The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Fox is talking about Trump less because it’s busy talking about Biden

President Donald Trump greets talk-show host Sean Hannity at a rally in Cape Girardeau, Mo., on Nov. 5, 2018. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

Two things can be true at the same time: Executives at News Corp. — parent company of Fox News, the Wall Street Journal and other conservative media outlets — can have soured on Donald Trump as a politician even as the company’s newspapers and on-air talent continue to coddle the former president and his base.

Writing for the New York Times, Jeremy Peters argues that the former is certainly the case.

Fox News, “which is owned by Rupert Murdoch and boosted Mr. Trump’s ascension from real estate developer and reality television star to the White House,” Peters writes, “is now often bypassing him in favor of showcasing other Republicans.” To make his case, he offers anecdotes suggesting Trump fatigue and details the former president’s diminished stamp on the network.

But there’s a pretty simple contributing factor here: Fox News has leaned into its role as the political opposition. That means more President Biden — and less Trump.

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Host Jesse Watters hinted at this in January during an episode of Fox News’s “The Five.”

“I work at Fox!” Watters said. “I want to see disarray on the left! It’s good for America! It’s good for our ratings!”

The network insisted that Watters was joking. He was certainly going for laughs, yes, but it’s clear that some at the network see their task as elevating Democratic disarray.

The Internet Archive collects closed-captioning from a number of television networks, including the three largest cable news channels. When Trump lost the 2020 election and Biden was inaugurated, both CNN and MSNBC began mentioning Trump less often than they had when he was president. In many months, the percentage of 15-second segments in which Trump was mentioned tracked with Biden’s — more than the frequency at which former president Barack Obama was mentioned but lower than when Trump was in the White House.

In most months since Biden was inaugurated, MSNBC mentioned Trump more often than the sitting president. This is probably a reflection of what might be called the Inverse Watters Effect: Criticism of Trump plays better on MSNBC than agreeing with Biden, much less criticizing him. At Fox, meanwhile, the rate at which Biden was mentioned rose to nearly match the frequency of mentions of Trump during his presidency.

It is obviously the case that a sitting president should, in normal times, be a subject of more media coverage than a former one. These are not normal times. These are times when the former president has worked energetically to remain in the public conversation and in which national politics is heavily oriented around that former president’s effort to undermine his election loss. Fox News, it’s worth noting, has dedicated less time to talking about the investigation into the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol than the other networks.

It’s impossible to establish some objective figure for how much Trump should be covered, of course. But Google Trends data, showing search interest by month, reflects the idea that Americans are less interested in Trump than they once were — but also that interest in Trump broadly mirrors interest in Biden. Trump is not at “former president” levels of search interest. The former chief executive has instead fallen from “national celebrity” levels of public interest to “sitting president” levels. About where CNN is.

The Internet Archive’s captioning data tells us what the networks are talking about. Analysis of its footage by the Stanford Cable TV News Analyzer indicates how often each president (Obama, Trump and Biden) has appeared on the major networks.

On average since January 2021, Trump has appeared on MSNBC (in stills or video snippets) about 338 minutes per month, more than twice as often as he has appeared on CNN and Fox News (which has the lowest average). Biden has appeared on Fox News an average of more than 1,000 minutes per month, well above the 650 to 675 minutes he has been seen on CNN and MSNBC, respectively.

We can compare mentions of Biden on Fox News and of Trump on MSNBC to the same coverage on CNN. Since Biden took office, Fox News has on average mentioned him 1.9 times as often as CNN each month. MSNBC has mentioned Trump 1.6 times as often as CNN on average.

Peters is correct that other Republicans have helped fill some of the void in Republican politics left by Trump. But coverage of, say, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) still hasn’t caught up. Closed-captioning data shows far more discussion of Trump on the network; Trump still appears on the network more often than DeSantis.

Again, all things being equal, Trump should receive less coverage than when he was president. He should not be the focus of as much scrutiny and coverage as a sitting president. But for a variety of reasons, that old calculus simply doesn’t apply easily. Some part of Fox’s decision to elevate discussion of Biden over Trump may be derived from skepticism among higher-ups about Trump’s post-election behavior. But some part of it, it seems clear, is a function of the network’s preference to elevate Biden’s problems while it downplays Trump’s.

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