watergate, but it never returned to its 1950s and 1960s heights, when Walter Cronkite was dubbed the most trusted man in America. In the early 1970s, the share of Americans who said they trusted the media hovered between 68 and 72 percent, according to Gallup polls. By 2016 it had slumped to 32 percent.
That loss of faith was driven not by cable news but by a wholesale ideological attack from the right, which argued that the supposedly objective media was secretly liberal, and a smaller but still important critique from the left of the capitalist and conservative nature of news production. Richard Nixon and his vice president, Spiro Agnew, delighted in discrediting the press, picking up the “liberal bias ” arguments that conservatives had already been making for nearly 20 years.
By the 1980s and 1990s, it was a conservative article of faith that the only news sources that should be trusted were conservative ones. But the continuous cries of liberal media bias didn’t convince only conservatives; they convinced a plurality of Americans — 44 percent as of 2014 — that the news media was slanted and, increasingly, not to be believed. Fox News capitalized on that trend, but the network didn’t start it. All the negative attributes of media that cable exacerbates — manufactured urgency, polarized opinion, false equivalency — began well before CNN, MSNBC and Fox News became such prominent parts of the American political landscape.