“MIXED MESSAGE? Obama strikes bipartisan tone — but vows exec action” — Fox News
“OBAMA REACHES OUT” — MSNBC
“Obama to Voters: ‘I hear you.’” — CNN
The night after the 2014 midterm elections, the big three cable news networks headlined their websites with stories of President Obama’s speech concerning the previous night’s events. The headlines were a perfect reflection of the current state of the leading cable news networks. Out of one event, three distinct takes had emerged: one conservative, one liberal, and one toeing the line in between. The sentiments of the three stories were products of each network’s well-defined brand. These brands have been entrenched within the networks over the past decade, each shaped by some degree of profit seeking and some degree of ideology.
These ideologically opposed channels have contributed to the well-recognized trend of media polarization. Republicans and Democrats alike trade barbs over who is to blame for the trend, with books and articles from each side outlining the trespasses of the other. Such a toxic environment has led trust in the media to fall to 40 percent, down from 85 percent in 1973. Notably, the polarization of cable news channels occurred independently of the traditional major media companies. A 2013 Princeton study, “Media and Political Polarization,” found that longtime media outlets like NBC experienced little or no polarization in the cable news era, despite the polarization of cable news. Clearly, the sources of cable news polarization merit further investigation.
Conditions for Polarization
The modern era of cable news began with the deregulation of the media industry. Heidi Tworek, a history professor at Harvard who studies the media and the news, observed that “there’s a regulatory environment that allows this kind of business model to emerge.” Tworek pointed to the 1996 Telecommunications Act, which made it possible for more cable operators to distribute their products, as a key turning point in the development of the current polarized culture. Gabriel Sherman, who covers the media for New York Magazine, told the HPR that the FCC’s repeal of the Fairness Doctrine, which required a balance of opinion during broadcasts, opened the door for programs and networks to choose more explicit ideological stances, governed only by the market. At the time of the decision in 1987, FCC Chair Dennis R. Patrick claimed that the doctrine had stifled democratic debate by pushing channels away from controversial topics. After the doctrine’s repeal, channels had no qualms about taking up such controversial topics, often in strikingly partisan ways.
Sherman also pointed to another, more technical factor as a key element in the rise of polarized media: the switch from analog to digital channels. This development sidestepped the prohibitively expensive process of physically laying wires for new channels. The combination of taking away both physical and regulatory limits on channels lowered the entry barriers in the cable television market.
Once these barriers fell, the rise of partisan news was fueled by long-simmering complaints of bias, usually aimed at the three major networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC. Many conservatives saw a distinctly liberal bent in these supposedly “objective” stations and were eager to switch when Fox News began its ascent in the mid-’90s. Enabled by these lowered barriers and powered by the bitter criticisms of “objective” journalism, the polarization of cable television became possible. CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC then grew their shares of the television market, each with their own sources and motivations for polarization.
A Political Operation
In the opinion of many who have studied the history of Fox News, founder Rupert Murdoch’s interest in the network goes only as far as his bottom line. From this perspective, the conservative leanings of Fox News are less a reflection of Murdoch’s own views than they are a savvy way to make money. (In college, he kept a bust of Marx in his dorm room—hardly the mark of a staunch conservative). The source of the network’s conservatism can be traced to Murdoch’s hiring of Roger Ailes, a highly successful television producer and former Republican operative. According to Sherman, the arrival of Ailes fundamentally changed the organization structure of Fox News in a way that separates it from its peers. “Fox News runs as a political operation that masks itself as a news channel,” he told the HPR.
Ailes had originally conceived the idea of a conservative network during his time in the Nixon administration, in the form of a memo called: “A Plan for Putting the GOP on TV News.” Acknowledging at the time that such a channel would create a “flap about news management,” Ailes finally found his opportunity 20 years later in the form of Fox News. Murdoch’s permissive, profit-oriented mandate allowed Ailes to organize Fox News to produce partisan content within a framework unlike any other network.
In addition to Fox’s administrative structure, there is a distinct right-leaning ideology underlying the network’s success. From Sean Hannity to Bill O’Reilly to Megyn Kelly, the network’s pundits consistently deliver a right-leaning perspective on current events. However, though each individual brings their personal ideological perspective to the issues, they all represent, to some degree, an extension of Ailes. Rush Limbaugh summed up Ailes’s role in Fox’s overriding ideology at a 2009 dinner: “One man has established a culture for 1,700 people who believe in it, who follow it, who execute it. Roger Ailes cannot do everything. Roger Ailes is not on the air. Roger Ailes does not ever show up on camera, and yet everybody who does is a reflection of him.”
MSNBC does not share the “political operative” structure of its conservative sister station, despite its equally partisan content. The channel began without the intention of becoming the liberal counterpart to Fox News. Instead, Sherman says, the network stumbled into its current role when it found liberal content highly profitable. He traces the pivot toward liberal content to George W. Bush’s second term, when Keith Olbermann’s partisan diatribes against the president garnered ratings previously unseen for the network.
Executives then moved to hire proudly liberal talent like Rachel Maddow and Chris Hayes in order to build upon the higher ratings created by Olbermann. The decision paid off, but it also symbolized a deeper realization about the nature of contemporary news television decision-making. Recognizing this, Politico’s Dylan Byers wrote in a 2013 opinion piece: “The effort to defend MSNBC against comparisons to Fox News is always telling, because there was a time before MSNBC when liberals recoiled at the notion of agenda-driven programming in general. The acceptance of MSNBC was, like the acceptance of Super PACs, an acknowledgement that the rules on the ground had changed.” MSNBC has been running partisan programming ever since.
Because MSNBC existed as a channel for several years before its leftward leap, comparisons to Fox fall apart in discussions of organizational structure. The opinions of MSNBC’s pundits are not extensions of a liberal equivalent to Ailes. Instead, they are consistent with a business strategy. With that in mind, the programming is unabashedly opinionated—85 percent of MSNBC’s programming is devoted to opinion content, compared to 55 percent for Fox News and 46 percent for CNN. MSNBC is liberal, and it caters to those individuals whose frustration with the formerly dominant news networks mirrors Fox’s current audience.
A Nonpartisan Alternative
CNN differs from each of these networks in that it is set up chiefly to be a source of breaking news and boots-on-the-ground reporting, rather than commentary. As a result, it has avoided the stark, open partisanship of both Fox News and MSNBC. Billing itself as an unbiased news source is profitable for CNN; according to the American Journalism Review, “Advertisers like CNN’s reputation, and are willing to pay handsomely to be associated with it.” However, there are drawbacks to this hard news model. Because more of its content is based outside the studio, the network must bankroll dozens more production teams in the field than its competitors. The success of CNN’s business model is therefore mitigated by the costs of running a breaking news enterprise. Yet the network essentially has no other option—if it chose to revert to more opinion content to lower costs, CNN would lose its brand and its accompanying advertising dollars.
The question of which, if any, ideology pervades CNN is highly contested. Among many conservatives and some non-conservatives, CNN is considered to have a liberal bias, although less so than MSNBC. In his 2013 book Partisan Journalism, Jim A. Kuypers asserts that, in response to competition from Fox News, “CNN soon adopted the leftward bias of the established mainstream media.” However, proof of this leftward bias is not clear. A 2008 Shorenstein Center study found that Republicans and Democrats were equally criticized by CNN during the presidential primaries, with the exception of then-Senator Barack Obama. From inside the organization, the network lays claim to a nonpartisan journalistic ideology for its content. This claim is aided by the fact that CNN does plenty of reporting on news outside the political sphere, which largely avoids questions of slant or spin. Since fervent conservatives opt for Fox News and fervent liberals opt for MSNBC, CNN doesn’t pull as strong an audience when it chooses to report on politics. Therefore, regardless of conservative or liberal assertions about the ideological leanings of CNN, those hypothetical leanings do not garner partisan viewers for the network.
What does the polarization of cable news television mean? The answer is unclear. Tworek acknowledges that a significant causation-correlation problem exists. Many individuals watch Fox News or MSNBC in order to reinforce their conservative or liberal opinions. Thus, rather than serving to polarize moderates, the networks may largely be drawing a self-selecting partisan audience. The Princeton study found that “Ideologically one-sided news exposure may be largely confined to a small, activist segment of the population.” However, “this segment has disproportionate political influence. Activists shape the political choices of the American public.” In other words, fervently partisan media consumers often affect public political debate in dramatic ways.
However, the degree to which media polarization actually changes opinions is unclear. Many studies claim that media polarization has no effect on individuals, yet other studies insist that media polarization changes personal ideology. Tworek blames this on the staggering number of factors that go into voting patterns, emphasizing that “it’s very difficult to disaggregate” each of those factors from one another. In an interview with the HPR, former senator Evan Bayh (D-Ind.), who left Congress in 2010 due to the domination of “party and self-interest” in government, concurred: “Our electorate is polarized for a whole number of reasons. [The polarization of news] is only one element, and I don’t even think it is the most prominent.”
Many argue that, in fact, this current trend is actually a return to an earlier time. According to Partisan Journalism, “Throughout American history reporters and editors have ranged the spectrum of left and right. During partisan periods these political tendencies showed, but during the objective turn the profession of journalism operated under a set of practices that attenuated the bias of most journalists.” This period of greater objectivity was “a postwar American anomaly,” according to Sherman. Partisan journalism has a rich history in America, from H.L. Mencken to William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. It was only after the Second World War that the notion of objectivity arose. And with the growing partisanship of Fox News and MSNBC, Sherman concludes, “We are reverting to the historical norm.”
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons /Monika Flueckiger, World Economic Forum