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Cable TV—with Fox in the Lead—Becomes America’s Primary Source of Campaign News

This is excerpt No. 34 (of 45) from America’s Right Turn: How Conservatives Used New and Alternative Media to Take Power, by Richard A. Viguerie and David Franke.

In this 21st century, cable TV has become Americans’ primary source of political and campaign news.  And on Trump wins presidencycable TV, Fox News has by far the largest audience.  Long gone are the days when Walter Cronkite and the three liberal broadcast networks could use their “gatekeeper” role to shut out conservative news and views.

Conservatives still have plenty of competition, of course, since the other two cable TV networks and all three broadcast networks remain solidly liberal or leftist.  But we have a better chance of getting a fair hearing on television than in the print media or even the Internet.  For that we can be thankful.

Cable news vs. network news

All of the cable news networks gained vast new audiences as a result of the most portentous events of this century thus far – the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, and the Iraq war in 2003.  There were dips in audience size after those events, of course, but the overall trend keeps going up, with Fox News gaining more rapidly than either of its two rivals.

Both CNN and MSNBC tried to counter Fox News’ rise by adding more commentators – including some conservatives – to their rosters.  CNN’s then-chairman Walter Isaacson even met with Republican leaders in Washington in 2001 to assure them that CNN no longer stood for the “Clinton News Network.”  (As the Wall Street Journal put it, “Mr. Isaacson’s outreach to Beltway conservatives … had about it the aura of a 19th-century Princeton anthropologist studying the Navajo.  But he knew enough to try.”)

It was a case of too little, too late, however.  Fox had already “branded” itself as the first choice for conservatives, and in marketing, there’s nothing more important than being the first to lock in a brand identification.  By 2003 Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly was king of the prime-time mountain with The O’Reilly Factor, becoming the most watched person in cable news.  And there were weeks when Fox claimed 46 of the top 50 cable shows.  The only major cable show not on Fox News was CNN’s Larry King Live.

The even more significant story was the bigger picture:  Cable news was replacing the TV broadcast networks as America’s prime source of news.

Granted, the three broadcast networks were still much larger, with some 28 million viewers compared to an average 7.3 million viewers for the three cable news networks.  But when you factor in the around-the-clock coverage on cable compared to an hour or less on the broadcast networks, and the much greater dedication of cable viewers to current affairs and politics, it becomes clear that cable was now setting the news agenda for America.  Andrew Heyward, the president of CBS News, blamed the shift on the Bush administration’s policy of “embedding” reporters with troops on the fighting front, which made the reporting more riveting and favored the all-news-all-the-time cable networks.  “This was a reporter’s war, not an anchor war,” he lamented.

By the summer after the war, in 2003, Americans were understandably suffering from “news burnout,” and the figures for news viewing dropped considerably, even below the levels of summer 2002.  But the drop-off was far greater for the broadcast networks than it was for the cable networks.  And only Fox News bucked the trend, getting more viewers in the summer of 2003 than in the summer of 2002.

Cable vs. broadcast for campaign news

In assessing the impact of the alternative media on American politics, the most important factor is the political campaign.  Where do Americans get their campaign news?

Fortunately, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press has conducted in-depth polling on this topic for the last three presidential election cycles.  From them we learn that television accounts for the lion’s share among all media when Americans are asked where they get their campaign news.  And here is how it breaks down among cable, local, and network TV (figures do not round out to 100 percent because people could give two answers, and other types of media were included in the polling):

Where do Americans Get Their Campaign News?

                                           1996                       2000                       Change
Cable TV                              23%                        31%                        +8%
Local TV                               34%                        25%                        -9%
Network TV                        39%                        24%                        -15%

And here is the change since 2000:

                                                                                2000                       2004                       Change

                                Cable TV                              34%                        38%                        +4%
                                Local TV                               48%                        42%                -6%
                                Network TV                           45%                        35%                        -10%

The trend is unmistakable.  Cable news has gained in each of the past three election cycles.  Local TV news has lost a considerable number of viewers, but network TV news has had a precipitous falloff. 

The bottom line:  Since around the year 2000, more Americans get their campaign news from the three cable news networks than from the four broadcast networks.  In TV news, at least, the alternative media has become the establishment media!       

Also helping to explain the greater impact of cable TV news today is the breakdown for the roughly 7 percent of the population that is heavily engaged in following and participating in the campaigns.  These people, after all, are the “movers and shakers” of the political world.  Here is their breakdown:

Where Do Politically Engaged Citizens Get Their Campaign News?
Cable TV (the politically very engaged)   64%
Network TV (the politically very engaged)  46%
Local TV (the politically very engaged)    34%

Finally, there is one breakdown that should come as no surprise: Republicans favor cable TV, especially Fox News, while Democrats favor the liberal networks.  But there is a surprise, perhaps, in the revelation that Republicans watch a broader array of TV news outlets than do Democrats, who heavily favor their tried-and-truly-liberal TV broadcast networks.  Here’s the breakdown:

News Audiences by Political Affiliation

                                                                                Republicans        Democrats          Independents

                                ABC/CBS/NBC                          24%                        40%                        30%
                                CNN                                         20%                        27%                      20%
                                Fox News                                 29%                        14%                        17%

Taking into account all these figures, it is tempting to agree with the observation made by Alex S. Jones in the New York Times that “Fox – the self-described maverick outsider – finds itself in the peculiar position of being, arguably, the most powerful television news organization in the country, playing a major role in defining what is important and what is not.  Like it or not, Fox has become the establishment, with critics now bemoaning not just what they say is its bias but its dominating influence.”

America’s Right Turn serialization:

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  1. “Media Monopolies Declare War on Conservatives”
  2. “What Conservatives Can Learn from the West’s First Media Revolution”
  3. “What Conservatives Can Learn from America’s First Media Revolution”
  4. “The Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  5.  “More Factors That Created a Grassroots Conservative Movement”
  6. “Money in Politics:  Everyone Complains About It, but Every Political Movement Needs It”
  7. “Conservatives in the Wilderness: American Politics in 1955” 
  8. Conservatives in the Wilderness: Restless, but Lacking Leadership
  9. “How William F. Buckley Jr. Gave Birth to the Conservative Movement”
  10. “How Barry Goldwater Gave Political Voice to the New Conservative Movement”
  11. “Why There Was No Mass Libertarian Movement—Lessons for Conservatives”
  12. “1964:  This is What Happens When the Other Side Controls the Mass Media”
  13. “Thanks to Shamelessly Dishonest Liberals, Conservatives Have No Chance in 1964
  14. “How Conservatives Turned a Lemon (1964) Into Lemonade (the Future Successful Movement”
  15. Conservatives Test a New Secret Weapon
  16. “Conservatives Use Their Secret Weapon to Create a Revolution”
  17. “Conservatives Grow Under the Radar, Testing Their New Secret Weapon”
  18. “Why Direct Mail Is So Powerful for Insurgents—Like Conservatives”
  19. “Creating the Religious Right, and Electing Reagan, Using Alternative Media”
  20. “Phyllis Schlafly Showed Us How to Stop an ‘Inevitable’ Leftist Crusade”
  21. “Liberals Learn How to Use the Conservatives’ Secret Weapon”
  22. “What Conservatives Can Learn from the Man Who Built the Modern Liberal Movement”
  23. “Morton Blackwell Trains Tomorrow’s Conservative Cadre”
  24. “From FDR to Rush Limbaugh: The Talk Radio Revolution”
  25. “Talk Radio Demolishes Hillarycare, and Provides a New Battleground for the Culture Wars”
  26. “Why Liberals Fail—While Conservatives Succeed—on Talk Radio” 
  27. “How the NRA Used Alternative Media to Save the Second Amendment”
  28. “C-SPAN Starts the Revolution Against TV’s Liberal Gatekeepers”
  29. Direct Mail: A Giant Step Forward for Political Democracy”
  30. “Why Direct Mail is the Smartest Form of Advertising for Conservative Candidates”
  31. “The 1970s: Healthy Growing Pains in the Emerging Conservative Movement”
  32. “Rush Limbaugh Becomes Talk Radio’s #1 Star; the “Tea Bag” Rebellion Becomes Its First Big Victory”
  33. “Conservatives Get a Voice on TV News, as Fox Replaces CNN as King of Cable”
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