State-run media is something that most of us assume happens to other countries. We think of the absurdity of North Korea or the nefariousness of Russia Today or Sputnik. Most don’t envision America as having state-run media, but a new study from Stanford sheds light on what CNN, MSNBC and Fox News actually do to our political system. We are all aware that MSNBC and Fox News are hyper-partisan outlets that are basically extensions of our political parties, but what stood out to this writer is the lengths that each network will go to in order to ensure political victory—even at a financial cost.
From the conclusion of the Stanford study:
We find that an influence-maximizing owner of the cable news channels could have large effects on vote shares, but would have to sacrifice some levels of viewership to maximize influence.
They arrived at that thesis thanks in part to the data embedded in these charts below, which show that Fox News’ ideological slant is more geared towards turning out GOP voters than generating good ratings.
There’s a lot of academic-speak in the description of it, but the basic thing you need to know is when the solid line is above the dotted lines, that means their observed content is more geared towards turning out voters than generating ratings. MSNBC—cable news’ kid in the corner eating paste—managed to not only stake out an ideological position around Obama’s election that reduced turnout, but it also hurt their ratings. Prior to that, they had followed the same path Fox News currently finds itself on, where it is sacrificing ratings in order to turn out more Republican voters. The study found that in 2008, if you removed Fox News from the equation, Republican vote share would have decreased by 6.34%.
To put that figure in perspective, reducing John McCain’s 2008 vote in each state by 6.34% would result in Obama picking up Montana and Missouri, and would render North Dakota, South Dakota and Georgia (at least) as toss-ups. If we apply that same 6.34% figure to the 2016 election, there is absolutely no doubt that Hillary Clinton would be president today.
Now, as the chart above demonstrates, this isn’t a constant, meaning that cable news networks cannot be defined as pure state-run media. In 2000, Stanford estimates that Fox News only increased Republican turnout by 0.46 points, so the study is far from producing a hard and fast rule. Instead, it demonstrates that even though we operate under a capitalistic media model, the parties have enough power over their ideological newsrooms that they can eschew profits in order to increase their political power—which makes them more like state-run media outlets than the standard money-making media entities that we have become accustomed to. Next time you watch any cable news network, keep this study in the back of your head, as they may be manipulating their coverage to serve an agenda far more cynical than just a standard chase for revenue.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.