When the Lincoln Project started dispensing its anti-Trump agit-prop of YouTube videos, tweets and cable news appearances in December 2019, MSNBC promptly filled its broadcast day with mentions of the never-Trump political action committee and kept going back for seconds. CNN ate relatively sparingly, as did the Fox News Channel, as an analysis of mentions of the Lincoln Project collected by the Internet Archive’s TV News Archive shows.
Then in mid-January 2020, the American Conservative reported that Lincoln Project co-founder John Weaver had a history of making sexual advances at young men while offering to help them advance their careers. The New York Times soon confirmed and expanded the American Conservative scoop, and MSNBC suddenly lost its enthusiasm for the group, avoiding mentions of the Lincoln Project as if it were a jumbo-sized Payday candy bar and the network had developed a peanut allergy. For the next couple of months, the words “Lincoln Project,” once ubiquitous on MSNBC, dwindled toward the vanishing point.
But cable news wasn’t done with the Lincoln Project. As the Trump-hostile MSNBC dumped the topic, Trump-loving Fox picked it up. Mentions of the group and Weaver spiked hard on the network in mid-February as Fox hosts Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, Harris Faulkner and others luxuriated in the Lincoln Project’s embarrassment. (Scroll down from this link to view the ample, and we should say warranted, Fox video coverage.) Fox hosts and guests discussed whether or not the group could even survive. For cable viewers, it must have felt like media whiplash: First the Lincoln Project was a story on MSNBC, then it wasn’t. First it wasn’t a story on Fox, then suddenly it was. It’s worth noting that CNN, whose mentions of the Lincoln Project had ranked somewhere between MSNBC’s all-in and Fox’s snub before the scandal broke, bailed on the subject post-scandal. What an outlet doesn’t cover is sometimes as important as what it does.
It will come as no thunderbolt to even casual TV viewers that when you consider all the news and commentary the cable networks serve, they regularly give it a political spin. This why Fox is favored by Republicans, and MSNBC or CNN are mostly popular with Democrats. But the measurable swings in Lincoln Project mentions is just one example of how consistently and how deeply the networks’ sense of what’s newsworthy is a function of the networks’ political priors, and the priors of its desired audience. The networks often behave more like political players — emphasizing one side while disparaging the “enemy” — than they do independent news organizations. By flattering the perceived political prejudices of their audiences and avoiding a story when the news becomes inconvenient to their agenda, the networks behave like vendors of political entertainment.
There’s nothing immoral or unprofessional, of course, in pursuing a partisan news agenda. There’s a long tradition of partisan, activist journalism in America, starting with the colonial era and extending to today. Abolitionists like Frederick Douglass, labor organizers like John Swinton, naturalists like John Muir and anti-corporatists like Ida Tarbell and Ralph Nader, just to name a few names from the past, reported the news through ideological lenses, and magazines like Mother Jones, Reason, and the National Review continue that practice. But these activist journalists made it apparent where their reporting was coming from. The cable networks, on the other hand, pretend, to use the old Fox slogan, to be “fair and balanced.” By attempting to have it both ways — tilting while at the same time posing as straight news — cable news tarnishes journalism’s good name and needlessly increases viewer tribalism.
Obviously, counting the number of “mentions” on a news channel is only one measure of coverage. It also matters who does the mentioning and what arguments they present, not to mention other context. But the raw number of mentions (captured on air or in chyrons or other screen text) give us a useful vantage point to discuss what gets covered. For the past decade, researcher Kalev Leetaru and TV News Archive founder Roger Macdonald have been collaborating on ways to see how the networks cover news. The archive records the cable news networks’ programs, tags the words that are spoken or written, and flows them into a database. The software created by Leetaru and others to sort and display the data even collects the video clips (and transcripts) in which the mentions occurred. Leetaru says his research is non-ideological. It’s up to viewers, he adds, to decide the implications of his findings. (See Leetaru’s RealClear Politics page for additional examples of his work.)
Leetaru and Macdonald brought the Lincoln Project pattern to my attention as well as other telling patterns of coverage. One guiding principle of cable news, played out day after day, is to connect viewers with subjects they’re hostile to, not subjects for which they have an affinity, and when they can’t say something negative they often say nothing at all. The MSNBC audience, which reliably detests Donald Trump, was more than eager to consume Lincoln Project coverage that poked and goaded him. But when the story turned, and the Lincoln Project’s face became one of scandal, MSNBC assumed silence so as not to disturb its viewers, and Fox turned up the volume.
The formula repeats itself, according to Leetaru and Macdonald’s research.
It might come as a surprise to readers to learn that Fox, which many on the left consider an arm of the Trump propaganda machine, rarely mentions the former president. Both CNN and MSNBC have consistently mentioned Donald Trump more often since 2015 and continue to do so. Conversely, Fox has regularly outdone MSNBC and CNN in Biden mentions since he became president. And so on. Fox mentions presidential press secretary Jen Psaki and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez much more than does MSNBC or CNN combined, mostly in a chiding or disparaging fashion. MSNBC outpaces Fox in Rep. Matt Gaetz mentions while Fox leads the pack by a wide margin in the “defund the police” category. Seeking coverage of the Steele dossier? Tune to Fox. “Culture war”? MSNBC. Inflation? Fox. Anti-racism? Fox.
A riled viewer is a devoted viewer.
Indulging hatreds while avoiding affinities is not limited to cable news. It’s human nature. Rank-and-file union members might preach solidarity but what really thrills them is ripping on the bosses. Your average Boston Red Sox fan probably derives more pleasure from talking trash about the New York Yankees than he does praising his own team. War makes the heart beat much faster than does love.
Had Fox and MSNBC played the Lincoln Project news straight, both would have portrayed the subject as newsworthy before and after the scandal. But an abiding devotion to negative partisanship — which often resembles the play-by-play of the sports announcers for a home team — keeps them from doing so. This devotion to serving the political passions of viewers may increase ratings, but it’s a hell of a way to run a news organization. When the networks ignore or overplay a story to appeal to their viewers’ prejudices, they give them little info-silos in which they can safely cocoon from the real world.
It could be that this data analysis has gotten the networks wrong, and it’s only a coincidence that in the examples here they prefer to feed audiences hostilities (or ignore inconvenient topics) instead of producing independent news. If that’s the case, the news producers have now been alerted to a free software tool and a vast database against which they can self-measure their coverage of the news. We should all look forward to their self-examination.
In coverage categories discussed here, the provided links lead to graphs of total mentions and to the relevant videos and transcripts from the individual networks prepared for me by Kalev Leetaru and Roger Macdonald. For more about Leetaru, see his GDELT Project page. For more on the TV News Archive, see its page. Send coverage tips to Shafer.Politico@gmail.com. My email alerts live on affinity. My Twitter feed dwells in silence. My RSS feed has nothing but hostility.