Supreme Court Building with the Fox News logo behind

Andrea Austria / Media Matters

Research/Study Research/Study

Fox News downplays the impact of legacy admissions after the Supreme Court ends affirmative action in colleges

CNN and MSNBC did better, mentioning legacy admissions in 38% and 43% of segments, respectively

  • After the Supreme Court ended race-conscious college admission practices last month, many critics contrasted the court's ruling with its silence on the practice of legacy admissions, which overwhelmingly benefit white and upper class applicants. Fox News’ coverage, however, significantly lacked this criticism, with only 20% of the network’s segments on the Supreme Court’s decision mentioning legacy admissions. 

    Historically, colleges and universities have used an applicant’s family history and association with the college as a benefit in their admissions process, favoring children of alumni and donors. One study that found legacy admission at Harvard mostly benefits white, wealthy applicants, and only one quarter of legacy students would have been accepted without their legacy status. The study also found 43% of white students are legacy admissions, athletes, or related to donors or staff at Harvard. 

    Now, the Supreme Court’s decisions in Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina ruled that legacy admissions, which largely help white and wealthy applicants, will stand, while affirmative action, which aids historically oppressed groups, has been gutted.

    A Media Matters analysis of coverage on the affirmative action cases in the week that followed the Supreme Court rulings found Fox News’ coverage of legacy admissions severely lacking — mentioning legacy admissions in just 20% of its segments on the decision, which rarely highlighted legacy admissions as a central talking point. On the other hand, CNN and MSNBC mentioned legacy admissions in 38% and 43% of their segments, respectively, which included in-depth discussions of legacy admissions and how the process aids more privileged applicants. 

    While some conservatives have stated opposition to legacy admissions in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision, most of the discussion has been centered around celebrating the end of race conscious admissions practices and claiming that meritocracy has been restored. Fox’s Jesse Watters went so far as to lecture Black Americans on how affirmative action was discriminatory against white Americans. 

    Meanwhile, mainstream media have centered legacy admissions in the discussion of a post-affirmative action America. CNN Tonight hosted a whole panel discussion on legacy admissions that delved into the wide variety of ways for well-connected students to get a leg up.

  • Video file

    Citation From the July 3, 2023, edition of CNN Tonight

  • Fox News’ coverage, however, leaned into pushing the false claim that without affirmative action in place, college admissions will be a more merit-based system — while ignoring other college admissions practices such as legacy admissions that still prioritize students from wealthier backgrounds. 


    Media Matters searched transcripts in the SnapStream video database for all original programming on CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC for any of the terms “Harvard,” “North Carolina,” or “Supreme Court,” within close proximity to any of the terms “affirmative action,” “merit,” “legacy,” “admission,” “race,” “equal protection,” or “discrimination” from June 29, 2023, when the Supreme Court ruled on the cases, through July 6, 2023.

    We included segments, which we defined as instances when either Supreme Court case, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard or Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, was the stated topic of discussion or when we found significant discussion of either case. We defined significant discussion as instances when two or more speakers in a multitopic segment discussed either case with one another.

    We did not include mentions, which we defined as instances when a single speaker in a segment on another topic mentioned either case without another speaker in the segment engaging with the comment, or teasers, which we defined as instances when the anchor or host promoted a segment about either case scheduled to air later in the broadcast.

    We then reviewed the identified segments for whether any speaker in the segment made a statement about the role that legacy admissions play in the college admissions process.

    We defined a statement as a block of uninterrupted speech from a single speaker. For host monologues, headlines, and correspondent reports, we defined a statement as the block of speech between read quotes and played clips. We did not consider the speech within read quotes or played clips unless a speaker in the segment positively affirmed the speech either directly before or after the quote was read or the clip was played.