We know that most people don't watch partisan political cable TV news. But that's not what I'm talking about here. I'm talking about the effect of Fox News on elected representatives, both Republican and Democratic. There has been some research that Fox News made GOP voters more conservative, but this research is even more important because it measures the influence of Fox News on votes made by elected representatives on actual pieces of legislation. Moreover, when elections are near, we know that politicians' "behavior is increasingly constrained by the (perceived) preferences of their constituents."
First of all, the rollout of Fox News gave researchers an interesting natural experimental base: Fox News was rolled out gradually across the nation. Therefore, researchers could study those districts where Fox News had a media presence and those where it was not available.
Here are the money lines from the research paper:
[W]e find that the introduction of Fox News caused Republican members of Congress to side more often with their party in the run-up to the general election, while causing Democratic legislators to side with their party less often before the election. These findings support our general supposition that news media have a direct impact on the behavior of elected representatives. Media effects need not be mediated through the broader public . . . . Fox News may have bolstered the size of the Republican coalition in the U.S. House of Representatives, at least in its early days, rather than serving as a polarizing force. (emphasis added).
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So why might this be? The authors have a persuasive theory:
Because partisan news programs reach only a sliver of the American public, they are unlikely to influence public policy through direct shifts in aggregate public opinion. Nonetheless, the sliver of the public reached by partisan media cares enough about politics to follow it chronically, participate in elections, contact their elected officials, and so on. They are the sort of constituents that legislators are most likely to heed (emphasis added).
What's the takeaway? We now have empirical proof of the power of partisan media (note, the study analyzed politicians from the late 1990s to the early 2000s -- we don't know if MSNBC has made any difference). But Fox News has had an indelible impact on our politicians. This is not good -- when an openly partisan news source makes Democrats think the electorate is more conservative than it is, we have entered an entirely new world. Keep tuned, more research is to come. Hopefully, it's not as dire as this.