There are a lot of reasons President Trump’s approval ratings haven’t moved much since he took office, particularly when compared to those of past presidents. Democrats broadly dislike him and his policies, a problem for Trump in part because it predisposes people to be skeptical of even his more anodyne decisions. Independents dislike him more than they like him. But Republicans, as has been reportedly frequently, approve of him strongly.
To that extent, Trump benefits from his symbiotic relationship with conservative news outlets. In July, we noted that people who aren’t paying attention to the Russia investigation are more likely to say they approve of Trump, which is either a function of Trump fans tuning out the inquiry or a function of people who aren’t exposed to much news about the investigation not having it color their perceptions of the president.
It’s probably not a coincidence, as we pointed out last month, that the news network considered most trustworthy by Republicans — Fox News Channel — has consistently spent less time reporting on breaking news about criminal actors connected to Trump. Consistently, through last week’s plea agreement between special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
When Mueller’s first agreement was reached with former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos in October, Papadopoulos didn’t make many ripples in the media. Why? Because on the same day, Mueller released indictments obtained against Manafort and his business partner Rick Gates (who also worked on the campaign and Trump’s transition). All three major cable networks covered the Manafort news — but, as a percentage of 15-second slots over the course of the day, Fox News spent less time on the subject than did CNN or MSNBC.
When in December Trump’s former campaign adviser Michael T. Flynn reached his own deal with Mueller, the pattern was more stark. CNN and MSNBC afforded the news far more coverage than did Fox.
In February, Mueller’s team released a superseding indictment targeting Manafort and Gates, in essence adding new charges to the tally. MSNBC gave the development a ton of coverage, reflecting that network’s own programming priorities (another pattern that you’ll notice below). Fox gave it very little.
When Gates reached a plea agreement with Mueller’s team, it received less attention across the board.
On a remarkable day last month, both Manafort and Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen made courtroom appearances that complicated their legal positions. Cohen admitted guilt on eight criminal counts, five related to tax evasion and two centered on campaign finance issues, in which he implicated Trump directly.
CNN and MSNBC gave Cohen much more airtime than Fox.
In a court in Virginia, Manafort was found guilty on eight of the counts in the Mueller indictment. The same pattern held yet again.
A “Fox & Friends” promotional tweet the day after the charges shows what that lack of interest looks like in practical terms. A heavy focus on the killing of a college student in Iowa followed by brief mentions of Manafort and Cohen and then a discussion of comments by New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) — which by then were a week old.
Friday’s agreement between Mueller and Manafort, the culmination of long-standing tension between the man at the center of Trump’s campaign in mid-2016 and the federal investigation, looked a bit different. MSNBC gave the development a ton of coverage — but CNN and Fox News gave it much less.
But there was a complicating reason. That agreement overlapped with the arrival of Hurricane Florence on the coast of North Carolina. Part of the reason that CNN and Fox News gave Manafort relatively little attention was the amount of coverage dedicated to the storm.
It’s tricky to figure out the direction of the causal arrow here. A Suffolk University poll released this month found that those who identified Fox News as their most trusted news or opinion outlet — 54 percent of Republicans — were very likely to express little or no trust in Mueller’s inquiry (83 percent), a great deal of trust in Trump’s denials of wrongdoing (58 percent) and to call for a quick conclusion to Mueller’s work (80 percent). Does Fox News reflect those views or drive them?
The graphs above suggest an answer at least in part. If you awoke from a coma last October and had only Fox News coverage to inform you of new developments, it seems clear that you’d probably know less about what had happened than if you watched the other networks instead.