Not everyone has time to watch C-SPAN for five-and-a-half hours in the middle of the week. Not even to watch President Trump’s former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen call Trump a “racist,” “con man” and “cheat,“ as happened on Wednesday. And not even to watch Cohen be forcefully questioned by Republicans in response.
As such, we rely on the news media to watch for us. But the media is not a monolith. How an outlet condenses a big event like the Cohen hearings can shade how its audience interprets the events. And when it came to cable news, the networks differed in their coverage of the hearing’s aftermath, as you might expect. But an analysis of how the words used by each network differed is a window into how they’re framing the threats to Trump’s presidency. MSNBC, for example, appeared particularly focused on the legal implications of the hearing — on Robert Mueller and prosecutors. CNN was heavy on issues of credibility, money and payments, and the claim by Cohen that Trump is a “racist.” And Fox News was especially focused on other news altogether, namely what was happening thousands of miles away, where Trump was sitting down with Kim Jong Un.
Certain specific words gave the Cohen hearing these flavors on each of the three cable networks. Using data from the Internet Archive’s Television News Archive and processed by the GDELT Project, we analyzed the coverage of Cohen on CNN, Fox News and MSNBC from 5 p.m. to midnight the day of the testimony.1 To suss out any differences in the networks’ coverage, we first looked at when “Cohen” was spoken and which other words were said within the same 15-second window. (That’s the size of the clips we can access from the data sources.) Then we looked at the 200 most-used Cohen-adjacent words across the three networks and isolated the 15 words that were most particular to each network. (By most particular, we mean the words that were used relatively more often in a network’s Cohen coverage.)2 You’ll see those words plotted on the chart below; we arranged each word by what percentage of clips that used that word came from each network. For example, of all the Cohen-related clips mentioning the word “summit,” 80 percent were on Fox News, 15 percent were on MSNBC and 5 percent were on CNN.
The words close to each network’s corner of the coverage triangle are the ones most specifically associated with its coverage. For CNN, “certainly,” “credibility” and “racist” stood out. Fox News was notable for its use of the word “summit” — presumably in reference to Trump’s meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which happened around the same time as the Cohen hearing. And MSNBC’s coverage was distinguished by its talk about “prosecutors” and “Mueller.” (Words in the center, such as “news,” were used a lot but not especially favored by any network in particular.)
And the qualitative flavor of the coverage varied widely as well. CNN talking head Chris Cillizza baldly declared “winners” and “losers” from the hearing. The former included the performance during the hearing of U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — “and man, did she nail it.” Ocasio-Cortez’s interrogation of Cohen was praised elsewhere for being “well thought out.” The latter included Mark Meadows, the chairman of the House Freedom Caucus, who was “out for blood,” revealing little in his questions beyond his contempt for Cohen.
On the other hand, other coverage suggested that the hearing was merely a tool for Trump’s opponents and that given Cohen’s history of lying, the whole thing was something of a farce. The day after the hearing, the morning show Fox & Friends, for example, went meta, declaring that the media “misses the mark.” “This is what you get when you have partisan political operatives masquerading as journalists,” said Ned Ryun, a Republican strategist and the show’s guest. “They can barely control their glee.” He went on to call it “theater of the absurd” and a “total clown show.”
Fox & Friends then stepped hard on the FiveThirtyEight brand, comparing data on the amount of time the cable news networks had spent on Cohen versus the U.S.-North Korea summit during the run-up to the hearing, lamenting the fact that the other networks had given far more airtime to the former. “There’s a reason they call us fair and balanced,” a host said. (FiveThirtyEight has not independently verified those numbers.) The summit fell apart early, and no deal was reached.
There will be more political events in the weeks and months to come. The cable networks’ coverage surely won’t march in lockstep on those, either. We’ll be watching.
From ABC News: