Cable news coverage of the eviction moratorium, which barred landlords from ejecting tenants in arrears but did not forgive owed rent, hardly gave face to the millions who have struggled to keep their housing during the coronavirus pandemic. While an August 30 estimate from the Urban Institute found that 2.1 million adult renters are at immediate risk of eviction, tenants facing eviction made a mere 2% of all appearances in guest segments about the moratorium.
The moratorium has been a contentious topic. In late July, President Joe Biden called on Congress to extend the federal moratorium through the end of September after the Supreme Court rebuffed the administration’s efforts. In early August, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a new 60-day extension to the moratorium, but the Supreme Court subsequently overruled the administration again. As a result, millions of Americans are facing eviction.
Media Matters reviewed transcripts of CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC original programming for segments about the eviction moratorium during the first eight months of the year and found that persons affected by the moratorium -- tenants facing eviction and landlords owed back rent -- amounted to just 8% of all appearances in guest segments. Of the 14 appearances of individuals affected by the moratorium, just three were of tenants -- 2% of guest appearances.
Tenants made appearances twice on CNN and once on MSNBC while Fox did not host any tenants facing eviction at all. By contrast, landlords owed rent appeared on Fox 10 times and only once on MSNBC. CNN did not host any landlords in the period studied.
While some cable news reporting -- headlines and correspondent reports -- highlighted tenants and other affected individuals in embedded clips, hosting tenants facing eviction in guest segments would have had much more impact than short sound bites ever could.
From January 1 through September 1, 2021, cable news aired 271 segments about the eviction moratorium. Of those, 147 were guest segments, solo and joint interviews and panels, which included commentary and analysis from guests. The vast majority of these segments aired during the weeks of July 29 and August 3, when the Biden administration and the Supreme Court sparred over the expiration of the moratorium and its extension.
During guest segments, we found not a single individual whom we could reasonably assume to be an expert on housing or public policy, which we defined as persons who have an advanced degree in government, public policy, or a related field or who teach government, public policy, or a related field at the college or university level.
Within those categorized as advocacy, we considered persons employed by think tanks and nonprofits that specialize specifically in housing or public policy -- whom we considered to be “expert advocates” -- and found only 5% of appearances in guest segments were made by such individuals.
Instead, most guests on cable news were elected officials or pundits. And in that category, we found a stark contrast between CNN and MSNBC’s guests and Fox’s.
CNN and MSNBC most often hosted elected officials in moratorium segments: 41% and 42% of appearances on their networks, respectively. Fox hosted elected officials only 9% of the time. In total, Democrats appeared 54 times while Republicans appeared only three times. Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO) represented the largest portion of elected official appearances because she camped out on the Capitol steps to pressure Congress to act as members prepared for a seven-week recess.
By contrast, Fox most often hosted pundits: 47% of guest appearances on Fox were made by such persons. This included a long list of conservative political commentators, such as Bill Bennett, Ben Domenech, Newt Gingrich, Trey Gowdy, Daniel Henninger, Charlie Hurt, Stephen Moore, and Kimberley Strassel, among others. Pundits on CNN and MSNBC comprised 12% and 17% of guest appearances on the networks, respectively.
The eviction crisis still looms over millions of Americans, and it will disproportionately affect Black communities. By hardly ever providing a platform for tenants facing eviction to tell their stories themselves, cable news obscures their harsh realities from the public at large.
Media Matters searched transcripts in the Kinetiq video database for all original programming on cable news networks CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any mentions of any of the terms “eviction moratorium,” “eviction ban,” or “rental assistance” from January 1 through September 1, 2021.
We counted segments, which we defined as instances when the eviction moratorium was the stated topic of discussion or when we found “significant discussion” of the moratorium. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed the moratorium with one another. We did not include passing mentions of the moratorium, which we defined as instances when a single speaker commented on the moratorium without another speaker engaging, or teasers for segments about the moratorium scheduled to air later in the broadcast.
We then categorized moratorium segments into six types: host monologues, headline reports, correspondent reports, solo interviews, joint interviews, and guest panels.
We defined host monologues as instances when the anchor or host discussed the moratorium at length without turning to a correspondent or a guest.
We defined headline reports as instances when an anchor, host, or correspondent read updates on multiple stories in rapid succession. We defined correspondent reports as instances when the anchor or host turned to a reporter or correspondent to file a live or prerecorded news package. Together, we grouped these segments as “reporting.”
We defined solo interviews as instances when the anchor or host turned to a single guest for commentary. We defined a joint interview as instances when the anchor or host turned to two or more guests with the express purpose of offering similar points of view. We defined a guest panel as instances when the anchor or host turned to two or more guests with the express purpose of offering contrasting points of view. Together, we grouped these segments as “guest segments.”
We then categorized all individuals who appeared in any moratorium segment by their most current profession: academic, administration official (member of the current presidential cabinet or other appointed adviser confirmed by the Senate), advocacy, affected (by the moratorium), elected official (current office holders), experts (in housing or public policy), former administration official, former elected official, journalist (anchors, correspondents, or reporters), pundit (analysts, columnists, commentators, or contributors), and political strategists. We classified anyone not fitting these categories as “other.”
We defined experts as anyone who has an advanced degree or who teaches at the college or university level in government or public policy or related fields. We defined advocates as anyone currently employed by a think tank, advocacy nonprofit, or similar organization. We defined advocates whose organization focuses on housing or public policy exclusively as “expert advocates.”
In multitopic segments, we included as guests only those who spoke on the moratorium during the segment.