In the past decade, many more people have been getting their news from 24-hour cable news networks. This is in great contrast to earlier times, when TV viewers only had the half-hour nightly news programs to watch. The main American news networks are FOX News, MSNBC, and CNN.
These networks are often much more ideological than the traditional news programs. They often take after talk-radio political programs such as Rush Limbaugh. CNN and MSNBC are often criticized for having a liberal bias, while FOX News is seen as right-wing.
This paper will examine whether or not these perceptions have basis in reality. It will also examine what effect these potential biases have on viewers. Does biased reporting damage the political discourse? Does it simply encourage bickering between the two sides?
FOX News is often the target of those decrying media bias. It first aired in 1996, and it was created by Rupert Murdoch. Murdoch made Roger Ailes, who worked for Nixon, Reagan and George H.W. Bush, the CEO of FOX News. Ailes was also a former NBC executive.
The station often uses flashy graphics that contain patriotic symbols such as the American flag. They are usually colorful and attention-grabbing.
Fox News also has a radio station that syndicated throughout the US. They recently added a satellite radio station as well.
Many people have noted that FOX News seems to have a conservative bias. Two of the most popular figures on the network, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck clearly espouse conservative views. Hannity is right-wing, one of his books was titled, “Conservative Victory: Defeating Obama’s Radical Agenda." Beck often refers to Obama and his policies as "socialist" or "radical". He compared churches that fought for social justice to Hitler and Stalin in an episode of his show.
Former Republican Governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee now has his own show. Tony Snow, who used to be a FOX News anchor, was once a speechwriter for Bush Sr. According to an article by FAIR titled, "Fox News-Wing of the GOP?" Snow endorsed Bob Dole for President in 1996 while he was a news anchor (Rendall, 2009). In 2006, he became Press Secretary for George W. Bush. George W. Bush's cousin, John Prescot Ellis was the projection team manager for Fox News during the 2000 Presidential election, when Bush was first elected.
Many articles have been written about the perceived conservative bias of Fox News. Liberal media watchdog groups such as FAIR and Media Matters have devoted many web pages to the subject. In 2001, FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) studied 19 weeks of Special Report with Brit Hume (Rendall, 2001). They, "classified each guest by both political ideology and party affiliation." The classifications were conservative and non-conservative, even centrists and moderate Republicans were excluded from the conservative category. Even with these lax standards, the study found, "65 of the 92 guests (71 percent) were avowed conservatives- that is, conservatives outnumbered representatives of all other points of view, including non-political guests, by a factor of more than 2 to 1."
The same study found that CNN's Wolf Blitzer Reports had slightly more Republicans on than Democrats, but was still much more balanced than the Brit Hume program..Obviously, this is only a study of one program over a short period of time, but it shows a disturbing trend. A legitimate news organization should have higher standards.
Furthermore, a 2008 article by FAIR called, "Fox News Nailbiter!" showed that Fox News portrayed the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election as being much closer than the polls actually showed ("Nailbiter", 2008). The anchors and commentators consistenly tried to make it seem as if John McCain was coming back from behind against Barack Obama.
Journalism.org did a content analysis of cable news networks ("Cable TV”, 2005). They found many interesting things. "Fox is more deeply sourced than its rivals, but it is also more opinionated and more one-sided..." Also, "Fox was measurably more one-sided than the other networks, and Fox journalists were more opinionated on the air."
As noted by Vivian Martin in Scientific American, a study was done concerning news networks' polling and their coverage of it (2008). The study found a significant pro-Republican bias. "Special Report...was 67 percent less likely to report a rise in approval for Clinton than a decrease and 36 percent more likely to report the increase rather than the decrease for Bush." However, the study also found that CBS, ABC, and NBC had a "pro-Democrat bias." This could support the notion that Fox News balances out the liberal media.
Simon Maloy from Media Matters pointed out a specific instance of Fox News putting out false information that supported the conservative worldview(2009). On Fox and Friends, a poll was displayed that stated peoples' opinion on whether or not scientists falsified "research to support their own theories on global warming." 59 percent chose somewhat likely, 35 percent said very likely and 26 percent said not very likely. The only problem is that these numbers add up 120 percent. "Fox News... added together the 'very likely' and 'somewhat likely' numbers to reach 59 percent, and called that new group 'somewhat likely." It would highly coincidental if Fox News just happened to regularly make errors that made it seem as if more people supported conservative stances. The evidence of systemic bias is staggering.
The FAIR article, "Fox News- Wing of the GOP?" that was cited earlier contains more evidence of the partisan reporting. The article states that, "Fox News executive vice president John Moody regularly handed down memos cheering and defending Bush administration actions." It also points out that the senior vice president for programming, Bill Shine, called Fox News the "voice of opposition" to Obama. Additionally, the article gives the example of Carl Cameron posting a story during the 2004 presidential election on the Fox News website that claimed John Kerry had referred to himself as "metrosexual".
The article also pointed out a key aspect of ethical problems in Fox News. Supposedly, they are much more likely to hire conservatives than liberals. It states, "Andrew Kirtzman, a respected New York City cable news reporter, was interviewed for a job with Fox News in 1996, and afterward said that his interviewers wanted to know what party he belonged to. 'They were afraid I was a Democrat,' he told the Village Voice."
However, the bias goes much further than that. Not only does Fox News promote conservative ideals, it often acts as an arm of the GOP. According to an article titled,"Fox News' Ever-expanding Ethics Nightmare" by Media Matters, "In recent years, at least twenty Fox News personalities have endorsed, raised money, or campaigned for Republican candidates or causes, or against Democratic candidates or causes, in more than 300 instances and in at least 49 states. Republican parties and officials have routinely touted these personalities' affiliations with Fox News to sell and promote their events" (Dimiero et al., 2010).
It's one thing to present a point view or have bias. No journalist can be perfect; they all have their own opinions and beliefs. But it is another thing entirely to systematically support and raise funds for a particular political party. It is a violation of journalistic ethical standards.
In 2009, the Obama administration harshly criticized Fox News for its conservative bias. According to a Newsweek article, the Fox response to this criticism was another example of biased reporting. It points out that the Fox story on the subject quoted 5 people that all “assert that administration officials are either wrong in substance or politically foolish to criticize the network.” (Weisberg, 2009) The article points out that a legitimate news organization would try to cover such criticism in a fair manner. Fox News has never shown any willingness to critically examine its coverage.
How do TV watchers view Fox News? According to The Pew Research Center for the people and the press, FNC, "is viewed by Americans in more ideological terms than other television news networks”Fox News”, 2009). 47 percent of respondents said that Fox News was mostly conservative, while 24 percent said it was neither conservative or liberal. 37 percent thought that CNN was liberal, but 33 percent thought it was in between. For MSNBC, 36 percent said liberal and 27 percent said neither.
Many people view all of the networks as biased one way or the other, but the Fox News is clearly more biased in the eyes of Americans. The poll found similar results among those who "regularly tune into these networks." For example, 48 percent of regular Fox News watchers found it to be conservative. Also, the poll showed that Fox News viewers are more likely than the average person to view other networks as liberal.
Murdoch and Ailes and usually deny that the bias exists. According to The Age, Rupert Murdoch said, "We're not in the least bit biased, we're a fair and balanced company." ("News Corp", 2004) Furthermore, Fox News employees often state that they only seem biased because of the extreme liberal bias of most of the mainstream media.
In an interview with the London-based Financial Times, Murdoch was quoted as saying, "I mean that it has given room to both sides, whereas only one side had it before." In the same article, Ailes stated, "I think conservatives were underserved. That does not make us a conservative channel" ("Interview Transcipt", 2006). Bill O'Reilly was quoted in a FAIR article entitled, "The Most Biased Name in News" as saying, "[Fox] gives voice to people who can't get on other networks. When was the last time you saw pro-life people [on other networks] unless they shot somebody?" (Ackerman, 2001). Even though there is plenty of evidence that Fox News is biased, everyone at Fox continues to deny it.
They seem to be living in a fantasy world. It wouldn't be such a big deal if Fox News just admitted they were partisan. If they just came out and said, "We're a conservative news network," that would at least be intellectually honest. Many news organizations in Europe are openly biased, but their journalistic ethics are still respected. Fox News, however, used "Fair and Balance" as its slogan for years.
There was at least one instance of a Fox News employee hinting at the network's conservative slant. Slate quoted a Wall Street Journal Europe interview with the London bureau chief for Fox News, Scott Norvell (Noah, 2005). He says, "Even we at Fox News manage to get some lefties on the air occasionally... Fox News is, after all, a private channel and our presenters are quite open about where they stand on particular stories." The article points out that the idea that Fox News is open about its slant is ridiculous.
What effect does Fox News have on viewers' politcal beliefs and actions? The New York Times had an article about a study by economists concerning this subject. It says, "Thus, the introduction of Fox News did not appear to have increased the percentage of people voting for the Republican presidential candidate [In 2000]. A similar finding emerged for Congressional and senatorial elections" (Krueger, 2005). Perhaps Fox News' bias doesn't effect people that strongly. Maybe the people who are conservative already are the ones who are choosing to watch Fox News, so it just confirms what they already believe. People like to have their beliefs confirmed, so therefore it is profitable. Similarly, liberal viewers may choose to ignore Fox News, and therefore can't be convinced by it. Maybe liberals watch it, but just don't take it seriously.
A Study on Berkely.edu had slightly different findings (Della Vigna and Kaplan, 2006). "Republicans gain 0.4 to 0.7 percentage points in the towns which broadcast Fox News... Our estimates imply that Fox News convinced 3 to 8 percent of its viewers to vote Republican." Fox News may convince some people. It doesn't seem that unlikely that 3 percent of the population is gullible enough to base their voting decision on what a cable network says.
Fox News may or may not convince voters. But it appears it may have a dumbing-down effect on viewers. The Academy of Political Science found that "67 percent of Fox News viewers believed that the US has found clear evidence in Iraq that Saddam Hussein was working closely with the al Qaeda terrorist organization." (Kull, et al, 2003) In reality, no such clear evidence existed. Only 48 percent of CNN viewers shared this misconception, and only 16 percent of NPR/PBS consumers.
Furthermore, 35 percent of Fox viewers thought international opinion supported the invasion of Iraq, compared to 24 for CNN and 5 for NPR/PBS. While correlation can't prove causation, it's possible that Fox News is keeping misperceptions alive that benefit the Republican point of view.
How does Fox News compare to CNN or MSNBC? Many have claimed that MSNBC has a liberal bias, and this charge is not wholly without merit. Two of the most popular hosts on MSNBC, Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow are clearly left-wingers. Ed Schultz, host of The Ed Show, is an admitted partisan as well. However, Joe Scarborough, a former Republican Congressman is also a host on the channel.
Steve Schmidt, who worked for McCain's campaign, was quoted in The Washington Post as saying, “[MSNBC is] an organ of the Democratic National Committee.” (Kurtz, 2008) The same article stated that many viewed MSNBC as favoring Obama over Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary. Gov. Ed Rendell was quoted in Politico as saying that “MSNBC was the offical network of the Obama campaign” (Calderone, 2008). Since Obama was seen as more liberal than Hillary Clinton, this may support the left-wing bias. Jacques Sternberg wrote an article for the New York Times titled, “Cable Channel Nods to Ratings and Leans Left” (Steinberg, 2007). He asserts that Olbermann's high ratings inspired the network to become more liberal. Chris Matthews, Keith Olbermann, and Dan Abrams, who are all on in a row, are cited as all being highly critical of the Bush Administration.
Clearly, MSNBC is not entirely unbiased. How does it stack up against Fox News? Well that partly depends on one's point of view. According to the New York Times, “Asked about CNN, MSNBC or network television news, Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to rate them favorably, and Republicans were much more likely than Democrats to see them unfavorably” (Perez-Pena, 2009).
Fox News was seen much more positively by Republicans, and more negatively by Democrats.” Most people think of themselves as normal. A conservative is likely to view his or her own views as mainstream, and therefore MSNBC may seem radically left-wing, while Fox News appears to be centrist and balanced.
MSNBC does seem to come from a liberal perspective. However, even Olbermann and Maddow don't hold back from criticizing important Democrats. Maddow, who is openly homosexual, was critical of Obama for not repealing the “Don't ask, Don't tell” policy in the U.S. Military. Olbermann scolded Obama for continuing the Bush policy of warrantless wiretaps. There doesn't seem to be any evidence that MSNBC takes talking points from the Democratic Party. Also, MSNBC doesn't have “Fair and Balanced” as its slogan.