On Friday, FBI special counsel Robert Mueller filed the first charges against Russians in his investigation. The indictment details how a small group of Russian internet trolls tried to leverage America’s deep ideological divide to interfere with “political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.”
It doesn’t say whether the Trump campaign knew about this effort, or that it changed the election results. Rather, it methodically laid out a story of how Russians influenced American politics.
But on Fox News, there was a different story crafted over the weekend.
It’s a familiar one, which we saw most recently as Fox News pushed the Nunes memo conspiracy: It’s the narrative that the Mueller investigation is flawed because the FBI is flawed. But this time, the network managed to leverage a completely unrelated tragedy to bolster this narrative; it tied in the failure of the FBI in reacting to warnings about the Florida mass shooter, who killed at least 17 people, and used that to challenge the credibility of the Mueller investigation.
Let’s see how this happened.
Fox News coverage of Mueller’s actual indictment was limited
After news of the Mueller indictment broke, MSNBC and CNN (to a lesser extent) ramped up coverage of the story.
We looked at all the transcripts from Friday afternoon to Sunday night to see what percentage of each hour was devoted to covering certain topics. (More on the methodology at the bottom of this post.)
The story peaked on MSNBC in the first 12 hours after the story broke. During that period, there were blocks in which about 10 percent of airtime would talk directly about the Mueller indictment. On CNN, this story peaked at about 6 percent of airtime.
But on Fox News, it never broke 4 percent.
The Mueller indictment provides many details of how the Russian operation worked. It’s not the kind of story that should spiral entirely into political speculation. And, if anything, it is concrete evidence that Mueller’s investigation isn’t just a witch hunt against Trump, as the president has often said, but rather a truth-finding endeavor.
But that’s not the story we got on Fox News.
On Fox News, a full-throated defense of Trump
Instead of focusing on the details of the indictment itself, pundits on Fox News spent a good chunk of their airtime pointing out that this isn’t proof of the Trump administration colluding with Russia.
Here’s Fox News pushing this interpretation of the indictment in the hours after the story broke:
And here’s Sean Hannity taking the leap and saying that this indictment actually vindicates Trump:
Trump has tried to say, time and again, that the story that the Russians interfered with the election is a “hoax.” After the indictment, he is changing his story a bit and saying there may have been interferences but he had nothing to do with it:
I never said Russia did not meddle in the election, I said “it may be Russia, or China or another country or group, or it may be a 400 pound genius sitting in bed and playing with his computer.” The Russian “hoax” was that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia - it never did!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 18, 2018
But the truth is that this indictment doesn’t address whether the Trump campaign knew about Russian interference.
So let’s put this bluntly: On the day the FBI special counsel released an indictment that details how a foreign power may have tried to influence American election results and dismantle trust in the American election process, Fox News spent the first hours trying to play defense for President Trump.
The other big story, the Florida mass shooting, also plays a part in the Fox News narrative
Until that point, the event that drove virtually all cable news coverage was the Florida mass shooting. But after the indictment news broke, all the networks scaled back that coverage.
On Fox News, we know those few hours were crucial. As we’ve established, that’s when a full-throated defense of the president was being echoed on the air, over and over again. So we can see coverage of the shooting plummet on Fox News even further than on the other networks:
However, there’s a substory to the Florida mass shooting that weaves into the Mueller investigation.
The FBI acknowledged on Friday that someone close to the Florida shooter, Nikolas Cruz, sent in a tip that Cruz had exhibited disturbing behavior, owned guns, and wanted to kill people. That got a lot of coverage on all networks throughout the weekend — but it eventually died down.
Not on Fox News, though:
This story of the FBI failure continues to have life. President Trump also got wind of this story and tweeted about it:
Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. This is not acceptable. They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign - there is no collusion. Get back to the basics and make us all proud!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 18, 2018
It’s been an astounding 72 hours on Fox News
The data paints a clear story of how damaging it is for a media outlet to prioritize its defense of the president. In the past 72 hours, Fox News:
- Limited its coverage of what the indictment actually reveals: evidence of foreign organizations trying to undermine American democracy
- Drastically reduced coverage of the Florida school shooting to push pundits onto TV to say this story actually vindicates President Trump, even though it does nothing of the sort
- Used a detail of the school shooting to push the narrative that the FBI, and by extension the Muller investigation, is flawed — and gave cover to President Trump
It’s easy to just chalk all this up to Fox News being Fox News. But Fox News is the main source of news for 19 percent of 2016 voters, including 40 percent of Trump voters. There’s academic evidence that Fox News is more powerful than we ever imagined. It’s a network that allows conspiracy theorists to make hay out of baseless lies. And to top it all off, there is evidence that the hosts see their jobs as advising Trump — talking directly to him — and that Trump sees them as his main information source.
This is why it’s important to keep track of what Fox News is doing. While Russians may have used clever trolling tactics to sow distrust in the American political process, Fox News does this out in the open, and it does it with a megaphone every single night, directly into the living rooms and the minds of millions and millions of Americans.
Methodology: We used transcript data from the TV News Archive, via the GDELT Project’s tool Television Explorer. The tool breaks up the transcripts into 15-second blocks and then calculates what percentage of those blocks contains a word or a group of words. For something like the Mueller indictment, we searched for whether the word “Mueller” appeared in a 15-second block and whether the word “indictment” or “indict” appeared in that same block or the ones before or after it.