Cable News Networks Increase Amount and Public Accessibility of Incivility

For Immediate Release

March 27, 2012

Contact: Kathleen Hall Jamieson (info@flackcheck.org)

Jamieson is Director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania, home of FlackCheck.org, a site whose “They said WHAT?” page flags extreme rhetoric of both the left and right and includes a video illustrating these findings.

Background: When the January 2011 tragedy in Tucson sparked concerns about incivility and the coarsening of the media culture, an eight person research team at the Annenberg Public Policy Center decided to replace speculation with scholarship by studying the ways in which MSNBC, CNN, and FOX covered 38 uncivil statements by or about political leaders, groups or activists, 19 by or about liberals/progressives and 19 by or about conservatives. Instances were located by searching the Lexis-Nexis and Thomas data bases. The study analyzed all cable news coverage of these incidents within seven days of the remark or behavior. (To read an earlier APPC study on Civility in Congress, click here: http://www.annenbergpublicpolicycenter.org/Downloads/Civility/Civility_9-27-2011_Final.pdf.)

Focus of Study: 38 incidents were selected to create paired comparisons of messages by or about those on the political left and right (see Table 1). The focus included:

  • analogies to Nazi Germany;
  • extreme characterizations of an opponent (e.g., opponents as “barbarians” or a “mob”);
  • use of the language of violence (including Governor Perry’s mock threat to get “ugly” with Fed Chair Ben Bernanke if he were to go to Texas after pursuing loose monetary policy and Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa’s call to “take these sons of bitches out”);
  • extreme characterizations of legislation (including the notion that senior citizens would die under the opposing side’s health plan);
  • allegations that the president of an opposing party had lied (Rep. Wilson’s “You lie,” and statements by Democrats on the Floor of the House alleging that President George W. Bush had lied);
  • dismissive or demeaning references to the president (i.e., calling President George W. Bush a “loser,” and President Obama “kind of a dick”).
  • dismissive or demeaning references to others (e.g., labeling a female lobbyist a “K street whore,” and a female senator a “hooker,” characterizing First Lady Michelle Obama’s behavior as “uppity-ism,” or Newt Gingrich as a “fat, repulsive pig!”
  • when the level of coverage of one side’s example was substantially greater than that of the other, we paired the more frequently covered single instance (e.g., Rep. Wilson “You lie”) with multiple instances of a less covered parallel on the other (Democrats accusing President Bush of lying). We did the same by pairing a more frequently covered Democratic representative’s statement that the uninsured would die under the Republican health care plan (i.e., Rep. Grayson) with multiple instances of Republicans making the same sort of statement.

Findings:There are instances of extreme speech by both left and right in each of the categories analyzed by this study (for illustrations see the video “Coverage of Incivility in Cable Network News” at FlackCheck.org).

  • Non-traditional media have increased both the amount of accessible uncivil communication and the amount of access to what exists elsewhere.

Almost half of the 38 studied instances occurred in non-traditional media. Six occurred on talk radio, seven on cable networks, and three in email or on the web (see Table 2).

  • We found agreement across the cable networks that comparisons to Hitler, Goebbels, Nazis, or the Holocaust were out of bounds.
  • Overall, MSNBC features conservative transgressions more often than liberal ones, and Fox does the opposite (see Table 3). As a result, MSNBC viewers witnessed a greater number of conservative outbursts, while FOX viewers saw more outrageous rhetoric tied to the left. In general, MSNBC and FOX’s coverage of these instances magnified the sense that incivility in contemporary political discourse was the fault of those on the other side of the ideological divide. By contrast, CNN was more likely than either MSNBC or FOX to flag transgressions on both sides.

Where Obama-Hitler analogies were more likely to be decried on MSNBC and CNN, Nazi analogies and threats against Republican Governor Walker were more often critiqued on Fox.

Where a FOX viewer was more likely to learn that Democrat Alan Grayson had labeled an advisor to Federal Reserve Chairman Bernanke a “K Street whore,” the viewer tuned to MSNBC was more likely to hear that Glenn Beck had characterized Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu as a hooker.

The differences between FOX and MSNBC are significant and can be predicted by knowing the ideology of the transgressor.

  • Unsurprisingly, cable networks don’t publicize untoward comments by their own correspondents. It was FOX that reminded viewers about MSNBC host David Shuster’s suggestion that Chelsea [Clinton] was “sort of being pimped out in some weird sort of way” by the Hillary Clinton campaign. CNN highlighted Mark Halperin’s observation on MSNBC that President Obama came off as “kind of a dick” at a press conference. MSNBC reminded viewers that a FOX host had used the phrase “terrorist fist jab” to describe a gesture between Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama and his wife at a 2008 campaign stop.
  • Not featured in the analyzed cable representations of incivility was the question, “How typical is the other side’s uncivil behavior and language?” As a result, repeated play of single instances of rude, crude, or lewd political language and behavior probably makes it seem more prevalent than it actually is.

APPENDIX:

Members of the research team: Kelsey Ferguson, Jaclyn Gulliver, Laura Johnson, Rebecca Kaplan, Anna Tsiotsias, Phillip Venice, and Allyson Volinsky. The research team was supervised by Ilana Weitz and directed by Kathleen Hall Jamieson. The video illustrating the release was created by FlackCheck.org’s Daniel Corkery.

TABLE 1: INSTANCES STUDIED

Person making remark What was said Date
Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) Pres. Bush lied about Yucca Mt 2/16/2002
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) Pres. Bush lied about AmeriCorps 6/19/2003
Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) Pres. Bush lied about Yucca Mt 12/5/2004
Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) Pres. Bush is a loser 5/6/2005
Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) Pres. Bush lied about Iraq 10/18/2007
David Shuster Senator Hillary Clinton campaign “pimped out” Chelsea 2/7/2008
E.D. Hill Obama’s terrorist fist jab 6/6/2008
Fox News chyron Obama’s baby mama 6/11/2008
Chris Matthews Sen. Clinton owes her political career to public sympathy because her husband “messed around” 10/8/2008
Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) Public option will kill people 7/10/2009
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) People will die in line (with public option) 7/15/2009
Rep. Steve King (R-IA) People will die in line (with public option) 7/15/2009
Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-FL) Drop dead (Democrats’ message to seniors) 7/21/2009
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) Seniors would be put to death by gov. public option 7/28/2009
Sarah Palin (R-AK) Public option will lead to death panels 8/7/2009
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) “You [Obama] lie!” 9/9/2009
Citizen protestors and/or cable news commentators Obama-Hitler comparisons 9/12/2009
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) Die quickly (Republicans’ message to uninsured) 9/29/2009
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) Holocaust in America for uninsured 9/30/2009
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) Vice President Cheney is monster 10/22/2009
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) K Street whore 10/27/2009
Glenn Beck Senator Mary Landrieu (D. La.) called hooker 11/23/2009
Rush Limbaugh Senator Mary Landrieu (D. La.) called hooker 11/23/2009
Gov. Sarah Palin Blood libel 1/12/2011
Rep. Stephen Cohen (D-TN) Republicans use Goebbels-esque propaganda 1/18/2011
Citizen protestors and/or cable news commentators Gov. Walker-Hitler comparisons 02/01/11-03/31/11
Ed Schultz Laura Ingraham is talk slut 5/24/2011
Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC) (Republicans) make up stuff 6/15/2011
Mark Halperin Pres. Obama was a “dick” at press conference 6/30/2011
Rep. Allen West (R-FL) Rep. Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) is “despicable” and “not a Lady” 7/19/2011
Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) Questions whether Pres. Obama loves America 8/15/2011
Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) Texas would “get ugly” with Chairman Bernanke 8/15/2011
Vice President Joe Biden (D) Anti-labor opponents are barbarians at the gate 9/5/2011
James P. Hoffa, Jr. Take these sons of bitches out 9/5/2011
Hank Williams, Jr. Compared Obama-Boehner golf game to Hitler and Netanyahu 10/3/2011
Susan Sarandon Pope Benedict XVI is a Nazi 10/15/2011
Rush Limbaugh Mrs. Obama booed at NASCAR for “uppity-ism” 11/21/2011
Don Imus Calls Speaker Newt Gingrich “fat, repulsive pig” 11/21/2011

TABLE 2: INSTANCES BY LOCATION AND MEDIUM

Person making remark What was said Date
AT RALLY OR PUBLIC EVENT
Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) Pres. Bush lied about Yucca Mt

2/16/2002

Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) Pres. Bush is a loser

5/6/2005

Citizen protestors and/or cable news commentators Obama-Hitler comparisons

9/12/2009

Citizen protestors and/or cable news commentators Gov. Walker-Hitler comparisons

02/01/11-03/31/11

Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) Questions whether Pres. Obama loves America

8/15/2011

Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) Texas would “get ugly” with Chairman Bernanke

8/15/2011

Vice President Joe Biden (D) Anti-labor opponents are barbarians at the gate

9/5/2011

James P. Hoffa, Jr. Take these sons of bitches out

9/5/2011

Susan Sarandon Pope Benedict XVI is a Nazi

10/15/2011

ON FLOOR OF HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) Pres. Bush lied about AmeriCorps

6/19/2003

Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) Pres. Bush lied about Iraq

10/18/2007

Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) Public option will kill people

7/10/2009

Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) People will die in line (with public option)

7/15/2009

Rep. Steve King (R-IA) People will die in line (with public option)

7/15/2009

Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-FL) Drop dead (Democrats’ message to seniors)

7/21/2009

Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) Seniors would be put to death by gov. public option

7/28/2009

Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) “You [Obama] lie!”

9/9/2009

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) Die quickly (Republicans’ message to uninsured)

9/29/2009

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) holocaust in America for uninsured

9/30/2009

Rep. Stephen Cohen (D-TN) Republicans use Goebbels-esque propaganda

1/18/2011

Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC) (Republicans) make up stuff

6/15/2011

EMAIL/INTERNET
Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK) Public option will lead to death panels

8/7/2009

Rep. Allen West (R-FL) Rep. Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) is “despicable” and “not a Lady”

7/19/2011

Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK) Blood libel

1/12/2011

TALK RADIO
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) K Street whore

10/27/2009

Glenn Beck Senator Mary Landrieu (D. La.) called hooker

11/23/2009

Rush Limbaugh Senator Mary Landrieu (D. La.) called hooker

11/23/2009

Ed Schultz Laura Ingraham is talk slut

5/24/2011

Rush Limbaugh Mrs. Obama booed at NASCAR for “uppity-ism”

11/21/2011

Don Imus Calls Speaker Newt Gingrich “fat, repulsive pig”

11/21/2011

CABLE
David Shuster (MSNBC) Senator Hillary Clinton campaign “pimped out” Chelsea

2/7/2008

E.D. Hill (Fox News) Obama’s terrorist fist jab

6/6/2008

Fox News chyron Obama’s baby mama

6/11/2008

Chris Matthews (MSNBC) Sen. Clinton owes her political career to public sympathy because her husband “messed around”

10/8/2008

Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) (MSNBC) Vice President Cheney is monster

10/22/2009

Mark Halperin (MSNBC) Pres. Obama was a “dick” at press conference

6/30/2011

Hank Williams, Jr. (Fox News) Compared Obama-Boehner golf game to Hitler and Netanyahu

10/3/2011

MAINSTREAM BROADCAST
Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) Pres. Bush lied about Yucca Mt

12/5/2004

TABLE 3: PERCENTAGE OF COVERAGE PER INCIDENT BY NETWORK OVER 7 DAY PERIOD*

Person making remark What was said % coverage FOX % cover age MSNBC Year
Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) Pres. Bush lied about Yucca Mt 0.0 0.0 2002
Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) Pres. Bush lied about AmeriCorps 0.0 0.0 2003
Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) Pres. Bush lied about Yucca Mt 0.0 0.0 2004
Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) Pres. Bush is a loser 1.9 2.0 2005
Rep. Pete Stark (D-CA) Pres. Bush lied about Iraq 0.0 0.0 2007
Chris Matthews Sen. Clinton owes her political career to public sympathy because her husband “messed around” 1.3 0.0 2008
David Shuster Senator Hillary Clinton campaign “pimped out” Chelsea 3.4 0.5 2008
E.D. Hill Obama’s terrorist fist jab 0.0 3.3 2008
Fox News chyron Obama’s baby mama 0.0 1.4 2008
Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) Public option will kill people 0.0 1.0 2009
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX) People will die in line (with public option) 0.0 0.8 2009
Rep. Steve King (R-IA) People will die in line (with public option) 0.0 1.2 2009
Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) Seniors would be put to death by gov. public option 0.0 4.3 2009
Rep. Ginny Brown-Waite (R-FL) Drop dead (Democrats’ message to seniors) 0.0 0.0 2009
Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK) Public option will lead to death panels 8.2 12.9 2009
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) Die quickly (Republicans’ message to uninsured) 6.4 4.4 2009
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) Holocaust in America for uninsured 4.5 3.7 2009
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) Vice President Cheney is monster 2.3 0.7 2009
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) K Street whore 7.4 0.7 2009
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) “You [Obama] lie!” 15.8 15.3 2009
*Citizen protestors and/or cable news commentators Obama-Hitler comparisons 1.4 7.1 2009
Glenn Beck Senator Mary Landrieu (D. La.) called hooker 0.0 1.5 2009
Rush Limbaugh Senator Mary Landrieu (D. La.) called hooker 0.0 1.5 2009
Gov. Sarah Palin (R-AK) Blood libel 8.5 11.6 2011
Rep. Stephen Cohen (D-TN) Republicans use Goebbels-esque propaganda 8.3 2.7 2011
Citizen protestors and/or cable news commentators Gov. Walker-Hitler comparisons 3.9 0.3 2011
Ed Schultz Laura Ingraham is talk slut 1.4 0.0 2011
Mark Halperin Pres. Obama was a “dick” at press conference 1.8 0.0 2011
Rep. Allen West (R-FL) Rep. Wasserman Schultz (D-FL) is “despicable” and “not a Lady” 8.5 4.5 2011
Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) Questions whether Pres. Obama loves America 2.2 0.0 2011
Gov. Rick Perry (R-TX) Texas would “get ugly” with Chairman Bernanke 9.5 6.5 2011
Vice President Joe Biden (D) Anti-labor opponents are barbarians at the gate 4.9 1.4 2011
James P. Hoffa, Jr. Take these sons of bitches out 13.9 2.1 2011
Hank Williams, Jr. Compared Obama-Boehner golf game to Hitler and Netanyahu 3.0 0.0 2011
Susan Sarandon Pope Benedict XVI is a Nazi 2.2 0.0 2011
*Rush Limbaugh Mrs. Obama booed at NASCAR for “uppity-ism” 0.0 1.8 2011
*Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC) (Republicans) make up stuff 0.0 0.0 2011
*Don Imus Calls Speaker Newt Gingrich “fat, repulsive pig” 0.0 0.0 2011

Limitations of the Study:

A number of individuals whose coverage was captured by the study are no longer on the three studied cable news networks (e.g., Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann).

Because the search strategy involved word searches of all programming available on these three networks in the LexisNexis Academic data base, shows with a partisan bent (for example, “Hannity” and “Countdown with Keith Olbermann”) are not separated from those without such a tilt on the networks.

The unit of analysis is any mention in a discussion of one of the 38 instances in a single show or program. Each show is assigned a code of one or zero. Any mention of an incident gives the show a count of one. If a show discussed the incident in multiple segments, the show was coded as one.

Because the number of shows for which Lexis possesses transcripts is not necessarily equal for all networks, we normalized the data by obtaining archived TV listings data for each time period from Tribune Media Services and calculating a percentage of actual coverage from total possible coverage per network (Table 3). We defined each entry in the TV listings as one program. Because networks replay some show multiple times in a day, we considered only one airing of a show (e.g. Anderson Cooper 360°, Hannity, Hardball) in a 24-hour period.

*The denominators for the Rush Limbaugh and Don Imus incidents, which occurred on November 21, 2011, do not include November 21st and November 22nd.

*Because of its extended timeline, the denominator for Hitler/protests of Walker was 59 days (February 1-March 31).

  • Because of differences in the denominators, these instances may be compared across networks, but not across instances.

**We looked at coverage the day before as a control to determine whether the person in question had been the focus of media discussion for any reason before the incident.

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