The Politics of News Media Audiences

A recent report by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press (9/12/10) deals in part with the news outlets sought out by different partisan and ideological groups–Democrats and Republicans; conservatives, moderates and liberals. Which outlets are attractive to which groups–particularly the most polarized groups in the survey, conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats–sheds an interesting light on the question of press bias.

First, when looking at generic media categories, you see that many of them are more attractive to the right than to the left: When asked which outlets they used regularly, conservative Republicans were more likely than liberal Democrats to name local TV (50 percent vs. 40 percent), daily newspapers (47/40) and community papers (37/26). Others were relied on more or less as much by both political poles: network evening news (23/24), Sunday morning shows (11/13) and news blogs (12/13). The categories that were less attractive to the conservative Republicans than to liberal Democrats were morning shows (15/21) and news magazines (7/16).

There is a widespread public perception–one that FAIR has offered much evidence to debunk over the years–that there’s a pervasive liberal bias in U.S. news media. When asked about journalistic bias by the Pew survey, 43 percent said they saw mostly liberal bias, with only 23 seeing mainly conservative slant. If newspapers and TV news were biased against the right, though, one would expect that the left would find them to be more attractive–yet that doesn’t seem to be the case. (Bear in mind that the percentages cited are of the groups themselves–it doesn’t matter how big a fraction of the general public each subset represents.) Are right-wingers more willing to accept news whose point of view they disagree with? That’s not what they tell Pew: 41 percent of conservative Republicans said they prefer to get news from sources that share their political point of view, vs. 33 percent of liberal Democrats.

Turning to specific news outlets, the one that’s most attractive to either wing is, unsurprisingly, Fox News–watched regularly by 48 percent of conservative Republicans and only 7 percent of liberal Democrats. Though the audiences of its rivals, CNN and MSNBC, did skew left (10/26 and 5/18, respectively), neither was as attractive to the left as Fox was to the right, and the ratios were not as lopsided: Fox is watched by one side seven times more than the other, vs. three times as much for CNN and four times as much for MSNBC. C-SPAN had a less polarized audience (2/3).

Looking at individual cable shows, the survey found a handful of Fox shows that strongly appealed to conservative Republicans and were virtually ignored by liberal Democrats: The O’Reilly Factor (27 percent vs. 1 percent), Hannity (20/0) and Glenn Beck (19/0). MSNBC‘s roster had shows that were correspondingly ignored by conservative Republicans, but were not nearly so attractive to liberal Democrats: Hardball (1/7), Maddow (1/7) and Countdown (0/7). The satirical shows of Comedy Central (Daily Show, 3/14; Colbert Report, 2/11) came closer to the appeal of the Fox programs for liberal Democrats, but their audiences were somewhat less politically homogeneous.

Two radio outlets were included in Pew’s survey: the Rush Limbaugh Show and NPR. Limbaugh’s program had political demographics similar to Fox‘s programs (17/1), whereas NPR looked more like CNN (6/23).

Finally, among national newspapers, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today had more appeal to the right (both 7/3), whereas the New York Times had much more appeal for the left (1/13). This was perhaps the most surprising finding in the survey of political media preferences: The politics of the Times, in our evaluation, are not that different from USA Today‘s. The Times does, of course, derive much of its circulation from its home city, which has a liberal Democratic political culture. One also suspects that having “USA” as part of a name has more cultural appeal to conservatives than “New York.”

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.