Cable news channels used variations of the label “far left” or “extreme” in discussions about Democrats, progressives, and their policy ideas over six times more often than they used variations of the label “far right” or “extreme” while talking about their conservative counterparts.
Over a four-week period, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News discussed extremism on the left or right a total of 547 times; 86% of these instances framed the American political left as extreme. This trend is in stark contrast to data showing that the Republican Party is further away from the political center than the Democratic Party, and it leaves viewers misinformed about each party’s position by lending undue credibility to the right-wing talking point that Democrats are extreme.
In American politics, the Republican Party is much further to the right than the Democratic Party is to the left. The Manifesto Project, which “reviews and categorizes each line in party manifestos,” has found that the current Democratic Party is much closer to the median party platform than the current GOP, when compared to other political parties in Western Europe and Canada. As Vox's Carlos Maza explains, “Over the past few decades, both Democrats and Republicans ... have moved away from the center. But the Republican Party has moved toward the extreme much more quickly.” (Disclosure: Maza is a former Media Matters staffer.)
However, when it comes to how the cable news media portray each party, viewers would think that the opposite was true because cable media figures utilize far-left framing in reference to Democrats and people and policies on the left more than six times as often as they reference Republicans and people and policies on the right using similar terminology.
Media Matters looked for several commonly used phrases to determine whether cable news programming repeated far-left or far-right framing more often: “far left” or “far right,” variations of “too far left,” “so far left,” “too far right,” or “so far right,” and “extreme” or “extremist” left or right. The following data doesn’t fully capture the sheer volume of such framing since a search for all such variations -- “pulling,” “pushing,” “moving,” or “veering” the Democratic or Republican parties to the left or right -- would return a greater number of results. But it’s representative of the disparity in how media outlets represent each side.
In total, we found 547 instances of far-left and far-right framing fitting our search terms between June 24 and July 21. Of those, 470 -- 86% -- used far-left framing, while only 77 -- 14% -- used far-right framing. Fox News, unsurprisingly, had the largest disparity with a ratio of more than 10-to-1; of 296 instances discussing an extreme right or left, 270 contained the far-left framing while just 26 had the far-right framing. Both CNN and MSNBC were also more inclined to employ the far-left framing; such terminology appeared on those two networks four times as often as far-right framing.
Cable news channels applied the far-left framing to wide-ranging subjects: Oftentimes, it was applied to the Democratic Party as a whole or to the 2020 Democratic candidates -- particularly Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) or as a juxtaposition to former Vice President Joe Biden. Networks also applied it to House Democrats, including members of “The Squad” and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), future Supreme Court nominees, Democratic voters, party activists, antifa, Warren’s economic plans, economic policies in general, student debt forgiveness plans, health care plans, pro-choice policies, immigration policies, tax plans, identity politics, Google filters, legal challenges against President Donald Trump’s administration, the Green New Deal, and the Netroots Nation political conference.
Despite cable news applying far-left framing to a variety of Democratic and progressive policy platforms, recent polling from NPR/NBC/Marist College of national adults shows the American people support many of these positions with majorities. 70% of respondents think a Medicare-for-all plan that supplements private insurance is a “good idea.” Likewise, respondents believe that a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants (64%), the Green New Deal (63%), a Warren-style wealth tax on high-income earners (62%), and free college tuition at state schools (53%) are good ideas.
Tyler Monroe and Alex Walker contributed to this research.
Media Matters reviewed the SnapStream video database for instances of any of the following phrases: “far left,” “far right,” “too far” within five words of “left” or “right,” “so far” within five words of “left” or “right,” or “extreme” or “extremist” within five words of “left” or “right.”
We counted each instance on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC that aired between 4 a.m. and midnight EST every day from June 24 through July 21, 2019 where a speaker said any one of the phrases. We made an exception for post-debate coverage between midnight and 4 a.m., which was also included. We only included original programming; reruns of previously aired episodes were excluded from the analysis. However, we did include pre-recorded news packages that aired on multiple different shows each time they aired. We excluded video and audio clips and direct quotes read by hosts or correspondents that featured the phrases.