The television remote control has become a de facto ballot in today’s hyper-polarized world of politics.
Turn the dial to the left to watch MSNBC and it’s more likely you lean left. Turn it to the right to tune in Fox, and it’s more likely you lean right. Which cable news channel people watch has become a bona fide indicator of what they think about taxes, health care, immigration and the size and scope of the federal government, according to a new McClatchy-Marist poll.
Take the big debate this year over the role of the federal spending in the economy. Just 19 percent of Fox viewers think that increasing government spending would help the economy, while 79 percent think increasing the debt in the process would hurt the economy. MSNBC viewers lean the other way, with 55 percent saying more spending would help and 43 percent saying the debt would hurt the economy.
Or taxes. MSNBC viewers are more likely to be willing to pay more taxes and to support higher taxes on the rich and Wall Street. Fox viewers are more likely to think the poor should pay more.
Or national security. Fox viewers are more likely to be concerned about a terrorist attack.
Which comes first? Does the news coverage influence what people think, or do viewers tune into cable news that reflects their views?
While only a little more than 3 million Americans tune in to cable news each day, cable news is the top regular source of campaign news in the country. A recent survey by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center found cable news cited as the main source of campaign news by 36 percent of Americans, followed by local TV news, network TV news, the Internet and local newspapers.
With its cadre of conservative hosts such as Sean Hannity, Fox is often the place where Republican elected officials stop first. That can make it must-watch TV for Republican viewers. The same can be said for Democrats on MSNBC, considering its liberal hosts such as Rachel Maddow.
Higher percentages of Democrats watch MSNBC (55 percent) and CNN (50 percent) and higher percentages of Republicans (43 percent) watch Fox News. CNN aims down the middle, but the survey found that its viewers lean toward the MSNBC end of the spectrum.
“Cable viewers are going to the restaurants where they like the food,” said Lee M. Miringoff, director of the Institute for Public Opinion at Marist College, which conducted the McClatchy-Marist poll. “In this case, clearly Democrats and Republicans are going to different places to get their appetites taken care of when it comes to their political news.”
That also may help reinforce hardened positions.
Voters such as Michael Fox, a Democrat who works in auto repair in Hudson, N.C., feel cable news programming is so skewed, the perspectives so stark, that he accuses the networks of fueling the gridlock in Washington.
“If you blame it on anything, I’ll blame it on Fox News and CNN,” he said. “All those folks showing their side of the story and not the whole picture. They’ve got the country split in two.”
Despite their ideological programs in prime-time slots, Fox and MSNBC do draw viewers from the other side, Of Fox’s audience, 19 percent are Democrats. Of MSNBC’s audience, 16 percent are Republicans.