The study “Comparing Populist Media: From Fox News to the Young Turks, From Cable to YouTube, From Right to Left” by Reece Peck from College of Staten Island, CUNY compared the right-wing, populist Fox News to the progressive Young Turks Youtube channel, which is similarly populist in its anchoring style.
Fox News has enjoyed a meteoric rise to prominence in the US cable ecosystem. From 1998 to 2001, the viewership among 25 to 54 year olds of Fox rose a staggering 430 percent, and eventually, in 2002, Fox would be the number one in ratings, overtaking CNN and staying in that position since.
CNN originally responded by focusing on advertisers and by branding Fox as an illegitimate news source compared to itself or New York Times. While initially CNN was more successful with advertisers, Fox managed to beat it in them too by 2004.
According to the author, Fox News has managed to be so popular not because of its conservative political outlook (ironically branded as “Fair and Balanced”) but because of its populist style. Newspersonae such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity embody an authentic-seeming, blue-collar ‘everyman’ role. MSNBC for example, at the turn of the millenium misplaced the popularity to political leanings and sought to appeal to conservatives.
However, MSNBC did seek to capture the populist style later, first with Ed Schulz, and then with the hiring of the outspoken left-populist Cenk Uygur. Uygur’s reigh at MSNBC would prove to be short-lived, as he resigned after an attempt to move his show to the weekend slot – a poor slot in news. According to the then-MSNBC head, the reason for this snubbing was Uygur’s aggressive body language, but according to Uygur, it was because the MSNBC management did not like his left-wing criticism of the Obama administration. The author does not hold a stance here, we may not know the true reason(s).
The nebulous quality known as “authenticity” is central to the success of Fox News and many of its top-rating hosts. According to Cenk Uygur, who after MSNBC started his own (later) Youtube news channel The Young Turks, authenticity is even more important in digital media. This is because the algorithms in Youtube, like Facebook, tend to favor emotional content because it creates more user engagement. Yet, it is possible that cable news functions similarly (without the algorithms), thus digital media can be seen as a successor of cable media.
The Young Turks started as a radio show in 2002, but joined Youtube immediately when the platform started in 2005. He gained popularity with his emotional style and ‘rants’ about the second Iraq War (he is strongly opposed to it), breaking with what he views as a false dichotomy between rational and emotion-free left wing intellectual coverage and ‘anti-intellectual and bad’ emotional coverage.
The author makes the case that The Young Turks and the Bernie Sanders movement, is the left’s answer to the Tea Party and Fox News. The difference is that the Tea Party is supported by a multi-billion TV channel, while the Bernie Sanders movement is mainly supported by a financially struggling digital media outlet. Yet there are stylistic similarities, such as skepticism or even hostility to mainstream media.
Another related movement strongly supported via fundraising by The Young Turks is the Justice Democrats (JD). It was partially responsible for the success of the progressive populist candidate Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. This support was noted by CNN’s Brian Stelter in 2018, who asked whether the progressive media had matched the conservative media in supporting candidates.
In conclusion, most on the American left are satisfied with non-populist legacy media and prefer a more intellectual style in news coverage and find the populist style of outlets like The Young Turks unprofessional. Nevertheless, there is a radical subset among the left who do not feel represented by the mainstream left-leaning media and gravitate towards the populist style of The Young Turks.
The article “Comparing Populist Media: From Fox News to the Young Turks, From Cable to YouTube, From Right to Left” by Reece Peck is in Television & New Media. (free abstract).