Just as President Donald Trump fractured and debased the Republican Party with his anger, lies and conspiracy theories about the November election, he has done the same to right-wing cable TV the last few months. And the implications of that on the kind of information we get from television news could be enormous —more journalism, less propaganda.
Those who don’t watch Fox News, Newsmax or One America News Network might not think what happens on those channels matters in the greater scheme of American life. But cable TV more than any other single realm of media sets the agenda for the nation and many of the groups within it. Cable news channels tell their viewers what’s important and how they should think about it. Some viewers spend all day tuned to one channel and come to think of the hosts and anchors as friends or family. The right-wing cable channels are the ones to which Trump has consistently directed his followers ― the people who smashed windows, broke into the Capitol and temporarily shut down Congress last Wednesday.
In our post-mortems about who has blood on their hands besides the president, we need to go beyond Republican politicians like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, who led the unsuccessful challenge to President-elect Joe Biden’s victorious electoral vote count, and take a hard-eyed look at right-wing media and the role it played in the rise of Trump and the fall of the Capitol to his followers Wednesday.
As dangerous and disgusting as the behavior of Trump enablers like those two senators and Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio and Louie Gohmert of Texas has been, those members of the media who have been promulgating Trump’s lies about the election being “rigged” and “stolen” from him are just as culpable. It is no coincidence that the ratings of Newsmax and One America News Network rose the last two months as the networks pushed Trump’s false and seditious rhetoric and he in turn promoted them on social media.
The dance with the devil by those channels featured stories like this one “reported” on One America News Network the week after the election:
“Election systems across the country are found to have deleted millions of votes cast for President Trump,” said the report, which was posted and critiqued on the Mediaite website. “According to an unaudited analysis of data obtained from Edison Research, states using Dominion Voting Systems may have switched as many as 435,000 votes from President Trump to Joe Biden, and the author also finds another 2.7 million Trump votes appear to have been deleted by Dominion including almost one million in Pennsylvania alone.”
The essence of that false report, citing Trump votes that allegedly may have been deleted and switched, was then retweeted by the president, citing OAN as his source and feeding it to his 88.7 million followers.
The bogus report was knocked down by The New York Times and other mainstream news and fact-checking outlets. But the kind of people who believe Trump, follow his tweets and stormed the Capitol on his behalf probably aren’t reading the stories about media fact-checking in The New York Times. For one thing, to believe Trump is to believe anything in the Times that disagrees with his twisted view of reality is “fake news.”
For the record, Edison Research, the source cited by OAN for the misinformation, says it created no such analysis as the one cited on the channel as the basis for its report.
In the case of OAN, it is impossible to speak precisely about ratings since it does not subscribe to Nielsen Media research. The channel’s president, Charles Herring, says its ratings are up 40% year to year in the fourth quarter, according to Reuters, but 40% of what? It is impossible to judge what that means without a yardstick like Nielsen measuring this year versus last, and making those numbers available.
Newsmax does subscribe to Nielsen. According to ratings provided by a spokesman for the channel, Newsmax went from an overall audience of 22,000 persons a day in July to 275,000 persons a day in December.
I use the election as a dividing line, because even though Trump had been growing increasingly angry with Fox for several months, election night was the moment when Trump decisively broke with Fox News and started attacking it while urging his followers to watch OAN and Newsmax. Trump denounced Fox News for being the first channel to call Arizona as a win for Biden and he has not stopped disparaging Fox since. But don’t think Fox has suddenly embraced real journalism in favor of right-wing propaganda.
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin was given a platformWednesday night on Fox News to allege that “antifa folks” might have instigated the insurrection at the Capitol. (There is no evidence of that being true.)
Fox host Laura Ingraham also introduced the possibility of members of antifa being among the rioters in her interview with House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, saying “whether antifa was in there or not,” referring to those who were inside the Capitol as part of the mob. There was no evidence of antifa involvement, but it was a right-wing talking point Wednesday night.
Fox is still the leader in cable news ratings. For the last 18 years at least, the network has regularly been No. 1 in most of the ratings categories that matter: overall viewing, as well as the prime-time and total day categories.
But there is one shift of the last few months that matters. It could, in fact, signal a major change in the landscape of cable news and better days ahead for viewers looking for facts and verified news stories instead of propaganda and conspiracy theories. Since the election, CNN has been running neck and neck with Fox in the ratings in some key categories.
The last three months of 2020 have been especially strong for the network that Trump has attacked relentlessly since coming into office. CNN posted its highest total day and prime-time ratings among viewers 25 to 54 years of age for any quarter ever, according to Nielsen data provided by CNN.
The network was not only No. 1 in cable news in total day viewership with that demographic, on which most ad sales are made, it was also the top-ranked network on all of cable TV when measuring across the 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. time period with that coveted demographic, according to Adweek’s TV Newser blog. In addition, Wednesday was CNN’s most watched day in history, according to Nielsen ratings from the network. It also ranked No. 1 in all of cable news.
There are a number of explanations for the shifting sands in cable news. One involves Trump splintering the right-wing audience by using his social media power to try to drive viewers from Fox to OAN and Newsmax as punishment for daring to not slavishly do his bidding. He has succeeded to some extent, but in doing so he has helped create an opening for CNN to challenge Fox.
There is also the quality of journalism CNN has been offering on stories with huge consequences in viewers’ lives: COVID-19, the presidential election, the Georgia Senate runoff, the end of Trump and the mob attack on the Capitol. Trump can scream “fake news” all he wants, but viewers who want accurate information on events that greatly affect their lives are increasingly going to CNN. I have always believed good journalism makes for good business.
And I cannot help but note the irony of seeing Fox News, which is more responsible than any media outlet for helping Trump become president, suffer the president’s social media wrath as he spins out of control in his mad, final days. It couldn’t happen to a more deserving pair of former dance partners.
David Zurawik is The Baltimore Sun’s media critic.