Unsurprisingly, most Americans, nearly two-thirds of them, said that Trump’s post-election message was either mostly or completely wrong. Among Republicans, though, most — again, about two-thirds — said that his message was mostly or completely right. Among those who cited Fox News as their main source of election news, more than three-quarters said that Trump’s message was at least mostly right. Among Fox News viewers who are Republican or Republican-leaning independents, the percentage topped 8 in 10.
Only 3 percent of Republicans who said their main source of election news was Fox also said that Trump’s post-election message was completely wrong.
Meanwhile, Fox News viewers were much more likely than Americans overall to say that the media’s post-election coverage overall — coverage that stated the reality that Trump had lost the election — was largely inaccurate. Six in 10 Republicans said the media coverage was largely inaccurate, a figure that increased to 7 in 10 among Fox News watchers.
It’s not new that the most loyal allies of the former president are those Republicans who watch Fox News. In October 2019, a PRRI poll found that no group was less likely to say that their approval of Trump as president might fade. A similar poll last October found the same thing: Nearly 6 in 10 Republicans who most trusted Fox News said that they approved of Trump’s performance as president and nothing was likely to change their minds.
The causality here is still murky and certainly complex. But it’s worth noting that the network’s reliance on its opinion hosts surged at times during Trump’s presidency — and is surging now.
There’s an organization called the Internet Archive, which, among other things, indexes cable news programming and makes it available to researchers. One ongoing analysis is performed by the Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer, which uses facial recognition technology to see how often people appear on cable news. That analysis allows us to evaluate an otherwise tricky question: How pervasive is Fox News’s opinion programming — its prime-time hosts, for example — in the rest of its coverage?
By searching for appearances of those hosts each day between 4 a.m. (after the prime-time shows are rerun overnight) and 5 p.m. (before Bret Baier’s news show begins), we get a sense for how frequently those opinion hosts appear on the network outside of their actual shows.
Before the Trump administration, the Fox prime-time lineup included veteran hosts Bill O’Reilly and Greta Van Susteren, both of whom left the network (for very different reasons) over a span of a few months in 2016 and 2017. O’Reilly got more non-prime-time coverage than did Van Susteren, with the two appearing on-air for a combined 790 minutes in 2015 and 506 minutes in 2016.
The opinion host who got the most non-prime airtime in 2016 was Sean Hannity who, of course, is still with the network. He got more airtime from 4 a.m. to 5 p.m. than O’Reilly and Van Susteren combined, in part thanks to his close relationship with Trump (whom he eventually endorsed) and his ability to land repeated interviews.
That continued into 2017, with Hannity leveraging attacks on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and another Trump interview into a lot of viewer pickup that October.
This became something of a pattern as Van Susteren and O’Reilly were replaced with Tucker Carlson and Laura Ingraham. Carlson was picked up outside of prime time a lot in early 2017, soon after his show debuted. In late 2018 and early 2019, that spike recurred. Ingraham never managed similar spikes.
The sudden drop-off in Carlson’s non-prime airtime is almost certainly a function of overlapping boycotts that centered on his disparaging immigrants in December 2018 and on past derogatory comments revealed in March 2019.
Last year, just as that Pew poll was going into the field, Carlson announced that Fox News would be expanding his footprint across the network once again. The network was facing strengthened opposition as Trump’s denials of the election results were gobbled up by right-wing networks like Newsmax. From January through November 2020, Carlson was on-air for about 129 minutes outside of prime time. In December alone, that figure reached nearly 155 minutes. January was about equivalent. (The graphs above show averages; the data for February are lower since the month isn’t over.)
The anchor of the news show that precedes those opinion programs, Baier, has generally gotten more non-primetime pickup than the opinion hosts.
When Carlson was surging in 2018 and 2019, though, Baier was often getting only slightly more pickup than Carlson. Since September, the ratio of Baier airtime to opinion host airtime has plunged. Carlson was on-air more in the 4 a.m. to 5 p.m. period than was Baier in January. (The graph below compares averages.)
September was an important month for Fox News and Carlson in another way, too. It was that month in which a lawsuit alleging that Carlson had committed slander was thrown out of court in New York.
Why? As U.S. District Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil put it in her opinion, the network itself made a convincing case. The “‘general tenor’ of the show,” she wrote, quoting the network’s lawyers, “should then inform a viewer that he is not ‘stating actual facts’ about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in ‘exaggeration’ and ‘nonliteral commentary.’”
Four months later, Carlson’s coverage was getting picked up more than 10 times as often during the network’s non-prime-time hours.
Perhaps those poll results from Pew aren’t all that surprising after all.