If you were tuned in to your TV last week as news broke about the first indictments in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, you likely had a very different experience depending on which news channel you were watching.
Russia-related coverage was much more plentiful on MSNBC and CNN than it was on Fox News as Americans learned of the charges against President Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort, Manafort’s former business partner Rick Gates, and Trump’s former campaign adviser George Papadopoulos. However, our analysis of the three major cable news outlets showed that the networks had all been airing Russia-related stories, some of which were about the investigation, in the days and weeks before the indictments became public. It’s just that the ideological leanings of the network tended to determine when each covered Russia-adjacent news and which stories it focused on.
We investigated how those cable news networks covered the story by turning to the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive1 for all mentions of the words “Russia,” “Russian” or “Russians” in roughly the past month.2
In the first two weeks of October, MSNBC, whose audience leans left, aired more coverage of stories related to Russia than either Fox, whose audience leans right, or CNN did. (CNN’s audience is between the two ideologically but also leans left.) Some of those stories were about Mueller’s investigation.3 Other Russia-related coverage that MSNBC broadcast in the first two weeks of October included revelations originally reported by the The New York Times that Russia was using Facebook to influence what Americans read online during the 2016 election cycle. But perhaps the most interesting spike in MSNBC’s Russia coverage occurred on Oct. 6, when MSNBC’s Russia-related coverage frequently mentioned a dossier of allegations of compromising information about Trump from Russian sources that a former British intelligence officer had compiled during the 2016 campaign.4 The coverage focused on the news that the author of the dossier may have been willing to speak to Senate investigators about the contents of the document.
Although CNN was relatively quiet on Russia during those two weeks, we did see a spike in its coverage near the beginning of the month, when much of it mentioned Facebook.
All three networks’ Russia-related coverage began to spike again when Attorney General Jeff Sessions testified in front of Congress on Oct. 18 about President Trump’s firing of former FBI Director James Comey and other topics. However, Fox News’s Russia-related coverage spiked the most — in addition to airing coverage of Sessions’ testimony to Congress, it alone among the networks was giving airtime to a re-emerging story about the sale of uranium to Russia while Hillary Clinton was former President Obama’s secretary of state. This story, which was first reported in 2015, returned to Fox after The Hill published an article on Oct. 17 containing new information about an FBI probe that had collected evidence about the corrupt practices of Russian nuclear industry officials involved in the matter. That night, Sean Hannity aired a Fox News segment on the uranium deal, and the story picked up steam from there.
The dossier story also made a comeback during the second two weeks of October, but this time on Fox News rather than MSNBC. That followed a Washington Post report Oct. 24 that the company that had hired the former spy who authored the document was paid by a law firm representing the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee.
Both of those stories appeared more in Fox News’s Russia coverage than in MSNBC’s or CNN’s during the second half of October.5
CNN first reported on Oct. 27, a Friday, that charges had been filed in the Mueller investigation and that subjects could be taken into custody as soon as Monday. That led to a spike in Russia-related coverage at both CNN and MSNBC, but less so at Fox News. On Saturday and Sunday, just before the indictments were made public, words such as “uranium,” “dossier” and “Democrats” repeatedly popped up in Fox News coverage. The table below shows how much more or less often a word appeared in segments about Russia on each network that weekend compared with the three-channel average, expressed in standard deviations above or below the mean. For example, the word “collusion” appeared more often on CNN than it did in the average of the three networks; less often than that average on MSNBC; and right about average on Fox News.6
|STANDARD DEVIATIONS FROM THREE-NETWORK AVERAGE|
As the news broke and in the days that followed, Fox News’s coverage of Russia tapered off, while coverage on CNN and MSNBC continued. On Oct. 31, there was a notable drop in Russia-related coverage by all three networks after a deadly terrorist attack occurred in New York City.