The relationship between Fox News and President Trump is a bit like the relationship between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans: It can be hard to tell where the water from one ends and the other begins. Trump and Fox are the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers of political rhetoric, but it’s not always clear which is the one leading.
They’ve been good for each other, as we’ve documented in the past. Trump promotes Fox shows ceaselessly, reinforcing to his base that the network is part of the family. Fox, meanwhile, amplifies and echoes what Trump says, in ways that range from the subtle to the egregious.
Take, for example, coverage of the recent protests over the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. His death in police custody there after an officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes spurred a renewed call for police reforms, leading to demonstrations in over 100 cities that at times spiraled into vandalism, looting and violence.
For Trump, the sporadic criminal activity was a unique opportunity to deploy the iron fist he’d often promised his supporters during the 2016 campaign. He lamented Floyd’s death, yes, but the focus of his attention was on deploying law enforcement and military personnel who could quell the dangerous scenes on city streets. The problem to be fixed wasn’t systemic racism but “antifa,” left-leaning anti-fascist activists who were responsible for most, if not all of the problems.
There’s not much evidence for that, nor does it seem to be the case that Trump can classify antifa as a terrorist organization. But the point was clear: American cities were spiraling out of control thanks to antifa and he had to step in.
Curious, we decided to see how often certain terms had appeared on the major cable news networks over the past week and a half. They included “demonstrations” or “protests,” “antifa,” “looting” and “riots” or “rioters.”
The networks — CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and Fox Business — mostly used the words “demonstrations” or “protests” about the same amount (though Fox Business came up a bit short) and generally talked about looting to the same extent. But on the two most loaded terms, the Fox networks stood out.
Those numbers are presented as the percentage of 15-second segments over the course of a day in which the terms appeared in captioning catalogued by the Internet Archive. Over the course of the period we looked at, here’s how much each network used each term each day on average.
|Term||CNN||Fox News||Fox Business||MSNBC|
In other words, Fox News mentioned antifa nearly five times as much as CNN and three times as much as MSNBC. It talked about rioting or rioters six times as much as CNN and nearly eight times as much as MSNBC.
That manifests in very explicit ways. Shortly after Trump walked to St. John’s Episcopal Church on Monday, after a peaceful protest was forcibly cleared by security officials, Fox News’s Tucker Carlson barely mentioned it, simply identifying it as a moment of strength after spending several minutes detailing sporadic acts of violence and vandalism. It’s not only the mentions of the subjects, it’s the focus and context in which those mentions occur.
It’s too early to tell what the effect will be on Fox News viewers. But, then, it’s also hard to pick apart who’s influencing whom and how. Is Carlson’s focus on violence a reflection of Trump or a spur for him? Is this molecule from the Atlantic or the Pacific?
Does it matter?