Media Blog

A Relationship among Bias, Ratings, and Politics?

It’s a well-observed phenomenon that opinion media do better when their camp is in opposition. The Clinton administration made Rush Limbaugh’s fortune; National Review and other conservative opinion journals, I’m told, do better when the Democrats are in power. The converse holds broadly true for publications on the left.

I wonder, then, if CNN’s ratings crash could be interpreted as a confirmation of its establishment Democratic biases? Put another way, I suspect that the allegedly objective media probably experience something like the same cycles as the opinion organs, roughly in proportion to the extent that they are either biased or engaged in opinion journalism (which are not the same thing; it’s always seemed to me that Fox News’s news reportage is not remarkably biased, but the network’s programming is very heavily stacked with conservative opinion shows — and people watch Fox News for its commentators). As a pure question of business strategy, it seems like if you’re going to have a bias, it ought to be a bias against the party in power, whichever party that happens to be. Critical coverage is more lively than the fawning the allegedly objective media does over Obama, and highly engaged readers (and viewers) will tend to want information from adversarial sources, even if those sources don’t share their biases.

There are some obvious counterexamples to this theory: right now, both Fox and MSNBC are ascendent against CNN. So some qualification is in order but, taken generally, I think there may be some truth to this. I suspect that unified Democratic government won’t be as hard on the unabashedly left-wing programs as it will be on the news outlets that are reliably pro-Democrat but milquetoast in their tone: CNN, the Associated Press, &c. To that end, the increasingly hot tone of the New York Times may actually work to the paper’s benefit.

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