Opinion | CNN’s Brian Stelter defends his network to author of Fox News study

CNN chief media correspondent Brian Stelter figures among the world’s top experts on Fox News. His book “Hoax” chronicles the network’s descent into malign disinformation and pro-Trump programming. His “Reliable Sources” franchise — a Sunday show, a newsletter and a CNN Plus show — covers every Fox News scandal.

So it made sense that Stelter would interview the co-authors of a high-profile study on the attitudes of Fox News viewers. David E. Broockman and Joshua L. Kalla — professors at the University of California at Berkeley and Yale University, respectively — organized an experiment in which they paid Fox News viewers $15 an hour to switch from Fox News to CNN for up to seven hours a day.

The study’s participants were impressed: “They said, ‘Oh, wow, I had no idea. I didn’t know all this because Fox News wasn’t telling me,’” said Broockman on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources.”

“You call this partisan coverage filtering,” Stelter told Kalla. “And basically, you’re proving what we’ve sensed for a while, which is that Fox viewers are in the dark about bad news for the GOP.”

Kalla confirmed the Fox News coverage model but put a stop to the victory lap: “On the flip side, CNN engages in this partisan coverage filtering as well as that we find. For example, during this time, the Abraham Accords were signed, and these were the agreements where Israel, the UAE and Bahrain signed a major peace agreement. And we see that Fox News covered this really major accomplishment about 15 times more than CNN did. So we established both networks are really engaging in this partisan coverage filtering. It’s not about one side, it’s about the media writ large.”

Stelter objected that this was a venture in bothsidesism. But the report has data on the discrepancy. On Sept. 15, 2020, President Donald Trump presided over the signing of normalization agreements between Israel and Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. “After decades of division and conflict, we mark the dawn of a new Middle East,” Trump said at the ceremony. On Fox News shows airing from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m., the news racked up 1,278 words of coverage, according to the report, while the coverage on the equivalent CNN shows clocked in at just 84 words.

The study’s focus on prime-time shows is logical, considering that’s where the big viewer numbers stack up — and also, not coincidentally, where opinion programming molds viewpoints. Yet, it does bear mentioning that according to a Nexis search, CNN did produce significant coverage of the Abraham Accords at other times and on other platforms.

In a chat with the Erik Wemple Blog, Kalla cited another news category from the study’s time period (Aug. 31 to Sept. 25, 2020): “Democratic elites violating COVID restrictions,” coverage primarily focused on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi getting an indoor haircut at a San Francisco salon. Fox News’s shows covered the topic with 2,464 words, while CNN’s tallied 209 words.

“What we’re showing is that CNN does engage partisan coverage filtering. They should be aware of that and can do better as a network,” Kalla told the Erik Wemple Blog.

As for the Fox News viewers, though, the study found a somewhat malleable mind-set among participants: “We find both large decreases in knowledge of information covered on Fox News during the incentivized period and large increases in knowledge of information CNN covered during this period, indicating that both substitution away from Fox News and substitution towards CNN occurred and impacted viewers’ beliefs,” notes the study, which is now undergoing peer review.

The study’s even more fundamental threshold finding, however, is that Fox News viewers will sample CNN for what amounts to minimum wage in many jurisdictions. Who would have thought? To use the benchmarks in the Broockman-Kalla study, it would take just $1.26 billion plus untold administrative costs to peel away a prime-time Fox News audience of 3 million viewers. Which might well be the only way to save the country.

The more realistic upshot is that Democratic politicians should consider seeking face time on Fox News. That approach has become policy within the Biden White House, which is eyeing the network’s audience of Republicans, independents and Democrats. Kalla notes that after the incentives ran out, viewers in the treatment group went back to Fox News in “overwhelming” numbers. “Fox News viewers do live in a bubble where they’re not exposed to liberal accomplishments, Democratic accomplishments,” says Kalla, arguing that politicians “need to meet viewers where they are.”

In his analysis of the study, President Barack Obama said that people “underestimate the degree of pliability in our opinions and our views.” That’s one way to frame the study’s conclusions. Another comes from one of the respondents, who said, “You have to watch some of all the lying a– media to get anything resembling the whole story.”

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