The partisan US media

Azza Radwan Sedky
Tuesday 29 Aug 2023

The divided and partisan nature of US television is an image of the intense polarisation of politics in the country, writes Azza Radwan Sedky


Watching American television networks resembles watching a tennis match in which the impression of watching the movement of the spectators’ heads following the ball back and forth is acute. 

Alexander Panetta of the Canadian broadcaster CBC compares toggling between news channels in the US to running “the risk of whiplash from the head-snappingly different treatments of the same story”.

The flagrant contrasts and contradictions between the US networks are baffling, leaving viewers thunderstruck by the juxtapositions. It is as though these networks are conversing not only about different countries, with different peoples and different sets of hopes and aspirations, but also about different world views. 

During a recent visit to the US, I had the opportunity to watch the different networks at work. Once I began watching, I was hooked. I was fascinated by each network’s scope, partisan tone, and allegiance to a particular political party. I was captivated by how each relished the incessant ridicule and degradation of the others. 

While the bias is glaring, these networks sway their viewers to see the relationship between US and the rest of the world through their own eyes. 

CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC are the big three cable networks in the US and are considered main sources of political news by American viewers. A Pew Research Centre Survey found that 93 per cent of Fox News viewers follow the Republican Party, while only six per cent are Democrats. In the case of CNN, 17 per cent are Republicans and 79 per cent are Democrats. For MSNBC, the figures are five per cent Republican and 95 per cent Democrats. 

These figures clearly set out the channels’ partisan demographics. 

Surprisingly, the most watched TV network in the US is Fox News, which makes the breadth of its influence very extensive. Approximately 43 per cent of American viewers watch Fox, giving it a distinct ratings advantage. As it caters to Republicans, Fox News skews information towards their liking, making it an influential political springboard. 

However, the same thing goes for the other networks. MSNBC is the second-most-watched network, while CNN has lost in the ratings war lately, hitting a ten-year low and falling to number 12 in terms of viewership. But CNN and MSNBC are still fighting to attract similar numbers of viewers as Fox, and their animosity towards Fox remains distinct.

The battle between the networks is ongoing 24/7, with each refuting everything the other says and claiming that the opposition is manipulative and misinformed. Fox’s adversaries consider it to be a source of propaganda and misinformation. It is said that US President Joe Biden considers Rupert Murdoch, the founder of Fox News, to be “the most dangerous man in the world”.

Let’s compare a few issues that each network has zeroed in on, among them the upcoming 2024 presidential elections, the controversy over Biden’s son Hunter Biden, the indictments of former US president Donald Trump, and the overturning by the US Supreme Court of the Roe vs Wade ruling on abortion. 

On each of these issues, the stories presented to the US public are twisted to debunk what the other networks say. 

Watch CNN or MSNBC, and you will see Trump presented as being definitely not fit to be president. He has four indictments and over 100 legal charges under his belt that include racketeering, conspiring to overturn the 2020 elections, conspiracy, and many more.  

However, despite the charges, Fox News viewers remain loyal to Trump. According to a poll released by the newspaper The New York Times, only five per cent of the channel’s viewers believe that Trump has committed any serious federal crimes, with 91 per cent saying that he has not done so. 

CNN reports that 83 per cent of Fox News viewers believe that after the 2020 elections Trump was just exercising his right to contest the results. 

A second issue gripping the US networks today is the Hunter Biden story, with Fox seeing this as a scandal worth going after. It considers Hunter Biden’s foreign business transactions, and how they affected his father, to be bribery. Republican Senator Ted Cruz has appeared on Fox News calling for President Biden’s impeachment on the grounds that Hunter used his father’s position to gain foreign business.

 “The investigation [into Hunter Biden] has gone nowhere, other than to protect Hunter Biden and Joe Biden,” Cruz said. 

Fox also said that Biden had cancelled an appearance on MSNBC for fear of questions about Hunter Biden. Fox political commentator Larry Kudlow said that “this is potentially the biggest political scandal in American history.”

Yet, Democrats on CNN and MSNBC see the Hunter Biden case as a non-issue. MSNBC commentator Joy Reid has said that “evidence I’ve seen suggests Hunter Biden is being treated worse than anyone else would be.” A CNN analyst said that “with the focus on Hunter entering a new fever pitch, the question will be whether all the time and effort the Republicans have invested investigating the president’s wayward son will change the storyline.” 

Much the same polarisation occurred during the overturning of the Roe vs Wade decision that had previously legalised abortion across the US in 1973. The overturning effectively ended the recognition of the right to abortion and gave each state the power to allow, limit, or ban it altogether. 

Fox cheered on the Republican Senators who supported the overturning of Roe vs Wade. “The Supreme Court decision is a victory for the pro-life movement and the volunteers who have supported mothers and children for the past 50 years,” it said. Meanwhile, MSNBC considered the overturning to be “as devastating a ruling as can be imagined.” US journalist Pete Williams said on MSNBC that “we are about to become a divided country” — something which seems to be already the case.

In the face of such divisions, US TV viewers are flummoxed and unable to decipher the truth. Despite the waning of television’s popularity, it is quite likely that many people in the US still receive their news by turning on the television and following their favourite networks. But when the news presented is so uneven, and so at odds, they are often denied the opportunity to hear the objective truth. 

What the media in the US is presenting is an image of how divided people in the US have become.

* The writer is former professor of communication based in Vancouver, Canada.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 31 August, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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