Cable news coverage of Trump trial reflects a U.S. divided

By Thomson Reuters Apr 23, 2024 | 5:10 AM

By Helen Coster and Kanishka Singh

NEW YORK (Reuters) – When Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s hush money trial began in a Manhattan courthouse on Monday, cable TV news coverage of the case was as divided as America itself.

A Reuters review of 2-1/2 hours of daytime coverage showed the distinctly partisan approaches of the Fox News Channel and MSNBC News to the trial taking place in the midst of an election campaign pitting the former president against Democratic President Joe Biden.

Fox News, which is the country’s most watched cable television network and leans Republican, gave significantly more air time to other national news including protests on U.S. college campuses against the war in Gaza.

Liberal-leaning network MSNBC, a home for anti-Trump voices, focused solely on the trial.

The split-screen-like coverage reflects a U.S. cable news ecosystem that creates alternate realities for viewers, reaffirming existing beliefs, say U.S. journalism experts.

Cameras are not allowed in the courtroom, forcing Americans to rely on media outlets for news of what is unfolding out of public view, including cable channels Fox News, MSNBC and CNN.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to falsifying business records to cover up a $130,000 payment to porn star Stormy Daniels in 2016 to silence her about a sexual encounter she says they had and which he denies.

Much is at stake. Some public opinion polls suggest some voters may choose not to vote for Trump if he is convicted.


What people watch on cable news reaffirms their ideologies, Stephanie Edgerly, professor of journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, told Reuters.

“We start to see that having really powerful effects on how they see the world: what they think is right and wrong and who they’re going to vote for and how favorable or unfavorable they view presidential candidates,” said Edgerly, who studies news audiences.

MSNBC’s top anchor, Rachel Maddow, who was inside the courthouse during opening statements, described Trump as “annoyed” and “resigned, maybe angry.”

“He seems like a man who is miserable to be here,” she said on the air later outside the courthouse.

Fox News senior correspondent Eric Shawn had a different view of Trump’s demeanor, saying the former president had sat quietly at the defense table during proceedings.

The ticker at the bottom of the MSNBC screen covered nearly every trial development as a “breaking news” flash.

MSNBC repeatedly flashed a quote from the prosecution saying, “It was election fraud, pure and simple” and another from the defense saying “nothing wrong with trying to influence an election.”

In contrast, the hour-long Fox program “The Faulkner Focus” spent less than 10 minutes on the trial, focusing in part on potential flaws in the prosecution’s case.

During the Fox show “Outnumbered” co-host and former Trump White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told a roundtable of panelists that her former boss looked “strong” and “confident” and that Democrats were misguided in thinking the case “would mire Trump in negative coverage.”

Of the two Fox legal analysts who spoke on the air, one was critical of the prosecution’s efforts and the other described the case as the “weaponization of the criminal legal system.”

Asked for comment on their coverage, a Fox News spokesperson said the network’s newsgathering teams had been reporting on all facets of Trump’s hush money trial. Representatives for MSNBC did not respond to a request for comment.


A 2022 study published by the National Academy of Sciences that analyzed 10 years of cable television news found a growing partisan gap, particularly after the 2016 election that Trump won, as networks like Fox News and MSNBC shifted to the right and the left of the political spectrum respectively, especially in their prime-time programming.

Separate research from last year, by University of California, Berkeley, political scientist David Broockman and Berkeley alumnus Joshua Kalla of Yale University, found that many Americans were in “partisan echo chambers,” where they only consumed television news that reinforced their existing political and social biases.

“Most people who tune in to Fox News lean to the right, but Fox draws them further to the right,” the authors wrote. “Likewise, MSNBC is pulling those to the left further left. And neither side almost ever watches the other.”

The Fox News spokesperson pointed to data from Nielsen MRI Fusion showing the network has the most politically diverse audience in cable news with more Democrats, Republicans and independents watching Fox News than any other cable news network.

When the court wrapped up for the day, Trump came out to speak to the media, calling the case unfair and denying wrongdoing.

MSNBC carried his remarks live for a few minutes before cutting him off, with anchor Andrea Mitchell saying the former president was trying to minimize the case against him.

“This has nothing to do with the federal government,” Mitchell added, responding to Trump’s claim that legal cases against him were being driven by the Biden administration.

The hush money case is being prosecuted by the Manhattan district attorney. The federal government is not involved.

(Reporting by Helen Coster in New York and Kanishka Singh in Washington; Editing by Ross Colvin and Howard Goller)