When the Lincoln Project began distributing anti-Trump agitprop through YouTube videos, tweets, and cable TV appearances in December 2019, MSNBC immediately filled its broadcast day with mentions of the never-Trump political action committee and kept coming back for seconds. According to a study of references of the Lincoln Project gathered by the Internet Archive’s TV News Archive, CNN and Fox News Channel ate rather sparsely.
The American Conservative then revealed in mid-January 2020 that Lincoln Project co-founder John Weaver has a history of making sexual approaches at young men while claiming to help them succeed in their jobs.
The American Conservative bombshell was quickly verified and extended by the New York Times, and MSNBC abruptly lost interest in the organization, avoiding mentions of the Lincoln Project as if it were a jumbo-sized Payday candy bar and the network had acquired a peanut allergy. For the following several months, the words “Lincoln Project,” which had once been omnipresent on MSNBC, faded into obscurity.
But the Lincoln Project wasn’t over for television news. As Trump-hating MSNBC dropped the subject, Trump-loving Fox took it up. Mentions of the Lincoln Project and Weaver increased on Fox in mid-February, as Fox personalities Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, Harris Faulkner, and others reveled in the Lincoln Project’s humiliation.
The Fox hosts and guests debated whether the group could even survive. It must have seemed like media whiplash for television viewers: first the Lincoln Project was a story on MSNBC, then it wasn’t. It wasn’t a Fox story at first, but then it became one. It’s worth noting that before the controversy emerged, CNN’s mentions of the Lincoln Project rated between between MSNBC’s all-in and Fox’s snub. What a news agency does not cover might be just as essential as what it covers.
Even casual TV watchers will notice that when you examine all of the news and commentary provided by cable networks, they often give it a political slant. This is why Fox is preferred by Republicans while MSNBC and CNN are preferred by Democrats. However, the observable fluctuations in Lincoln Project mentions are just one indication of how regularly and thoroughly the networks’ perception of what’s newsworthy is a consequence of the networks’ political priors, as well as the priors of its intended audience.
The networks often act more like political actors, favoring one side while denigrating the “other” than independent news institutions. The networks act like marketers of political entertainment by appealing to their consumers’ perceived political preferences and ignoring stories when the news becomes embarrassing to their goal.
Of course, promoting a biased news agenda is neither unethical nor unprofessional. America has a long history of political, active journalism, dating back to the colonial period and continuing to the present day. To name a few historical figures, abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, labor organizers like John Swinton, naturalists like John Muir, and anti-corporatists like Ida Tarbell and Ralph Nader reported the news through ideological lenses, and magazines like Mother Jones, Reason, and the National Review continue that practice.
However, these activist journalists made it clear where their information was coming from. The cable networks, on the other hand, profess to be “fair and balanced,” to paraphrase an old Fox motto. Cable news tarnishes journalism’s good image and unnecessarily fosters audience divisiveness by trying to have it both ways — tilting while appearing as straight reporting.
Counting the number of “mentions” on a news program is obviously simply one measure of coverage. It is also important to consider who is referencing and what arguments they are presenting, not to mention the context. However, the sheer quantity of mentions (recorded on air or in chyrons or other screen text) provides us with a great vantage point from which to discuss what is covered.
Kalev Leetaru, a researcher, and Roger Macdonald, the creator of TV News Archive, have been cooperating on techniques to observe how the networks cover news over the last decade. The archive records the cable news networks’ programming, identifies the words spoken or written, and stores them in a database.
Leetaru and others’ software for sorting and displaying data even gathers video clips (and transcripts) in which the references occur. Leetaru claims that his study is not ideological. It’s up to the viewers, he says, to determine what his results mean.
Leetaru and Macdonald alerted to the Lincoln Project trend, as well as other revealing patterns of coverage. One governing concept of cable news, carried out day after day, is to link viewers with topics they despise rather than those they like, and when they can’t say anything unpleasant, they frequently say nothing at all.
The MSNBC audience, which consistently despises Donald Trump, was ready to see Lincoln Project coverage that poked and prodded him. However, as the narrative shifted and the Lincoln Project’s face became one of scandal, MSNBC went silent in order not to upset its viewers, while Fox ramped up the volume.
According to Leetaru and Macdonald’s study, the formula repeats itself.
Readers may be surprised to find that Fox News, which many on the left see as an extension of the Trump propaganda machine, seldom discusses the previous president. Since 2015, CNN and MSNBC have regularly and constantly cited Donald Trump more often, and they continue to do so. Fox, on the other hand, has consistently outperformed MSNBC and CNN in terms of Biden mentions since he became president. And so on.
Fox cites presidential press secretary Jen Psaki and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez more more than MSNBC or CNN combined, generally in a negative or chastising tone. MSNBC outperforms Fox in Rep. Matt Gaetz mentions, but Fox dominates the “defund the cops” category by a large percentage. Looking for information about the Steele dossier? Turn on Fox. “Cultural war?” MSNBC. Inflation? Fox. Anti-racism? Fox.
A furious viewer is a loyal follower.
Cable news isn’t the only place where people indulge their hatreds while ignoring their affinities. It’s just human nature. Rank-and-file union members may preach togetherness, but tearing on the bosses is what they truly enjoy. The typical Boston Red Sox fan arguably enjoys trashing the New York Yankees more than he enjoys praising his own club. War causes the heart to beat significantly quicker than love.
If Fox and MSNBC had handled the Lincoln Project story honestly, they would have depicted the issue as newsworthy both before and after the incident. However, an unwavering commitment to negative partisanship — which often mimics the play-by-play of a home team’s sports broadcasters — prevents them from doing so.
This dedication to servicing viewers’ political feelings may raise ratings, but it’s a terrible way to manage a journalistic company. When networks overlook or exaggerate a story in order to appeal to their viewers’ preconceptions, they create miniature information silos in which they may comfortably cocoon from the outside world.
It’s possible that this data analysis misled the networks, and it’s just a coincidence that in the cases presented, they choose to feed viewers antagonism than than providing impartial journalism. If that’s the case, news producers have now been made aware of a free software tool and a massive database against which they may self-assess their news coverage. We should all be looking forward to their self-reflection.