At its heart, the story of Jan. 6, 2021, is a story of how millions of people became separated from reality.
How could this happen? In part because a bubble of right-wing media and voices that had for years ignored or bolstered Trump’s dishonesties went along with the play. Because Trump made very clear that going along with his claims was easier than combating them. There’d been a media bubble on the political right for a while, one driven by market forces that Trump exploited and turned to more overtly political ones.
That surreal information world is why people ended up smashing windows at the Capitol. As the hearings conducted by the House select committee investigating the riot have unfolded, we’ve gotten an interesting look at how that world is sustained.
The first prime-time hearing held by the committee last month pulled in around 20 million viewers. That’s about as many people as tuned in to the final three games of the NBA Finals, combined. Of those 20 million people, though, only about 1 percent watched on Fox’s platforms. The company’s flagship network, Fox News, aired counterprogramming — Tucker Carlson and his guests spreading conspiracy theories about the riot — instead of carrying the hearing.
Fox News has, however, covered most of the daytime hearings, when they didn’t conflict with its more popular programming. Much of last week’s sensational testimony from Cassidy Hutchinson, who was an aide to White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, aired on Fox News live. Eventually, though, it cut away to show “The Five.”
During the two hours of Hutchinson’s testimony that did air on the channel, its ratings sank — bolstering the argument from host Laura Ingraham that its initial decision not to cover the hearing was the network “catering to its audience.” Of course, telling an audience what it wants to hear is not the role of an ostensible news organization. It is, instead, to actually inform the audience regardless of reception.
Airing a hearing is only one way in which a cable news network might inform its audience of what is happening, of course. It’s possible that Fox News might have downplayed the live hearings but then informed its audience of what occurred. Except that it didn’t.
Analysis of closed-captioning data for the three largest cable news networks shows that since June 26, two days before Hutchinson’s testimony, Fox News mentioned her name only one-sixth as often as MSNBC and one-seventh as often as CNN.
(The graphs in this article show the percentage of 15-second clips in a day during which the specified term was mentioned.)
When it came to one story from Hutchinson’s testimony — that she was told that Trump had tried to grab the steering wheel of the car taking him away from his speech at the Ellipse — Fox News’s mentions were in line with the two other networks. That’s almost certainly because that story sparked controversy over its accuracy, with those on the right using questions about what happened as a tool for undercutting Hutchinson’s testimony broadly.
“Looks like it never happened,” Ingraham told her audience. That second bump on the CNN graph of mentions, incidentally, came when the network spoke with two Secret Service sources who bolstered what Hutchinson said.
Contrast that with the more important revelation from the day’s testimony, which was Hutchinson indicating that Trump knew that some of those in the crowd at his speech were armed with firearms or other weapons. He dismissed the threat, Hutchinson said, since the crowd wasn’t going to use the weapons to attack him.
That got a lot of play on CNN and MSNBC — and very little on Fox News. (To measure this, I looked at times when “weapon” or “armed” were mentioned in blocks including or adjacent to mentions of Trump.)
Instead Fox News was more likely to air segments using the word “woke,” a pejorative shorthand for a vague array of left-wing views.
This is how the bubble persists. Instead of presenting the most alarming aspects of what is alleged about Trump, the most popular cable news network on the right decides to try to downplay it. It focuses on questions about the testimony, not about Trump’s actions and decisions.
On Saturday, The Washington Post explored whether the House committee’s decision to focus on Hutchinson’s testimony had paid off for the committee. Answering that depends on what payoff was sought. If it was media attention: Yes, it paid off. If it was convincing those inclined to dismiss Trump’s actions: It probably didn’t. Not because the testimony was considered and rejected but because many of those who for years have been isolated in the bubble of which Fox News is part continue to avoid the unhappy demands of reality.