Comparing Fox and CNN Through a Funhouse Mirror

Once you’ve given up trying to defend the idea that Fox News‘ “Fair and Balanced” slogan can be understood as anything other than irony, the fallback position is generally that everyone else is just as biased. Or as the headline over John Harwood’s piece in the New York Times (11/2/09) puts it, “If Fox Is Partisan, It Is Not Alone.”

To back up this assertion, Harwood–who’s the chief Washington correspondent for CNBC, and host of the New York Times Special Edition on MSNBC–relies on surveys by Scarborough Research that asked about the partisan identification of the audiences of cable channels. These surveys, Harwood asserts, reveal the “partisan fragmentation” of TV news audiences: If Fox viewers are 51 percent Republican and 31 percent Democrat (in 2004-05), so what–CNN viewers are 50 percent Democrat and only 29 percent Republican, and MSNBC‘s are 54/27 Democratic/Republican (in 2008-09; for some reason, Harwood doesn’t provide the most recent data for Fox‘s audience).

A mirror image, right? Well, maybe a funhouse mirror. What Harwood crucially neglects to mention is that a lot more people in the U.S. public identify as Democrats than Republicans; if you average a large number of polls on party identification, as does, you come up with Democrats being about 35 percent of all adults and Republicans at 22 percent. You would expect a channel that was equally attractive to Democrats and Republicans, then, to have about 1.6 Democratic viewers for every Republican.

Now, CNN and MSNBC do attract a few more Democrats–about 1.8 to 1 and 2 to 1, respectively. But there’s no comparison to the slant of Fox‘s audience, which has only 0.6 Democrats for every Republican. Look at it this way: If each channel’s current audience were a hundred people, CNN would have to add two Republicans to achieve partisan parity; MSNBC would need to find five more Republicans. Fox News, on the other hand, would have to find 51 more Democrats; for every Republican now watching, there’s a “missing” Democrat.

In other words–Fox News is not the same kind of animal as either CNN or MSNBC, despite Harwood’s efforts to pretend that it is.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.