In his CNN newsletter “Reliable Sources,” Brian Stelter recently wrote: “America is one country with two almost completely separate media ecosystems.” Stelter is right, and this disconnect explains how sometimes it feels like Americans live in two different worlds with different election results, different disease cures, and different heroes.
There is the perception that these ecosystems are evenly divided between the right-wing and left-wing media, but this is an incorrect assessment of an expansive system with mainstream news organizations, partisan media outlets, and a good deal of garbage spread all around. The right-wing media in America mostly function as political operators today, not as journalists, and as a result are playing an entirely different game than the rest of the political media. Legacy news organizations consist of journalists competing for scoops and commentators providing analysis. Partisan outlets act as advocates and blend news with commentary. But the right-wing media outlets operate with the specific goal of cheering for and advancing the legislative agenda of the Republican Party, and because of this, they play an outsized – and imbalanced – role in American politics.
The distinctive qualities of the most important right-wing media outlets are those where they break from the journalistic standards set by the profession: they are deliberately ideological, clearly stating their conservative positions and openly oppositional to those on the left. Most of the prominent right-wing media outlets do far less reporting than they do commentating, which is how they are able to skirt the rules of professional journalism as they do. And lastly, even though these political media organizations compete against one another for ratings and clicks, they support the narratives and arguments made by one another. In other words, if Fox News sets an agenda about any single figure, the other right-wing outlets reinforce it with attention of their own.
The monetization model of right-wing media outlets rests largely on the entertainment value of political anger. News organizations must report the truth because there is a great deal to lose if they play fast and loose with the facts. But as long as right-wing cable pundits or partisan bloggers avoid costly legal defamation suits, they can push the envelope. And doing so is good for business: the louder and more incendiary the talk, the more entertaining the pundit, the larger the audience, the more revenue for the media company. All of this put together means the right-wing media is operating differently than the rest of the political media, and what they are doing is tremendously successful.
Fox News is at the center of the right-wing media ecosystem because, with one very short four-month exception in 2021, the network has been the #1 rated cable news channel (often, the #1 rated cable channel, period) for more than 20 years. Thanks to the fame and influence of its pundit hosts, the strength of Fox News extends beyond cable television to radio and to the internet. On the radio, the skillsets of radio talk show hosts and cable pundits are almost identical, which means that the intersection of personalities is almost inevitable, given the preponderance of conservative voices on talk radio. Of the top five talk radio hosts in America, four are conservative, and three are helmed by Fox News TV hosts. The #1 talk radio show in America is hosted by Sean Hannity who also hosts “Hannity,” on Fox, which is the #2 rated show on cable news.
The strength and reach of Fox News continues online. The number of monthly visitors for the Fox News website in July was just under 275 million, placing the website second overall, in between CNN (411.7 million) and The New York Times (261.5 million). On his website The Righting, Howard Polskin aggregates data on the most popular conservative websites using unique visitor numbers. Again, the Fox News primacy on the right is evident, ranking #1 in July with 84 million unique monthly visitors, on par with those of The New York Times. Following Fox News are The Blaze, Daily Wire, Newsmax, and Western Journal in the top five, with a combined total of just over 22 million unique monthly visitors. Fox News is the sun in the center of the right-wing media universe. This is not to say that the stars that orbit around Fox News are unimportant, as each of these outlets contribute to the dedicated followers of the right-wing media audience, just that Fox News is central.
Fox News is dominant for several reasons: it was the first to launch as a purposely conservative political media organization, it is easily accessed on cable television, and it does blend real newsgathering with its rabble-rousing punditry. For twenty years, Fox grew to be so successful it inspired the creation of like-minded conservative media outlets. They helped to build a reinforcing conservative messaging system that looked like the news, but wasn’t. For two decades, Fox juggled journalism with hyperbolic commentary, but the Trump years tested the network’s ability to please both sides of their house, and eventually, everything came crashing down.
On Election Night as Joe Biden was winning in states that surprised the Trump campaign, the journalistic side of Fox News adhered to the norms of the profession, even though this ran counter to what their audience (to include the former president) wanted to hear. The Trump White House reportedly called on Fox News to rescind the call that Biden had won Arizona, and when the network refused to do so there were consequences.
After so many months of being primed for deceit, Trump supporters refused to believe the facts of the election results when they disproved the fabrications spun by Trump and supported by right-wing pundits. Many Fox viewers bolted for Newsmax and OAN which continued to report the Trump-supporting fictions that confirmed their existing beliefs. Fox News suffered a rating nosedive, placing third in a three-way cable news race – between Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC – for the first time in two decades.
In short order, Fox News bowed to audience pressure and reduced the amount of news programming in favor of more opinion. Much of the audience that had migrated to Newsmax and OAN returned, and Fox’s ratings were back up. Fox News once more sat at the top of the ratings chart at #1, as their audience again received the programming they wanted. Moving toward opinion and away from journalism allowed the network to sow doubt on the results of the election and stay in line with the “Big Lie” that was being reinforced around the right-wing media. As a result, the right-wing audience had a series of fortifying messages that maintained the accusation of widespread voter fraud without having to provide any evidence. This poll from Monmouth illustrates the absolute consistency of this belief, which directly relates to the reliability of the right-wing audience.
If not for the right-wing media’s need for an audience and their resulting adherence to Trump and the “Big Lie,” there would not be an unwavering 32% of the American public who believe Joe Biden won the 2020 presidential election through fraud. Think of the consequences of this steadfast 32%:
Republicans refused to acknowledge Joe Biden as the elected president.
147 GOP House members objected to the certification of the Electoral College.
Republicans are passing “election reform laws” in state legislatures around the country.
Suspicious “election audits” are being conducted trying to prove that Donald Trump won the election, almost a year after the 2020 election.
When a Republican politician pushes back on any claim of voter fraud – such as Rep. Liz Cheney – they are roundly denounced and criticized, regardless of their conservative bonafides, because the stolen election narrative has taken hold so thoroughly and effectively. That can only be accomplished by an adherent and supportive system of messengers.
This case also shows the power of the right-wing media audience. The GOP has a demand-side problem now because Trump was great for ratings and voter mobilization. With a dip in viewers across the media landscape post-Trump, outlets are doing their utmost to stay at the top of the pack and drive-up ratings. Understandably, right-wing media and Republican politicians want to keep on “winning,” and so they have made it their mission to demonize the current Biden administration and fed their base voters who have grown addicted to the angry, grievance-politics they have been delivered.
This is not without cost. Finding news via “confirmation bias” – which is when news consumers look for information that validates what they already believe – is a dangerous way to go through life. The audiences that only hear the news that suits their needs are sometimes missing important elements of stories. Additionally, because these audiences are consistently led to believe that all other news sources are lying, viewers develop a deep distrust of many institutions that provide fact-based information and analysis, and therefore cannot be convinced of the veracity of facts. This bias can become so deep-seated that viewers can act even to the point of their own injury as evidence by the rampant level of vaccine hesitancy among Republican voters. All of this has reinforced cynicism and institutional doubt that is dangerous in a democracy where systemic trust is imperative for the future.
Maintaining a steady stream of emotion is a successful strategy for media outlets whose financial imperatives demand large audiences. Hyping up the American public’s partisan polarization to the point of hysterical frenzy, however, is irresponsible, undemocratic, and dangerous. As long as right-wing media operates as politicos and not as journalists, America will continue to live in two separate worlds.