(Originally published at Think, NBC News’s home for op-eds, in-depth analyses and essays about news and current events.)
The problem with Fox “News,” the cable TV channel, isn’t just what it is — it’s also what it isn’t.
It is a purveyor of propaganda and misinformation. What it’s not is a source of “news” — at least not by any normal definition.
That’s one of the conclusions I drew from a fascinating new study in which arch-conservative Fox TV viewers were paid to watch CNN for a month. The study, titled “The manifold effects of partisan media on viewers’ beliefs and attitudes: A field experiment with Fox News viewers,” was performed by a pair of political scientists: David Broockman, who teaches at UC-Berkeley, and Joshua Kalla, who teaches at Yale.
According to Broockman and Kalla, when these Fox viewers watched CNN, they heard about all sorts of things Fox wasn’t telling them. They processed that information. They took it in. They became more knowledgeable about what was really going on in the United States.
The experiment didn’t change their political preferences — certainly not in just one month. But it slightly altered their perceptions of certain key issues and political candidates.
The study authors differentiated between “traditionally emphasized forms of media influence,” like agenda setting and framing, and what they call “partisan coverage filtering”: the choice to selectively report information about selective topics, based on what’s favorable to the network’s partisan side, and ignore everything else.
One lesson here is that Fox viewers are reachable with real news. While fact-checks have been known to get people to believe falsehoods even more strongly, plain news — and even opinionated news — still registers.
But the biggest takeaway for me is the realization that Fox viewers aren’t just manipulated and misinformed — they are literally being made ignorant by their consumption habits. Watching Fox, they hear a lot of “news-like” things, but they don’t learn about what’s really happening.
And here’s where we in the mainstream media can do something useful: We can stop talking about Fox like it’s a different form of news — and start talking about how it isn’t news at all. It’s the opposite of news. It’s instead of news. It’s the absence of news.
We can explain more clearly that real news organizations present viewers with the information they need regardless of whether it hurts or helps a specific cause or political party.
Mainstream, reality-based journalists have been way too charitable to Fox over the years, partly because the network once employed some of them, and partly to maintain the façade of political neutrality.
But it’s time to firmly declare that Fox is not news.
The study started with 763 far-right loyal Fox News viewers, then randomly assigned 40 percent to a “treatment” group. That group was then paid $15 an hour to watch up to seven hours of CNN per week during September 2020, during prime-time hours. Participants were given quizzes to make sure they were paying attention.
It found that CNN and Fox were covering dramatically different things that month. The severity of Covid and the Trump administration’s failures to control it “were by far the most common topics on CNN” — even as Fox downplayed it and praised Trump’s behavior. By contrast, Fox News spent 15,236 words discussing “Biden/Democrats support for extreme racial ideology/protests,” to CNN’s 1,300.
The study found that the CNN-watching group was “much more likely to see issues covered on CNN (COVID-19) instead of on Fox News (racial protests) as important.” The group also “became more likely to agree that if Donald Trump made a mistake, Fox News would not cover it.”
One particularly hopeful finding was that watching CNN caused Fox viewers “to become substantially more supportive of vote-by-mail than the control group.” Both networks covered the topic extensively, with CNN emphasizing facts about how secure it is, and Fox falsely hawking its susceptibility to fraud. Republican measures to block Democratic constituencies from voting and challenge results not to their liking depend heavily on Republican voters believing lies about Democrats engaging in massive fraud.
(Notably, attitudes around race, climate change and policing remained unchanged.)
The study authors’ assertion that partisan slants happen on both sides of the cable news spectrum is the one false note in their report. Fox and CNN are not different flavors of news, they are different things entirely. News organizations with any legitimate claim to that title do not keep important information from the public based on which party it benefits. CNN — or primetime MSNBC — may be opinionated, but they remain fundamentally fact-based. Fox does not. (MSNBC, like NBC News, is part of NBCUniversal.)
You could certainly argue — and I do — that corporate news does its own kind of coverage filtering. There are all sorts of things the corporate media decides not to cover that independent journalists do, like poverty, mass incarceration, U.S.-caused civilian casualties, how the Washington agenda is skewed by money, and these days, pretty much anything that is good news for Biden.
But mainstream media still bases its reports on evidence, not on whim. It doesn’t hide key elements of an ongoing story, under any circumstance. Fox cannot say the same.
First, thanks for the link to that study abstract about misinformation and beliefs vs. facts. I plan to track down their recommendations.
Second, Fox viewers / readers will not learn from Fox that Mark Meadows has been removed from voter rolls in Virginia for falsely claiming residence in two states and possibly voting in both.
What they are seeing today is a lead story about the NYC shooting suspect being apprehended. On the Web site, under the splash headline, is a montage of photos of the scene with not one or two but SEVEN photos of the alleged shooter. You can guess from those facts what he looks like.
Fox absolutely needs to be shunned by the remaining legitimate news profession, or no one will believe anyone paid to report or opine.
We all should know by now Faux has very little news in it; it’s been that way since it began in 1996. Newsmax is even worse, they make Faux look legitimate.
However, the other networks aren’t much better. The only decent one is MSNBC.
Fun to watch Froomkin and his rich “progressive” clique ignore the elephant in the room. Today, I bought a roaster chicken at the grocery store. $10, up from $7 last week. Last Thanksgiving’s turkey was up 40%. We heat partly with propane, and that’s up >50%. I drive a diesel truck, and that went from $1.97 before the ’20 election to $4.30 before the Russians moved on Ukraine, and today it was $5.20. Two thirds of a tank cost me $107.
No matter: You’re rich Democrats, and you laugh. See ya in November.
So Froomkin, nothing about the Avenatti-Cuomo Network, or the Joy Reid Racist Network. There is an Iron Law: “You can always tell a ‘progressive,’ but you can never tell a ‘progressive’ anything. They are better than everyone, and smarter than everyone. How do we know? Because they never stop reminding us of their unearned superiority.”
Do you realize just how arrogant, how smug, how full of yourself you and your tribe is? No, not at all. You never will. You regard yourselves as the Arbiters of Everything. Not only that, but you and your kind are racists yourselves, and spare no opportunity to shit all over anyone who doesn’t swallow your California bullshit. By the way, rich guy, your state has the highest poverty rate in America, when the cost of living is included. Not that you care.
You hate this country’s guts, and everything it’s ever stood for. And here you people are, with a death grip on the declining legacy media. You have ABC, CBS, NBC, AP, NYT, WaPo, PBS, CNN, MSNBC, Hollyweird, Disney, and on and on. But Fox is the enemy, because you want a monopoly. And here you don’t even begin to realize how hypocritical and obnoxious you are. You somehow think that there aren’t millions of once-Democrats who have left the party because your kind has taken it over.
Sorry, but to say MSNBC and CNN are merely “fact based news” is complete hogwash in light of the Iraq invasion and more recently, Russiagate. How many false scoops did Rachel Maddow present? How many times did CNN run with a completely unfounded rumor about imminent criminal charges against Trump and his inner circle? How many times did we hear that “Russia hacked the election” or a utility grid in Vermont.
None of them are real news; not Fox, not CNN, not MSNBC. It’s just that the former created the mold and the latter eventually decided it was a good business model and went with it.
Highly disappointed in this article and have found myself wondering what vested interest in CNN or MSNBC Presswatchers or those in its employ might have.