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Is Fox News the ‘mainstream media’? Survey says yes

The conservative-leaning network is seen as mainstream by majorities of Republicans and Democrats

Chris Wallace of Fox News moderates a presidential debate between then-President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden.
Moderator Chris Wallace of Fox News speaks as then-President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden participate in the first presidential debate in Cleveland on Sept. 29, 2020. A new report from Pew Research Center see Fox News as part of the “mainstream media” than The Wall Street Journal.
Olivier Douliery, Associated Press

The Wall Street Journal was founded in 1889, Fox News in 1996. But more Americans see the conservative-leaning news network as part of the “mainstream media” than the 132-year-old newspaper.

That’s according to a new report from Pew Research Center, which asked more than 12,000 Americans to consider 13 news outlets and say whether or not they are mainstream.

The findings were surprising not just because a relative newcomer to the media landscape joined The New York Times and ABC News as part of the mainstream, but also because Fox News has built its brand, in part, by distancing itself from traditional media it has characterized as out-of-touch and partisan.

In this, the network has company. Former Alaska Gov. and vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin popularized the term “lamestream media” in a 2009 interview with Fox personality and radio host Sean Hannity, and other conservative media figures quickly adopted the term to deride major media outlets that they perceived to have a liberal bent.

Among some conservatives, even “mainstream media” has a negative connotation.

But Fox has been dominant in cable news for two decades and is a household name in the U.S., said Priyanjana Bengani, senior research fellow for the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.

“Almost everyone’s heard of it, has watched it, or has family or friends that have watched it. And, even if none of that is true, they are still likely to have seen clips circulating on Facebook or Twitter,” Bengani said in an email.

Here’s a look at the latest findings on media, including the most popular personalities on CNN, MSNBC and Fox, and also why you might want to turn to “traditional” media for news.

Mainstream or not?

In the Pew report, released earlier this month, the authors said that respondents deemed 7 of 13 news outlets to be mainstream.

“That includes the one national network news outlet included in the analysis (ABC News), all three major cable news outlets asked about (MSNBC, Fox News and CNN) and three legacy print publications: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post,” the report said.

News sources that didn’t make the “mainstream” for the majority of respondents were HuffPost, BuzzFeed, Vox, Newsmax, Breitbart and the Sean Hannity radio show, with pluralities saying they didn’t know enough about these sources to decide.

In the survey, conducted in March, Pew also asked respondents which of the outlets they used to get news. There was some correlation between news consumption and views about mainstream media; for example, roughly one-third of people who get their political news from Newsmax say they consider Newsmax to be mainstream, compared to 10% of people who don’t watch Newsmax.

But for the majority of respondents, political affiliation did not make much difference when it comes to what they consider to be mainstream media; on this, there is “wide agreement” between Republicans and Democrats, authors Elisa Shearer and Amy Mitchell said.

“One example is Fox News, which often has commentary about the mainstream media in its opinion content. Three-quarters of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents see Fox News as part of the mainstream media, as do 72% of Democrats and Democratic leaners,” the report said.

There was even less disparity between Republicans and Democrats regarding the top three mainstream outlets. Eighty-eight percent of Republicans and 89% of Democrats consider ABC News mainstream. For CNN, the breakdown was 86% of Republicans, 89% of Democrats; and for The New York Times, 79% of Republicans and 81% of Democrats.

The authors noted, however, that partisan differences were more apparent when it came to smaller news outlets.

“Republicans, for instance, are twice as likely as Democrats to say Newsmax is part of the mainstream news media, though only small minorities in both parties say this (16% vs. 8%),” the report said.

Partisanship also figures into another new report that assessed the popularity of prime-time cable hosts. As reported Tuesday, a poll by Morning Consult and the Hollywood Reporter found that CNN’s Anderson Cooper is the most popular host, followed by MSNBC’s Chris Hayes and Fox News’s Laura Ingraham.

But there was a catch. Fox personalities Tucker Carlson (29%) and Sean Hannity (27%) had the second and third highest favorability ratings after Cooper (41%), but they also had high unfavorable ratings pushing them lower in the rankings over all.

Tucker Carlson, host of “Tucker Carlson Tonight,” poses for photos in a Fox News Channel studio on March 2, 2017, in New York.
Richard Drew, Associated Press

Less is more?

Notably, the 13 choices in the Pew Report didn’t include other legacy news outlets such as The Washington Post or CBS News. That’s because the analysis came out of a larger study of political news coverage during the early days of President Joe Biden’s administration. That study looked at 25 news organizations, but for the question regarding mainstream-media perceptions, space constraints dictated that it be cut down to 13, a Pew spokesperson said, adding that the 13 were chosen “to represent a range of audience size and platform type.”

Regardless of where you get your news, there is some evidence that “traditional” media might be a better source if your goal is to be highly informed. A study published Tuesday in the International Journal of Press/Politics examined media consumption and political knowledge among 28,000 people in 17 European countries.

Researchers assessed how people obtained news and categorized them as news minimalists, social media news users, traditionalists, online news seekers and “hyper news consumers.” (Minimalists rarely consume news; hyper news consumers “use all sorts of news outlets and platforms profusely.”)

The findings, the authors said, “have important implications for the conditions of informed democracy” and suggest that quality is more important than quantity.

People who use traditional sources of news typically consulted fewer sources than other types of news consumers but were better informed, the report said.

“Accordingly, consuming news from a broader range of news outlets, channels, programs and platforms does not necessarily make for a more informed citizenry, and it may even lead to the opposite,” the authors wrote.