Politics & Policy

The Conservative Media Echo Chamber Is Making the Right Intellectually Deaf

Sean Hannity on the set of his Fox News program (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Despite conservatives’ perceptions, conservative media exists in a small, ineffectual bubble.

One of the more interesting developments since the emergence of the Web as a mass medium is the establishment of a conservative media presence. Prior to the Internet, there were basically no large-audience right-wing media operations aside from a few talk-radio programs.

Since the 1996 establishment of Fox News and the popularization of the Web, it has now become possible for a conservatively inclined people to consume all kinds of news and opinion catering to their specific tastes and viewpoints. Many right-leaning people have hailed this development, believing that they have finally defeated the hated liberal media. They suppose that because they can now obtain their news entirely from conservative-leaning media that this is what others do as well.

They couldn’t be more mistaken.

While the conservative-media constellation is far larger than it once was, its audience is completely dwarfed by the left-leaning mainstream media. People who are “very conservative” love right-wing media outlets. No one else appears to, not even Republicans who are “somewhat conservative.”

The fact that a majority of average Americans has never even heard of the Right’s biggest stars like Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck is a perfect illustration that Republican political junkies live in a media bubble.

Conservative activists who dislike GOP nominee Donald Trump are constantly asking themselves how their party could elect an inexperienced bomb-thrower who constantly messes up. The relatively small influence of right-wing blogs and talk radio is part of the answer. Trump-hating hosts like Mark Levin and Glenn Beck bashed Trump daily on their programs for months. Their criticism had no effect, however, because the only people tuning in were those who already agreed. (It didn’t help that their denunciations were completely hypocritical and politically motivated as well.)

Fox News Is a Paper Tiger

While it is true that Fox News Channel has dominated the cable-news ratings for many years, the reality is that conservatives are extremely underrepresented in mass media, contrary to what wishful-thinking people on the right and their Fox-hating left-wing counterparts imagine. Beyond that, it appears the reason Fox News is so dominant is that it has effectively cornered the market on Republican television-news viewers, not because it is actually the most influential and respected TV-news operation. In some ways, the literal reverse is true.

Table I below illustrates the disadvantage conservatives face on television by comparing the Nielsen Media Research ratings of the broadcast and cable morning-news shows, the broadcast evening-news shows, and the top-rated cable shows in the same time period. The left-leaning shows have more than 2.5 times the viewership of right-leaning ones:

Table I: Television News Show Ratings

The more than 2:1 ratio seen above of liberal to conservative viewership is actually only part of the picture, however, since the “totals” in the table above are not quite accurate since many Fox News viewers actually watch multiple shows on the channel and are thus counted multiple times in the simple addition.

Things are even worse for conservatives when one considers that the table doesn’t include weekly shows such as Meet the Press, Face the Nation, and 60 Minutes. It also does not include the numerous and reliably Democratic comedy news programs like Real Time with Bill Maher, The Daily Show and John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight as well as the very popular, left-leaning current-affairs shows aired on the Spanish language networks of Telemundo and Univision. Tens of millions of people watch these programs. And, of course, there are the magazine and newspaper businesses which are overwhelmingly run by progressives.

Conservatives have significant outposts in talk radio and Fox News but their audience size is still dwarfed by the sum total of the center-left media behemoth. The Right’s bad situation is made worse by the fact that cable news as a medium is actually in decline as many of its older audience members are dying off and not being replaced because many younger people are refusing to purchase cable- and satellite-television subscriptions. Among those who do pay for TV, younger adults aren’t watching cable news.

As the Pew Research Center reported, cable-news viewership has been on a steady decline since 2008. Increased interest in the candidacy of Donald Trump has boosted cable ratings, however this is likely to only be a temporary interruption. Even in the presidential election year of 2012, the ratings for cable news only increased by 1 percent compared to the year before.

Still, at least for now, a fairly significant number of people still tune in to cable news. Typically, in the TV business, most of the attention is on the average ratings for shows as well as their individual ratings but in order to really gauge just how influential a channel is overall, we should look at what is known as the “cumulative viewership,” the total number of people who tune into any show during a period of time (usually one month). Measured by this metric, CNN is actually the most popular channel, not Fox News. Numbers released for 2011 showed that CNN had a cumulative viewership of 99.4 million. FNC had 82.8 million and MSNBC had 80.7 million. In late 2012, CNN was still in front. Unfortunately, there is no later public data with these statistics.

The ratings data are also supported by traditional public polling. In 2014, according to the Pew Research Center, 44 percent of Americans said they had obtained news in the last week from CNN; 39 percent said they had done so from Fox News.

The online numbers bear this statistic out as well. According to web statistics company Compete.com, FoxNews.com always receives significantly less online traffic than CNN.com.

When considering the power and influence of Fox News, we must also consider that it is severely distrusted by people who do not lean Republican. According to a survey done by Quinnipiac University, 26 percent of respondents said they did not trust Fox at all while 20 percent said they trusted the channel a great deal. This made Fox both the least-trusted and the most-trusted name in news. Other polls have indicated similar results.

When considering the power and influence of Fox News, we must also consider that it is severely distrusted by people who do not lean Republican.

The reason for this disparity is that only Republicans have a lot of trust in Fox News. In the Quinnipiac survey mentioned above, 80 percent of Republicans said they trusted Fox a great deal or somewhat. Just 49 percent of self-described independents said they did; 48 percent said they did not trust FNC at all or “not so much.”

A 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center found greater support for FNC among those with mixed political beliefs but still found that it was only the fifth-most popular news source among the politically unaffiliated, ranking behind local television news, CNN, ABC, and NBC. The study also found that 54 percent of respondents said they trusted CNN compared to only 44 percent who trusted FNC. Those numbers correlate well with a study conducted by Facebook on the link-sharing habits of 10 million of its users. According to the social giant, 98.6 percent of all links to FoxNews.com shared on Facebook were posted by people who were either somewhat or primarily conservative, yet another indicator that the people tuning in are primarily conservative Republicans.

Besides not really reaching people who are not loyal Republicans, Fox News also has the problem that it is not very popular among people who are younger. According to a 2015 annual ratings report released by Nielsen Media Research, the median age of an FNC primetime viewer was 68 years old. By comparison, CNN’s primetime average age was 59 and MSNBC’s was 63.

Though former Fox News president Roger Ailes never publicly voiced concern over his network’s aging audience, his 2013 shift to promote 43-year-old Megyn Kelly to a primetime show clearly reflected a desire to bring in younger viewers. It does not appear to have done much good, however, since the average age of Kelly’s audience is 72, even older than Fox’s 68.

Looked at in a fuller context, it’s quite apparent that Fox News is not nearly the media giant that gloating conservatives and paranoid liberals think it is. But even if FNC were unquestionably the most influential news channel, that really would not be much of a victory for conservatives. Given the paucity of TV-news options for people on the political right, it’s no wonder that Fox News trounces CNN and MSNBC. The fact that one major national news outlet exists that is not stuffed to the gills with Democratic-leaning employees is not something conservatives should boast about, it’s something their donor class should be fixing.

Conservatives Are the Only Ones Using Conservative Media

While Fox News is not as influential as most conservatives believe it to be, it still remains far more prominent than any other right-leaning media outlet among the general public.

A 2014 Pew Research study found that aside from FNC, most Americans had almost no interest in receiving news from media outlets that conservatives find trustworthy. In many cases, the public has not even heard of them.

Most Americans had almost no interest in receiving news from media outlets that conservatives find trustworthy.

Only 34 percent had heard of the Drudge Report. Just 15 percent had heard of Breitbart.com. Just 18 percent of Americans had heard of TheBlaze, the online news site owned by Glenn Beck. In contrast, 93 percent of Pew’s respondents had heard of Fox News Channel.

The lack of awareness of right-leaning media is also true of conservative radio. Just 45 percent of respondents in the Pew study said they’d heard of Sean Hannity. 49 percent had heard of Glenn Beck. Rush Limbaugh was more famous with 66 percent of those surveyed saying they knew who he was. But in the vast middle of those with mixed political views, a full 45 percent had no idea who Limbaugh was.

Being aware of right-leaning media is one thing, actually using them as a source of news is quite another. The situation is even worse in this regard for conservatives as Pew reported since no single right-leaning outlet aside from FNC was turned to in a given week by more than 9 percent of respondents.

The general unpopularity and obscurity of conservative-focused media makes sense considering that dedicated political conservatives are a small segment of the public, something many on the right have long refused to admit.

When Americans’ political attitudes are measured in an objective fashion instead of the flawed self-reporting method, it turns out that there are far fewer conservatives than many have supposed.

In the Pew study referenced above, “consistently conservative” individuals were only 9 percent of respondents. (See Table II.)

Pew also found another surprising finding: People who are “mostly conservative” tend not to follow media outlets favored by more dedicated conservatives:

Even among those with mostly conservative political values, there is a drop-off in usage of sources like the Rush Limbaugh Show, the Sean Hannity Show and the Glenn Beck Program. For instance, just 19 percent of those who are mostly conservative got news about government and politics from Sean Hannity’s radio show in the past week (compared with 45 percent of consistent conservatives). Far more in this group got news from sources such as ABC News (32 percent) and CNN (32 percent).

Consistent conservatives, then, are both united around a single source in a way no other ideological group is, and when they turn to other sources, they opt for those not consumed by many others.

The following table, based on the Pew Research Center report discussed above, provides an illustration of how (with the exception of Fox News Channel) news sources favored by dedicated conservatives are not popular among the general public. It’s sorted in descending order by the last column.

Table III: Media Consumption by Ideology

Percent of Respondents Who Got Political News from Outlet in the Past Week

Source: Pew Research Center

The General Public Is Largely Unaware of Conservative Views

Given the data above showing that non-conservative Americans overwhelmingly are reading and watching left-leaning media outlets, it stands to reason that news topics that are important to many on the right are probably not going to be that significant to the public at large.

And that’s exactly the case when we look at specific news stories. For the most part, Americans are generally unaware of what conservatives think. This is apparent when we look at the public’s interest in the two biggest scandals of the Obama administration during the 2012 presidential campaign: The attacks on American interests in Benghazi, Libya, and the deliberate targeting of conservative groups for extralegal scrutiny by the Internal Revenue Service.

According to Gallup, even though these two scandals received near-daily coverage for months on Fox News Channel, talk radio, conservative blogs, and by right-leaning Twitter users, the general public was paying attention to them at a rate “well below the average for news stories Gallup has tracked over the years.” This makes sense because it is far easier for a person to avoid (or never even hear of) media outlets run by conservatives.

In addition to not knowing much about the scandals above, most Americans had no idea that the sad state of economic affairs prevailing in 2012 had almost nothing to do with George W. Bush. Keying off of the famous James Carville dictum that “it’s the economy, stupid,” Mitt Romney and his chief campaign strategist Stuart Stevens believed that they could primarily rely upon the poor state of our nation’s private sector to defeat Barack Obama. It was the centerpiece of Romney’s campaign, in fact.

Unfortunately for the former Massachusetts governor, this strategy proved completely useless — partly because the economy was actually not in a recession but also partly because the national media was unwilling to focus on negative economic indicators like unemployment the way it had in 1992 against George H. W. Bush. Both Obama and Bush faced reelection with slowly growing economies that had left many Americans behind. But only Bush was held accountable by the national press.

Despite the Romney campaign’s constant attempts to spotlight the economy and Obama’s policies, left-leaning journalists had almost no interest in the subject.

Based on my background conversations with people who worked within the Romney campaign, there was a widespread awareness of the problem of liberal media bias. Generally, the candidate and his staff tried to work around the issue, hoping to get around it somehow by hammering the economy issue almost non-stop. At nearly every campaign stop and during every debate, Romney talked about it. Unfortunately for him, it was all for naught because he was utterly unable to get the press to tell the story. Despite the Romney campaign’s constant attempts to spotlight the economy and Obama’s policies, left-leaning journalists had almost no interest in the subject.

The double standards used by the media become obvious when one compares how the media treated the economy overall under Bush 41 and Bush 43 compared to the Obama economy. Even though things were actually better under both Bush presidencies, because they were Republicans, the American press was far more critical of the economy during their terms of office. From January to September of 1992, according to the Center for Media and Public Affairs, the major television networks ABC, CBS, and NBC ran 1,289 stories about the economy, 88 percent of which portrayed the economy negatively.

As conservative media analyst Rich Noyes noted in 2012, in 1992, “the unemployment rate was 7.6%, lower than today’s 7.9%, and economic growth in the third quarter was 2.7%, better than today’s 2.0%. Yet the media coverage hammered the idea of a terrible economy, and Bush lost re-election.”

During 2004, the American economy was performing even better relative to the 2012 economy. In September of 2004, unemployment was 5.4 percent compared to 8.1 percent in September of 2012, the price of a gallon of gasoline was $1.91 cheaper, consumer confidence was 26.5 percent higher, and the economy was growing at a rate of 3.3 percent versus an anemic 1.3 percent.

Despite all this, network news coverage of Bush was more than twice as negative as it was for Obama. One study found that 14 percent of stories about the economy sought to place some sort of blame on Bush versus only 6 percent of stories eight years later under Obama. The study also found that even though gas prices were twice as low in 2004 compared to 2012, the broadcast networks were three times more likely to complain about them when Bush was president.

Elections can only be about the economy if the nation’s elite journalists are willing to make them so. While candidates can do their best to highlight an issue, elections are about what the media want them to be. Politicians can run all the advertising they want trying to push the economy or any other subject but unless the media are willing to play along, those efforts simply are not going to work.

Mitt Romney learned this lesson the hard way. Exit polls after the 2012 election showed that, even after four years and several trillion dollars of “stimulus,” 53 percent of voters blamed Bush for the bad economy versus just 38 percent who blamed Obama.

The news media are even biased on the subject of public polling itself. That’s a problem because political science has long demonstrated that there is a “bandwagon effect” whereby people sometimes change their opinions and behavior to conform to what they perceive to be the majority opinion. For instance, one study found that when people knew what exit polls were on the day of an election, they were 12 percent less likely to vote. This is significant because for all the hoopla surrounding television news operations’ calling of Florida for George W. Bush in the 2000 election, it is estimated that TV’s earlier and erroneous call of the state for Al Gore actually caused somewhere between 8,000 and 28,000 voters in the state’s heavily Republican western region to stay home. It is highly probable that because of the media, Bush did not win Florida by a close but much more comfortable margin and instead became the figure of controversy from the very beginning of his presidency. The early and incorrect call of Florida almost certainly had an impact on Republican voting in other states as well given how crucial the state was to the Bush Electoral College strategy.

The beginning of Bush’s term was not the only time the press’s reporting about polling negatively impacted him. As his presidency entered its final years, the three broadcast networks were 26 times more likely to report that he was facing low approval numbers in public opinion surveys than they were to report the same fact about Barack Obama in 2014.

No Media, No Message

While millions of people can now obtain news that is not hostile to conservative-leaning perspectives, they still must actively seek out such information because it can only be had in the Right’s “alternative media.”

Indeed, it could be argued that the Right’s success at creating overtly conservative media infrastructure has actually made it harder for conservatives to grasp their inability to reach the casual news consumer. Because the Right now has a comparatively larger media audience than before, it is difficult for many to realize that they have been primarily talking amongst themselves as this analysis clearly shows.

While the influence and popularity of the mainstream press has fallen in its traditional venues of print and broadcast television, the left-wing media establishment also is in control of the rapidly growing mainstream online news and social-media properties.

Twitter has also been much quicker to ban right-wing media figures while actively working to promote far-left groups like Black Lives Matter.

The reality is that all of the most significant news sites such as Yahoo, MSN, Google News, and Wikipedia lean leftward. The news side of the web is also dominated by the online presences of big-time traditional media players such as CNN, the New York Times, ABC, and Politico.

Despite what some well-cocooned conservative Twitter addicts may believe, the Left also dominates the social-media scene as well. While it is true that some on the right have been able to use Facebook and Twitter effectively to push messages and spur activism, the ownership and top management of both companies lean hard to the left. This has very real consequences such as the deep financial and technological collaboration that Facebook freely gave to the Obama presidential campaigns or the continued bias that Twitter demonstrates by its practice of “shadow banning” users it doesn’t like by making their tweets harder to find. Twitter has also been much quicker to ban right-wing media figures while actively working to promote far-left groups like Black Lives Matter.

The Left’s dominance of news production also helps it in the social-media environment as well since many of the stories which people post to Facebook are actually something they happened to read on another website. Since the Left controls the vast majority of the most popular national and regional news websites, this filters back into the Facebook environment.

Even then, however, the present reach of social media as a source for political news is almost non-existent. According to a comprehensive analysis done by researchers Seth Flaxman, Sharad Goel, and Justin M. Rao which examined the browsing histories of 1.2 million Americans, among the tiny number of people who are politically engaged, 79 percent obtained their online news from going to the homepage of their favorite website, almost none got their news from Twitter.

The Value of Mainstream

Besides the fact that left-leaning mainstream news outlets help Democrats get their message out, they have the additional benefit of helping Democrats refine their own policies and messages. Smart Democratic strategists know that if a scandal is a problem to their unaffiliated sympathizers in the press, it is something worth taking seriously.

By and large, conservatives have no such positive feedback loops. Instead, the Right’s media monoculture has created negative feedback loops whereby people with little political acumen like Mark Levin, Michael Savage, and Glenn Beck are able to fill Republican voters’ heads with nonsensical ideas like planning to shut down the government with no backup plan or electing fewer GOP officeholders in pursuit of more “pure” ones, primarily because they grossly overestimate the number of conservatives in America. It is poetic justice that many of the same people who pushed these naive positions and strategies saw their own imbecilic noise machine turned against their preferred presidential candidate, Ted Cruz, in this year’s Republican primaries.

The Right’s media monoculture has created negative feedback loops.

More center-right media outlets could also have been able to detect that the GOP’s economically libertarian message has little to no popularity among average Americans. Since these journalistic structures did not exist, however, the popularity of Donald Trump’s abandonment of that orthodoxy took the Republican elite completely by surprise. It shouldn’t have.

News institutions also serve a very valuable role for the Left in providing a place for people who have similar values to remain connected to the larger movement while still maintaining the independence from parties and advocacy groups that they desire. Due to conservatives’ current willingness to spend only on elections and think tanks, people who lean rightward but do not like partisan politics have nowhere to go.

Conservatives and America as a whole are poorer intellectually because of this. While center-right individuals might not always fall in line for a policy battle, having large numbers of journalists who are willing to be skeptical of all sides would be a very good thing as both Left and Right need close scrutiny. Republican elites are now paying the price for refusing to subject the consultants who advise them to the skepticism they deserved.

The seeming success of Fox News and talk radio has made many conservatives think they now have a massive media empire. In truth, they have constructed an intellectual ghetto that no one else wants to visit.

– Matthew Sheffield is the editor of Praxis, an online journal of politics and technology. He is currently working on a book about the future of conservatism in America. You may follow him on Twitter: @mattsheffield. This piece originally appeared on Praxis and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

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