With 24 hours of programming a day, cable news channels could cover just about everything—but of course their attention is selective. To get a sense of which topics cable news finds most interesting, Extra! searched transcripts of three primetime shows each from MSNBC, CNN and Fox News to find out how often various names and issues came up in 2013.
The shows were Hardball With Chris Matthews, All In With Chris Hayes and the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC; Erin Burnett OutFront, Anderson Cooper 360° and Piers Morgan Live on CNN; and On the Record With Greta Van Susteren, the O’Reilly Factor and Hannity on Fox. These represent the 7 p.m., 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. shows on MSNBC and CNN; on Fox, the 7 p.m., 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. shows were used, due to mid-year schedule changes at the 9 p.m. hour.
About 100 terms were searched using the Nexis news media database, counting how many episodes of each program mentioned a term at least once. The results revealed some general cable news biases and some predictable partisan trends—as well as a few odd personal obsessions.
Terrorism and healthcare were among the most popular topics found in the survey of the three cable networks. The words “terrorism” or “terrorist” were used on over a thousand episodes (1,040), or over three times as much as “drones” (326). The new healthcare law—referred to as either “Obamacare” or the more formal Affordable Care Act—came up on 930 occasions.
Meanwhile, stories of corporate dominance and environmental issues were unsurprisingly muted. The secretly negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement was not mentioned once on any of the shows included in the study. The phrase “genetically modified” or GMO was mentioned just four times—twice on CNN and twice on MSNBC’s Maddow Show.
The phrases “global warming” and “climate change” together came up only 194 times—less often than iPhones or iPads were mentioned (207 times). Transcanada’s controversial Keystone pipeline (41 mentions) received about the same amount of attention as the “royal baby” (40), the queen of England’s great-grandchild.
Countries that the US has invaded or has thought about invading were prominent on cable news: Iraq (637 episodes), Afghanistan (583), Iran (572) and Syria (516), sites of actual or potential US military intervention, were among the most frequently discussed countries. Russia (576) and China (451), viewed as rival powers, also came up often.
Libya, whose government the US helped overthrow in 2011, came up 352 times, though two-thirds of these were in conjunction with the Libyan city of Benghazi, seen by the right wing as a major scandal for the Obama administration. Benghazi was often named without mention of the country where it’s located; with 529 mentions, it was discussed more than all but a handful of countries on Earth.
Among major US allies, Britain (including “England” or “United Kingdom”—561 episodes) was the most talked about; Mexico came up 365 times, and France 280. Canada, which shares a 5,525-mile border with the US, was discussed in only 282 episodes, while 214 brought up Germany, Europe’s most powerful nation and the world’s fourth-largest economy. Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, was mentioned just 187 times.
Israel, with 404 mentions, came up more than six times as often as Palestine (or associated terms, such as Palestinian Territories, West Bank or Gaza), which were discussed 61 times.
Some of the world’s largest countries by population got relatively little attention; India, where one out of every six people lives, came up 125 times. Indonesia, the fourth most-populous country, was mentioned on just 34 episodes.
President Barack Obama was unsurprisingly the most talked about newsmaker we looked at, with 1,696 mentions.
Former Secretary of State (and potential Democratic presidential candidate) Hillary Clinton received 554 mentions, while a possible rival, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, received 413. Outspoken right-wing libertarian Sen. Rand Paul (521) and Tea Party favorite Sen. Ted Cruz (501) came up nearly as often as Clinton. On the other side of the political spectrum, socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders (25 mentions) was comparatively invisible.
Shooting victim Trayvon Martin (361 mentions) and his acquitted killer, George Zimmerman (338), also received frequent attention. Much less visible was Marissa Alexander—sentenced to 20 years in Florida prison for firing a shot in the air to warn off her abusive husband, when Zimmerman was being acquitted for killing Martin at the same time in the same state. On the 14 occasions she was discussed, 86 percent of the time it was in an episode that also mentioned Martin.
Edward Snowden, the NSA whistleblower who provided an unprecedented look at the US surveillance apparatus, was mentioned in 222 episodes. Chelsea Manning (also searched for as “Bradley”), who was found guilty in 2013 of releasing hundreds of thousands of classified government documents, came up only 63 times.
Pope Francis, who was chosen in March, was brought up just 78 times—less often than former Rep. Anthony Weiner (156) or Donald Trump (132).
While the frequency of some topics indicated general interest—or lack thereof—across cable news, others seemed to reflect the differing agendas of the individual networks, or of particular hosts. MSNBC mentioned abortion more than twice as often as it did rape, while CNN mentioned rape about three times as often as abortion. Bill O’Reilly turns out to be more interested in discussing abortion than are CNN’s three hosts combined, as 89 of Fox’s 137 mentions of abortion were on the O’Reilly Factor.
Fifty-seven percent of mentions of Benghazi were on Fox, in line with what the New York Times (5/9/13) has called “The Republicans’ Benghazi Obsession.” Fox mentioned Benghazi roughly 60 percent more than either Iraq or Afghanistan. But on all the networks combined, Benghazi came up over four times as often as Guantánamo.
Fox News was in general the channel most interested in discussing economic issues, perhaps because it believes more economic news is generally bad news for President Barack Obama. Unemployment and poverty were each discussed by Fox almost as much as on CNN and MSNBC combined—though MSNBC still discussed unemployment over twice as often as CNN, and poverty about 60 percent more. Food stamps came up on 139 episodes on Fox—23 times as many as CNN (6).
On the three networks together, “inequality” and the minimum wage were each mentioned on less than 100 shows. But MSNBC discussed minimum wage and inequality each more than Fox and CNN combined. The majority of MSNBC’s mentions of these topics were on All In With Chris Hayes, as Hayes alone discussed inequality about as much as Fox and CNN combined. He also discussed the minimum wage more than Fox, and about three times as much as CNN, and had most of MSNBC’s mentions of food stamps.
Hillary Clinton, Rand Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie were unusually popular on Hardball With Chris Matthews, which mentioned them, along with Anthony Weiner and right-wing Rep. Michele Bachmann, more than the other two MSNBC shows combined, and in some cases more than all three shows of Fox and CNN; Hardball by itself was responsible for over 25 percent of the total mentions for each of these names. Matthews also had twice as many mentions of markets (in conjunction with “stock” or “bond”) than his MSNBC colleagues’ shows put together.
Roughly 85 percent of discussions mentioning either the Koch brothers or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D.-Mass.) were on MSNBC.
CNN had the fewest mentions of the Affordable Care Act—181, vs. 436 on Fox and 313 on MSNBC. CNN also discussed climate change the least (on 35 episodes)—about half as much as Fox (62) and a third as much as MSNBC (97).
CNN only mentioned “renewable energy” once all year, in a show (Piers Morgan, 11/6/13) debating nuclear energy. Fracking —whether it was called “hydraulic fracturing” or simply “natural gas drilling”—never came up on CNN, and was discussed only 21 times on the other two networks.
Twenty-six of the 41 episodes mentioning the Keystone pipeline were on MSNBC, and half of those were on its Rachel Maddow Show.
The iPhone and iPad, treated as more newsworthy than climate change or inequality, were talked about the most on CNN (92 episodes). Most of its coverage of these Apple products was on Erin Burnett OutFront (48 episodes), with Burnett discussing them nearly as much as all of MSNBC (51).
At the same time, CNN’s 113 mentions of Edward Snowden were as many as Fox and MSNBC put together, and nearly half of the total mentions of Chelsea Manning were also on CNN (28). All but two of Fox’s mentions of Manning were on the O’Reilly Factor. MSNBC, with 105 mentions, was the network least likely to discuss the NSA.