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Who Says TV News Is Biased? TV News Viewers Do!

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The Pew Research Center has issued a study about the public perception of TV news which finds shockingly—shockingly!—that TV audiences see Fox News as the most ideological network. But beyond that, the study is a trove of curious data points showing that people find ideology in a lot of places—and they don’t necessarily mind it. Also, Fox and MSNBC viewers agree on more than you might think:

* Pew headlines its study, “Fox News Viewed As Most Ideological Network.” Which is right, in that 47% see Fox as “mostly conservative,” more than see any other network as “mostly liberal.” But it’s also notable that for every other network, far more people see them as liberal than as conservative. (Only for ABC and CBS do the plurality see them as “neither in particular.”) One could argue that this is the result of decades of conservative complaints about “the liberal media,” but if so, you have to explain how that this same brainwashing left only 24% of people seeing Fox news as fair and balanced.

* I was tempted, flippantly, to say that the public agreed with the White House in its war on Fox News, but the White House’s charge was that is Fox is more than biased but is a political operation—an important distinction which this survey doesn’t really ask about.

* Another thing the survey leaves out germane to the Fox News controversy—and news bias generally—is the distinction between straight news and opinion programming. Do the people who see Fox leaning right and MSNBC leaning left base this on their primetime opinion hosts, or also their daytime news coverage? Does their opinion of one bleed into the other? I’d love to see Pew find a way to survey this in the future.

* Speaking of which, who says Fox, CNN and MSNBC viewers don’t agree on anything! An equal percentage of Fox and CNN fans (48%) call FNC conservative (50% of MSNBC-ites). There’s a little more divergence on the others, but even there, 47% of Foxies and 43% of MSNBC fans see MSNBC as “mostly liberal.” Meanwhile, who gives CNN most credit for balance? Not its own viewers! That would be MSNBC viewers, 43% of whom credit CNN as “neither,” compared with 41% of CNN viewers.

* Ah, yes, CNN. The once-king of cable news fell into fourth place in prime time last month, and the facile explanation for that has been that primetime viewers prefer the strong partisan opinions of MSNBC and Fox’s hosts to CNN’s neither-nor approach. The survey only partly supports that, though. Yes, CNN has the highest percentage of viewers seeing it as “neither” left nor right. But more people also see it as leaning liberal—slightly more, in fact, than MSNBC (37% to 36%).

* Where Fox viewers seem to diverge most from everyone else is in their belief that any news network is unbiased—their own or the competition. They give the lowest marks for neutrality generally, ranging from 23% to 31%. However, they must think that Fox—the “fair and balanced” network—is the most evenhanded, right? Nope. They give that honor to CBS News, followed by ABC and NBC.

* Compared with this summer and with the period after Obama’s inauguration, more people now believe the press is being too critical of the President. Also, more people believe the press is not being critical enough. There’s substantial, and roughly equal, movement in both directions from the center position (the shrinking 37% who think the press is being fair). I’m not sure there is any statistic in the world that will tell you more about America right now than that one there.

* One thing that annoys me about studies like this is that they force a choice among “liberal bias,” “conservative bias” and “no bias.” This ignores moderate bias, which absolutely exists and is arguably the most prevalent bias in traditional “mainstream” media: the general establishmentarian belief that the middle ground is probably the most rational, and that a belief that varies too far from it must necessarily be wrong, or at least require a counterbalance implying that “the truth lies somewhere in the middle.”

* In any case, most respondents saw one or another kind of political leaning in each news outlet covered. People must hate that, right? Yes! And no! Actually, respondents split exactly evenly on whether it was good or bad for cable news hosts to have strong political opinions: 42% in each camp. Which tracks with the comments I’ve seen whenever I blog about news, opinion and transparency: half the people don’t want opinion in their news, half want it (or don’t mind it) as long as it’s transparent. (Though again, we run into the problem of not knowing whether the respondents were distinguishing between commentators like Rachel Maddow and news anchors like Brian Williams.)

* No PBS. Ouch! Et tu, Pew?