April 18, 2021

DCTRS

Damascus Center for Theoretical and Civil Rights Studies

Viewers chose CNN over Fox News for coverage of DC riots

Fox News is typically the most-watched news network, with 2020 being the best year in its history.

But many of its conservative-leaning viewers tend to tune out when there is bad news about President Trump, and on Wednesday — when some of his supporters rioted inside the Capitol in Washington — it could not have been worse.

CNN was the network of choice during the height of the attack, according to Nielsen data. From 2:30 to 6:30 p.m. Eastern, the network averaged 9 million viewers, compared to 5.7 million viewers for Fox News and 5.6 million for MSNBC.

During those hours the Capitol was stormed by a mob of Trump supporters, leading to the deaths of four people including one woman who was shot by law enforcement.

The riot — preceded by a rally where Trump spoke and repeatedly laid out his unfounded claims that the election was stolen from him — interrupted Congress’ certification of electoral votes for President-elect Joe Biden.

In prime time, after the riot was quelled and Congress resumed the electoral vote count, the delta was even more pronounced as CNN averaged 8.2 million viewers versus 7.4 million for MSNBC and and 4.6 million for Fox News.

CNN had its most-watched day in its 40-year history, averaging 5.2 million viewers over 24 hours.

Fox News did finish ahead of special coverage from CBS (2.6 million viewers) but trailed NBC (5.8 million) and ABC (4.9 million).

Fox News was aggressive in covering the story. It was the first to report that a woman protester had been shot. Many of its commentators and contributors, who in the past have been cheerleaders for Trump and provided support or rationales for his behavior, called out the president’s role in spurring the violence.

“The president’s actions and his entire conduct post the election are what led us to this point,” said Bret Hume, senior political analyst for Fox News. “If you were a Trump believer and you believe the extravagant claims he has made about how this election was stolen, you believe, therefore, that something truly horrible had happened that changes the face of our republic. It is utter nonsense. But he believed it and he got them to believe it and, believing that, they did what they did today.”

But the tone shifted somewhat in prime time, where the president’s staunchest defenders — opinion hosts Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham — hold court.

The trio was more solemn than usual, strongly condemning the violence and showing extensive clips of the chaos that happened earlier in the day.

“Political violence begets political violence. That is always true, that is an iron law and it never changes and we have to be against that, no matter who commits the violence or under what pretext,” Carlson said on his program.

But Carlson, Hannity and Ingraham avoided laying any of the blame on Trump’s rhetoric and described the events as an unfortunate culmination of his supporters’ frustration over the allegations of election fraud and irregularities.

Those allegations have been largely debunked by state election officials and the courts, including ones with Trump-appointed judges — which Fox News journalists have reported on repeatedly.

Fox News commentators continue to cite polls showing a high percentage of people who believe the election was rigged, a data point that fails to take into account the number of false statements viewers have been fed on the topic by the president’s legal team and Fox News guests who support him.

Carlson was far less forgiving last summer to demonstrators during the riots that broke out amid the protests over the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man, in Minneapolis. He said it was “soulless” and “craven” to support the Black Lives Matter movement and ran a scroll of celebrities who offered financial help to the cause in front of video of property set ablaze during the violence.

In describing the dead pro-Trump protester — Ashli Babbitt, an Air Force veteran from San Diego — Carlson said, “We don’t know anything about her but she did not look particularly radical. She bore no resemblance to the angry children we have seen again and again wrecking our cities, pasty entitled nihilists dressed in black setting fires, spray painting slogans on statues.”

Ingraham also promoted the unfounded claim that left-wing militants, often referred to as antifa, had infiltrated the pro-Trump groups to cause the mayhem. Right-wing media is now promoting that talking point as it tries to come to grips with the damage the riots have done to the conservative movement.

Fox News has been the ratings leader in cable news since 2002 but has seen its audience levels dip after the election of Democratic presidents. It happened in 2008 and 2012 when Barack Obama won, as Republicans were depressed over the results and tuned away from the channel.

Since election day 2020, the network has fallen behind CNN in the 25-to-54 age group important to news advertisers. Whether it’s a blip or a sea change will likely become clearer after Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20.