The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The unique, damaging role Fox News plays in American media

An advertisement for Fox News outside the News Corp. headquarters in New York on Feb. 6. (Bloomberg News)
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Sometimes news is newsworthy not because it is particularly revelatory but because it confirms something obvious that lacked confirmation or because it provides something broadly understood with a sense of scale. This certainly applies to the revelation — uncovered by the New York Times’s Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns and reported by CNN’s Brian Stelter — that President Biden views Rupert Murdoch, founder of Fox News, as “the most dangerous man in the world.”

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

But this top-line assessment of the face most associated with the right-wing cable network misses an important secondary assessment included in the Martin-Burns reporting. Fox News, the president feels, is “one of the most destructive forces in the United States,” as the reporters put it. This is the more important revelation as it recognizes the breadth of Fox News’s influence even beyond the elder Murdoch.

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There are four elements outside of Murdoch that make Fox News a uniquely damaging part of the American news landscape: its strength on the political right, the demonstrated way in which it shapes its viewers’ beliefs, its grip on Republican power and the views of its leadership.

Fox News has a unique partisan power

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

This has always been the reason that Fox News wins the ratings battle. Cable-news viewership skews toward demographics that are more Republican in the first place, and CNN and MSNBC are fighting for a similar base of viewers — viewers who also partake of news from other outlets. Fox News’s strength with 43 percent of the country (the percentage that is Republican or Republican-leaning independent, according to Gallup) gives it a distinct advantage in ratings.

Most Americans don’t care about ratings, of course. So it’s important to put this in a more useful context: Fox News has a larger audience than its competitors — an audience that is largely politically homogeneous. And new research reinforces that this homogeneity is not solely a function of Republicans choosing Fox News but of the network filtering what it shows its viewers.

The network shapes how its viewers see the world

On Sunday, David E. Broockman of the University of California at 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, the researchers paid Fox News viewers to watch CNN, measuring compliance with a series of quizzes about what they’d seen. At the end of the month, they measured the difference in how those viewers understood news events with how a control group of Fox News viewers did.

The experiment “found evidence of manifold effects on viewers’ attitudes about current events, policy preferences, and evaluations of key political figures and parties,” Broockman and Kalla write. “For example, we found large effects on attitudes and policy preferences about COVID-19. We also found changes in evaluations of Donald Trump and Republican candidates and elected officials.” Participants in the experiment even grew to recognize the way in which Fox News presents reality: “group participants became more likely to agree that if Donald Trump made a mistake, Fox News would not cover it — i.e., that Fox News engages in partisan coverage filtering.”

The thrust of the paper is to introduce a different understanding for how the media shapes understanding of the world. It’s not just about framing (how news is presented) but also filtering (what news is shown).

It was an interesting month in which to conduct the experiment. The researchers found that what CNN viewers saw was largely coverage about the coronavirus pandemic and Trump’s failures on limiting the virus’s spread. It also covered the security of mail-in voting, in contrast to what Trump was touting as he prepared for his likely reelection defeat. On Fox, the main coverage was about how the left embraced an “extreme” racial ideology and downplaying the pandemic. There was also a chunk of programming centered on the purported risks of mail balloting. Much of what Fox News showed, in other words, was exaggerated or untrue.

CNN didn’t escape criticism; the researchers found that “Fox News was far more likely to report facts favorable to Republicans while CNN was far more likely to do the same for Democrats.” But they also found that exposing Fox News viewers to an alternate viewpoint, while promoting recognition about Fox’s bias, was nonetheless short-lived. The impacts of the experiment “largely receded as treated participants primarily returned to their prior viewership habits.” This is a particular skill of Fox News: When reality intrudes, the network quickly neutralizes it.

Fox News has a grip on political leaders that has no peer elsewhere

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

One effect is that Republican officials often clearly target Fox News coverage as a political tactic. When legislators like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) ask exaggerated questions of President Biden’s Supreme Court nominee, ones of limited applicability to actually serving on the bench, they do so understanding that anything that can be framed as undercutting the president or the left will move into heavy rotation on the network. And since Fox News sets the conversation for half the country, its priorities tend to trickle out to other outlets as well.

When Blackburn asked nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson how she defined “woman” on March 22, she went from an average of one mention on Fox News per day over the previous week to five mentions per day in the week beginning March 22. For elected officials seeking support from Republicans, the incentive to create conflict and amplify the network’s own partisan viewpoints is strong.

It’s not only Rupert Murdoch

Those who don’t pay much attention to the media industry may still understand Rupert Murdoch as the guiding hand for Fox News. These days, though, Murdoch’s son Lachlan oversees Fox News’s parent company. He understands the network’s power, claiming in an interview last month that the channel competes more with network television than with its cable-news peers. This is partly bluster; it is also recognition of the lock his network has on the political right.

So how does the younger Murdoch view politics? He gave a speech last week in which he criticized Americans’ purported unwillingness to fight for our country in the unlikely event of invasion (Murdoch himself is British) and compared the New York Times’s “1619 Project” to Russia’s ongoing effort to stoke division in America.

He had specific criticism for Nikole Hannah-Jones, a lead on the project, and her claim that “all journalism is activism.” When saying that, she pointed to this newspaper’s motto; “democracy dies in darkness” is not a value-neutral statement.

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

Murdoch didn’t even go into Hannah-Jones’s explanation of her point. He simply elevated the “activism” line and offered his analysis: “That’s wrong. And it has done great damage.”

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

Scott Clement contributed to this report.

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