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Among the many possible explanations for the outcome of the 2016 election, one statistic is particularly eye-catching. It comes from a 2017 study of cable news bias, which reveals that for every ten minutes of weekly Fox News viewership in a particular region, Republican vote share increases 1.2 percent. In an election that turned on three swing states — Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan — where Donald Trump won by a margin of less than one percent, this suggests that one way we could have avoided Trump’s presidency would have been to reduce Fox News consumption in just three states by a mere ten minutes per week.
I’m not a well-versed historian of propaganda, but I think it’s obvious to recognize what Fox News has done as a breakthrough in the field. Other studies have added to the “news” network’s impressive accolades. One attributes George W. Bush’s victory in 2000 in part to the rollout of Fox News over the previous four years. Another indicates the mild effect Fox News can have on policy decisions. Some journalists have pointed out the frequency with which Trump’s political rants on Twitter are preceded by similar programming on Fox.
The existence and efficacy of Fox News is just one aspect of today’s informational ecosystem that has been called out for its effect on political and social divides. Particular attention is often given to the role of new technologies and social media. Fake or false news, whether generated by foreign political meddlers or profit-seeking Macedonian teenagers, has proliferated on the social media sites that now serve as a primary news source for most Americans. Social media algorithms also induce echo chamber-like information loops that exacerbate social and political divides.
Understanding the problematic aspects of social media for our informational ecosystem is important and has prompted serious reflection on possible solutions. Greater fact-checking by social media platforms like Facebook, reducing the performative nature of social media posting, regulating Twitter bots, and less anonymity on online social spaces are a handful of the numerous productive ideas circulating that will help keep the influences of the new social media landscape in check.
But if we are to really learn from the mistakes of our past, we should look more closely at the example that has been set by Fox News. As a cable television network in an age where kids learn how to create Instagram accounts before they learn how to change TV channels, Fox News is a thorn in the side of the narrative that social media destroys journalistic integrity.
Unlike social media, the narrative of Fox News is not new. Partisanship has always been a feature of journalism, an unavoidable consequence of human psychology. From the Sedition Acts of our Founders’ time, to the sensationalist “yellow journalism” of the late 19th century, to the Rush Limbaugh radio program of 30 years ago, the history of American journalism is rife with instances of Fox News-like bias. So we should not panic in the face of Fox News and the partisan journalism it embodies. There are even many reasons — from its dying viewer cohort to shifting demographics in the U.S. overall — to believe it is a problem that will resolve itself over time even without the active and creative resistance to it that it deserves.
Nevertheless we can gain valuable insights from understanding the success of the Fox News phenomenon today. First, Fox News exploits differences in the less educated and the working class. Fox News’ largest demographic difference in comparison with other cable news channels is its reach among the less educated. Thirty-five percent of its viewers in 2018 had a high school diploma or less, compared to 23 percent for its closest liberal analog, MSNBC. Its second largest gap is among blue collar workers, at 24 percent compared to 14 percent. We need an economic system that people feel included in enough to not be searching for someone to blame, and an education system that can prepare people to not be duped by a TV network’s facile narrative of who’s to blame.
Second, Fox News preys on the worst parts of the left today. The criticisms of liberal elitism and college snowflakes are, if dramatic, at the very least grounded in reality. If the left wants to bemoan today’s divisiveness without budging from its ideologies, it can at least be more proactive about controlling the narratives around it. Fox News and others will continue to milk the narrative of the liberal elite, but we can make it less credible if we start behaving with more tact. This doesn’t mean caving on issues we care about as much as it means acknowledging that politics isn’t about just being right.
Among the many things that Fox News is, it is a model for understanding how partisan journalism functions. In the tameness of the solutions it invites — time and social reform, rather than resistance to technology or an overhaul of free speech — it is also a reason to think that the American democracy is not as doomed as current dialogue would have us believe.
William A. McConnell ’21 is a Mathematics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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