Perspective: What’s with all the Democrats watching Fox News?
Despite its reputation as a conservative-leaning news outlet, a surprising number of liberals are contributing to the network’s success
If you’re a Republican and watch cable news after putting the kids to bed, you’re probably watching Tucker Carlson on Fox. If you’re a Democrat watching cable news at the same time, you are possibly watching ... Tucker Carlson on Fox.
That’s a surprise twist in cable news ratings that many people didn’t see coming, especially at MSNBC, where Rachel Maddow is the marquee liberal voice and shares the same time slot as Carlson.
But Nielsen MRI Fusion found that “Tucker Carlson Tonight” was the top show in that time slot in October among both Republicans and Democrats ages 25-54. As The Wrap reported, “Of those demo-aged viewers surveyed who identified as Democrats, 39% chose Fox News, 31% chose MSNBC and 30% chose CNN for programming from 8 p.m. ET to 11 p.m. ET.”
Moreover, in viewership throughout the day, 42% of Democrats ages 25-54 watched Fox, while 33% watched CNN and 25% watched MSNBC.
This doesn’t mean that Maddow is losing her popularity; her show was No. 1 among Democrats of all ages. But after Maddow, Fox shows again crept into Democrat preferences, with “The Five” and “Hannity” joining Carlson as the three most popular cable news shows among Democrats of all ages.
The ratings challenge the narrative that says polarized Americans huddle in information silos and echo chambers that only reflect views similar to their own. That view discounts the fact that we’re exposed to different networks all day, regardless of what we watch at home. My mechanic always has Fox on the TV in his waiting room, whereas my dentist tunes to CNN. You’re only in an echo chamber if you never change the channel and never leave home.
But the question remains: Why are Democrats tuning into Fox, which is so frequently derided by those on the left? And why do younger Democrats choose Carlson over Maddow?
It’s not enough to point to Carlson’s astoundingly good hair. Nor do the numbers suggest that just a handful of Democrats are hate-watching Fox for their work, like the staff of Media Matters for America and CNN’s Brian Stelter, who wrote the anti-Fox book “Hoax.”
In fact, Democrats likely tune into Fox for the same reason that Republicans do. It’s good entertainment. I do not mean that as a slight. As the late Neil Postman wrote in “Amusing Ourselves to Death,” published in 1985, “Without a medium to create its form, the news of the day does not exist.” The form that the late Roger Ailes created at Fox causes much consternation and loathing on the left; Stelter has even proposed that Fox shouldn’t call itself a news outlet.
But over 25 years, Fox built an extraordinarily successful brand and is unflaggingly loyal to it, and to the Americans whose values and beliefs are often ignored or outright disdained by other news organizations. It has been atop the cable news ratings for an unprecedented 20 years. As such, it’s too big to ignore, especially when it’s reporting on stories and issues that other networks don’t touch.
Another factor in the ratings that although Carlson is now largely seen as a controversial voice on Fox, he’s been a fixture in America’s political conversation much longer than Maddow, who began her MSNBC show in 2008.
Maddow was a relative unknown while Carlson was writing for The Weekly Standard, appearing on CNN and hosting “Crossfire.” He even had a nightly show on MSNBC before joining Fox. That’s a lot of history, and even some people who complain about Carlson now say they used to consider him a “seriousish writer” and thinker.
Plenty of people dislike Carlson, however, even some conservatives. Last fall, Fox commentators Stephen Hayes and Jonah Goldberg resigned from the network, citing Carlson’s treatment of the Capitol riot in a three-part series on the streaming service Fox Nation. (Fox said the men’s contracts were about to end and would not have been renewed.) But plenty of people who disliked Rush Limbaugh still listened to him, because whether you liked him or not, what he said mattered. The same with Fox and Carlson. Politico senior media writer Jack Schafer wrote recently that a family member once told him, “I want to see how Fox is covering this.”
Ironically, Fox, long denounced by its critics for being too partisan, is decidedly neutral on one thing: the political preferences of the people who tune in. At the end of the ratings day, all that really matters is eyes.