Opinion | Cable News Viewers Aren’t as Extreme as You Might Think

The stereotype of a Fox News viewer is well established: It’s a retired conservative white guy who probably lives in the Midwest or South — what might be called “real America,” either mawkishly or sneeringly, depending on your point of view. The stereotype of an MSNBC viewer is similarly well established: An older, Prius-driving coastal liberal who turns on “Morning Joe” when she wakes up.

CNN is what’s on at the airport.

The assumption may also be that people under 40, many of whom have cut the cord on traditional TV, aren’t watching cable news at all.

A new study available in preprint from Joshua Kalla, an assistant professor of political science at Yale, and David Broockman, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley, complicates those assumptions. It shows that cable news viewers aren’t as old, as partisan or as set in their beliefs as the stereotypes may depict.

Kalla and Broockman found that “approximately 15 percent of Americans watch an average of eight hours or more of MSNBC, CNN or Fox News per month,” which, for starters, is a fair amount of cable news. They also found that “roughly half of these networks’ audiences are either not primary voters or not registered with the party aligned with that news source” and that “young adults make up a meaningful portion” of partisan media outlets’ audience, indicating that, despite cord cutting, cable news viewing “will likely remain substantial in the years to come.”

When I talked to Kalla last week, he said, “We find that about 25 percent of the Fox audience is Democratic and about 22 percent of the CNN or MSNBC audience is Republican.” According to his and Broockman’s research, 32 percent of Fox News’s audience is “strong Republican” and 31 percent is “leans Republican” or “weak Republican.” For MSNBC and CNN combined, 36 percent of viewers are “strong Democrat” and 33 percent are “leans Democrat” or “weak Democrat”; about 10 percent of the audience for all three channels is independent — 11 percent for Fox and 9 percent for MSNBC and CNN.

Over email, I asked Kalla whether we know if watching partisan media leads people to vote in a particular direction. It turns out that watching partisan media doesn’t necessarily lead to voting at all. He replied that “‘partisan media only’ viewers are a bit more likely to have voted in the 2018 general election than the ‘entire sample’ but not a massive difference. ‘Partisan media only’ viewers are no more likely to have voted in primary elections or to have donated to candidates than the ‘entire sample.’ So they might be a bit more politically engaged, but the differences are fairly small.”

All of this is on my mind as we ford another week of discourse about CNN’s town hall with former President Donald Trump that took place May 10. Over three million people watched it — a good ratings night for CNN but still just a small fraction of the country — and we’re months away from the first Republican primary, much less the general election. It concerns me that so many journalists have spent so many days (and generated so many tweets) dissecting a single event that will probably have little bearing on the outcome of the next presidential election, especially since Trump is already so well known and voters of all political persuasions are well aware of the divisive energy he brings.

It bothers me because it feels we’re stuck in a doom loop of Trump coverage that we haven’t figured a way out of since 2015. It’s reasonable to spend a day or two chopping up the pros and cons of CNN hosting him; carrying that over to the next week isn’t. Plus, news coverage is, in a sense, a zero-sum game: The more time that’s devoted to raking over a single Trump TV appearance probably means other issues will get less or at least less prominent coverage. Finally, there’s evidence that this kind of obsessive political coverage and its social media echo is helping push a large group of Americans away from politics — and news — altogether.

In their book “The Other Divide: Polarization and Disengagement in American Politics,” the political scientists Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan argue that the major split in our country is not between Democrats and Republicans but between the hyperengaged and the disengaged. As they wrote in a Times Opinion essay from 2020, “Most Americans — upwards of 80 percent to 85 percent — follow politics casually or not at all. Just 15 percent to 20 percent follow it closely (the people we call ‘deeply involved’).”

The deeply involved “will spend large parts of their day reading and watching the news,” Krupnikov and Ryan write. “They will know the minute details about the political events of the day — which should not be confused with more general political knowledge.” The deeply involved are much more likely to make their views known on social media and to talk about politics. They also believe that “even the most minute political event can have a myriad of significant consequences” — and they feel it’s almost a moral failure to not pay attention to these events.

“The Other Divide” argues that the voices of the deeply involved are amplified by the media, and that gives the impression that typical Americans are more polarized and have more animosity toward the rank-and-file supporters of the opposing party than is true of the “modal partisan,” who is “a moderate who rarely discusses politics.”

Krupnikov and Ryan further say that political chatter from the deeply involved is, well, pretty annoying to the less involved. As they put it in their guest essay, “For partisans, politics is a morality play, a struggle of good versus evil. But most Americans just see two angry groups of people bickering over issues that may not always seem pressing or important.” An issue Krupnikov and Ryan cited as mattering a whole lot to those who don’t follow news closely, whether they’re Democrats and Republicans, is low hourly wages. “But for hard partisans, the issue barely registers.”

These findings lead me to two conclusions. One is that we should resist tidy narratives about who is consuming what media and what they’re taking away from it, because we often don’t know. I asked Kalla whether we know why people are watching partisan cable news in the first place: Is it to be informed? Is it because they love a certain host, like Rachel Maddow or Tucker Carlson? He said, “I don’t think we know the answer,” then added, with a laugh, that in general, people “are bad at reflecting as to why they do the things that they do.”

My other conclusion, as we approach the 2024 thunderdome, is that journalists need to think more deeply about the amount and type of coverage we give to each candidate and event. Yes, political superfans may be salivating over Day 7 or 8 of Trump town hall coverage, but, as the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s annual digital news report found, an increasing percentage of people in various countries, including ours, are avoiding the news. Because among news avoiders, “across markets, many respondents say they are put off by the repetitiveness of the news agenda — especially around politics and Covid-19 (43 percent) or that they often feel worn out by the news (29 percent).”

If we want to present an accurate portrait of Americans, their beliefs and the issues they find important, we need to think beyond the archetypal Fox News dad in Alabama and the MSNBC mom in California. We need to hear more from the voices that aren’t always turned up to 11.

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