The country just began its long march through caucuses and primaries toward the presidential election in November. How will this political story spin out on the major cable news networks, and what will it look like to working-class viewers?
The stereotypical views of the three major cable news networks – CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC – are firmly lodged in America’s consciousness. The basic profile goes like this: Fox is on the right, MSNBC is its counterpart on the left, and CNN is somewhere in the middle, but left of center. This view ignores some important differences that have nothing to do with ideology, but we’ll get to that later.
By the same commonsense view, Fox News is the channel for the working class, while MSNBC and CNN both serve over-educated, pointy-headed, upscale, elite liberals. That assumption has been fueled by the relentless marketing efforts of Fox News and its political allies since it went on the air in 1996 under the direction of its owner, conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch, and its CEO, Republican operative Roger Ailes. For example, if you take the word of Sean Hannity, one of Fox News’s original evening hosts, he’s just a regular working-class guy from Long Island. As he told Politico in a 2017 interview, “The media has a bunch of overpaid, out of touch, lazy millionaires that have nothing but contempt for the people that do make this country great.” Then he added. “I am not one of those people.” Mind you, that’s coming from the top-rated primetime host of the top-rated cable news channel who makes $46 million a year, has homes in Long Island and Naples, Florida and $90 million in additional real estate purchased through shell corporations with government-backed loans.
So instead of listening to Hannity, let’s take a look closer at the characteristics of the cable network news audiences. For context, let’s add the news/information channels CNBC, Fox Business News, HLN, and the Weather Channel along with the big three.
There are two available, if imperfect, data that provide proxies for class: household income and education. Viewer median household income for all of the news and information channels except the Weather Channel falls within the $50,000 to $74,999 range, and the national median income — $63,179 in 2018 – falls within that range.
Most surprising, because it plays against the myth, is that there isn’t a big difference in the median household income of CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC viewers. Yes, more Fox News viewers (44.9 percent) are in the under $50K household income than CNN (40.9 percent) and MSNBC (39 percent), but given the stereotypes, you’d expect vast chasms between the channels’ viewing audiences in this regard. Even more interesting is that all three channels – MSNBC included – have a lower percentage of viewers with household incomes above $100K than the U.S. population as a whole. Nationally, 30.4 percent of the households earn more than $100K, but only 27.3 percent of CNN households, 24.1 percent of Fox News households, and 28.9 percent of MSNBC households earn that much. Although Fox News households do earn slightly less than CNN and MSNBC households, the bigger story is that all three networks attract fewer viewers with 6-figure incomes than the nation as a whole.
So what are those wealthier households watching? Fox Business News. Their audiences are the highest earning of all the news and information cable channels. The Weather Channel’s audience get the “blue-collar” title, with the median income of its viewers at just below $50,000 a year.
While education is a poor proxy for class, Fox News attracts fewer college graduates, so on that score it does fit the stereotype of being more working-class. Trump used education as a proxy on the campaign trail in 2016, noting that “We won with highly educated. We won with poorly educated. I love the poorly educated.” Like Trump, Fox wears its anti-intellectualism like a badge and wields it as a cultural wedge.
That said, the college graduation levels of audiences of all three of the major news networks are below that national average. By 2018, 34.99 percent of the U.S. population age 25 and older had a Bachelor’s degree or higher. The network that attracts the highest rate of viewers with college degrees is MSNBC, but only 34 percent of its audience has that much education. At the very least, the notion that MSNBC or CNN viewers are out-of-touch, over-educated elites does not ring true.
In fact, it’s not household income or education that best describe the difference in the audiences of the cable news networks. It’s race. MSNBC’s audience may not be super-rich or super-educated in comparison to the other major cable news channels or even the profile of the nation’s population, but its audience is the most diverse on cable television – not just the cable news networks, but any cable channel. In the most recent rankings, MSNBC was the top-watched cable network in prime time among African Americans, ahead of such channels as VH1, ESPN, and OWN. CNN ranked No. 8 in cable networks with the most African-American viewers. With Black viewers making up just 1 percent of its audience, Fox didn’t register in the top 10 rankings. Indeed, 94 percent of Fox News viewers are White. Only 3 percent are Hispanic and 2 percent are Asian.
The whiteness of Fox News’s audience is both a product of and a reinforcing feedback justification loop for its anti-immigration and white supremacist views. For example, after racist and anti-Semitic protests by neo-Nazis in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, and counter-protests against them, President Trump commented that “you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.” That kind of talk is shocking anywhere on cable news, except on Fox, where white supremacy is the lingua franca. I could selected any number of examples, but here are two: in 2019, Fox host Tucker Carlson called white supremacy a “hoax” (after a mass shooting motivated by anger at immigrants in an El Paso Walmart that killed 22) and later claimed that immigration “makes our own country poorer and dirtier.” It’s that kind of false statement that makes clear that we can’t describe MSNBC as the lefty counterpart to Fox News. There’s nothing MSNBC does that is this radical or dishonest. MSNBC may have a clear political perspective, but it generally hews to journalism’s rules of truth-telling and verification.
More than household income and education, race animates Fox News. The network may have built its brand on class issues, but it’s class informed by race. Fox News isn’t interested in the entire working class. It’s the white working class Fox News is trying to reach with their political agenda for the 2020 presidential election.
We should, however, put the impact of this in perspective. On a typical day, Fox News’s Sean Hannity has 3.3 million viewers. Meanwhile, the original broadcast networks still run their mainstream evening news programs. Their audiences are much smaller than decades ago, but these programs still draw bigger audiences than cable. More than 22 million viewers watch the news daily on ABC, CBS, or NBC. The stories these networks present, and perhaps especially how they deal with a firehose stream of propaganda and misinformation coming from Fox and the president, will be a factor in the presidential race, too.
Christopher R. Martin
Christopher R. Martin is author of No Longer Newsworthy: How the Mainstream Media Abandoned the Working Class (Cornell University Press). He is professor of Digital Journalism at the University of Northern Iowa.