NYT Praises Fox for Leaving Out 'Agitprop' on Election Night, Strains to Prove MSNBC Catching Up (Again) to Fox

In NYT-land, the liberal cable network MSNBC has been "gaining ground" on conservative Fox News for years (without ever actually catching up). Times media reporter Brian Stelter (pictured) filed the latest enthusiastic installment in MSNBC's quest for the white whale of ratings parity with Fox News in "The Anti-Fox Gains Ground."

Meanwhile, Stelter's media news colleague David Carr gave backhanded praise to Fox News for not lulling its "conservative base with agitprop" on Election Night the way it had every other night leading up to the vote.

Stelter strained to uncover good ratings news for MSNBC.

When President Obama won Virginia and most of the other battleground states on Tuesday night, ensuring himself a second term as president, some at MSNBC felt as if they had won as well.

During Mr. Obama’s first term, MSNBC underwent a metamorphosis from a CNN also-ran to the anti-Fox, and handily beat CNN in the ratings along the way. Now that it is known, at least to those who cannot get enough politics, as the nation’s liberal television network, the challenge in the next four years will be to capitalize on that identity.

MSNBC, a unit of NBCUniversal, has a long way to go to overtake the Fox News Channel, a unit of News Corporation: on most nights this year, Fox had two million more viewers than MSNBC.

But the two channels, which skew toward an audience that is 55 or older, are on average separated by fewer than 300,000 viewers in the 25- to 54-year-old demographic that advertisers desire. On three nights in a row after the election last week, MSNBC -- whose hosts reveled in Mr. Obama’s victory -- had more viewers than Fox in that demographic.

Stelter accurately sketched out the strong liberal flavor of MSNBC's offering.

On election night, MSNBC had no trace of timidity left; Ms. Maddow led the coverage, surrounded by four other liberal hosts (Mr. Matthews, Al Sharpton, Lawrence O’Donnell and Ed Schultz) and one moderate conservative commentator (Steve Schmidt). The channel leaned heavily on non-NBC reporters, including several from the liberal magazine The Nation.


Two studies this fall, one by Pew and another by European election observers, concluded that MSNBC’s coverage of Mitt Romney was even more critical than Fox’s coverage of Mr. Obama. Any comparison of the two channels is colored by charges of false equivalencies -- “I think that we are more information-based,” Ms. Maddow has said -- and reminders that Fox is far more popular.

The Times is constantly checking for signs that the reign of right-wing news is over and that MSNBC (or sometimes CNN) have overtaken Fox among this or that particular viewer segment. Back on June 28, 2008 the Times wrote this headline: "Fox News Finds Its Rivals Closing In." The only problem is, those cable rivals never quite seem to get there.

Jacques Steinberg talked about MSNBC's then-resident ranter and left-wing hero Keith Olbermann on the front of the November 6, 2007 edition: "On some nights recently, Mr. Olbermann has even come tantalizingly close to surpassing the ratings of the host he describes as his nemesis, Bill O'Reilly on Fox News, at least among viewers ages 25 to 54, which is the demographic cable news advertisers prefer."

Right-leaning Fox News didn't get any cheerleading in another story in Monday's Business section, from Stelter colleague David Carr, who delivered backhanded praise for Fox News' election night coverage in his column "For One Night at Fox, News Tops Agenda."

It has been suggested, here and elsewhere, that Fox News effectively became part of the Republican propaganda apparatus during the presidential campaign by giving pundit slots to many of the Republican candidates and relentlessly advocating for Mitt Romney once he won the nomination.

Over many months, Fox lulled its conservative base with agitprop: that President Obama was a clear failure, that a majority of Americans saw Mr. Romney as a good alternative in hard times, and that polls showing otherwise were politically motivated and not to be believed.

But on Tuesday night, the people in charge of Fox News were confronted with a stark choice after it became clear that Mr. Romney had fallen short: was Fox, first and foremost, a place for advocacy or a place for news?

In this moment, at least, Fox chose news.


It was going to be a rough night at Fox News no matter how they played it.

The channel had pushed all its chips into the middle and showed its hand, all but declaring that it would be a big night for Mr. Romney. And in the run-up to the election, the channel tilted the rink in favor of Mr. Romney without compunction, keeping its viewers wrapped in a gauzy bubble of conservative notions about a country that had lost regard for its president.

According to Media Matters, a liberal watchdog group, in the final days of the campaign Fox News ran more than two and a half hours of Mr. Romney’s speeches while giving just 27 minutes to Mr. Obama’s.

As a throwaway, Carr also noted that Fox News "was hardly alone in its partisanship. According to the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, 71 percent of MSNBC’s segments about Mr. Romney were negative, while Fox News went negative on the president 46 percent of the time."