Fox is (basically) the only mainstream network talking about the Hunter Biden emails
They’re doing so more often and with far more consistency than any other major national TV news network.
[If] the Hunter Biden e-mail story was engineered to be an “October surprise,” it’s pretty safe to say that it’s fallen flat…
On Tuesday, October 14th the New York Post dropped a report revealing what they claim is a “smoking-gun email” purporting that Hunter Biden introduced his father, then Vice-President and current Presidential nominee Joe Biden, to a top executive at the Ukrainian energy firm Burisma. It was the first in a series of reports purportedly sourced from a hacked laptop belonging to the younger Biden. Over the ensuing days, the Post released text messages touching on “raw” conversations between Joe and Hunter Biden on the topic of the latter’s struggles with drug addiction; and another claiming that Hunter Biden was pursuing business dealings in China — dealings that his father would invariably get a cut of, the Post alleges.
This latter story makes the point of these stories clear: The Hunter Biden emails are purported to show evidence of Joe Biden’s corruption.
An October “Surprise” ?
The story has all the makings of an “October surprise,” an event occurring in a campaign’s waning days that injects some unpredictability into the race, potentially even reversing the candidates’ fortunes. There’s a good chance that this is by design. The materials furnishing the Post’s report was provided by President Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, who was at least aware of the hard drive and its contents for about 10 months. Steve Bannon, another Trump ally with ties to the story, told a Dutch public broadcaster last month that he “had the hard drive of Hunter Biden.” The fact that they released it now, rather than during the GOP-led Congressional investigations into Joe Biden’s conduct vis Ukraine, suggests this was intended to be an election stunt. (For the record, that Congressional investigation found no evidence of wrong-doing.) In fact, the credibility of the whole story is under heavy scrutiny: the fact that it leans so heavily into what has been denounced as Russian disinformation by US intelligence agencies is causing the FBI to investigate it. However, something doesn’t have to be “real” to have a real effect on politics (QAnon is case in point).
Preaching to the Choir
But if the Hunter Biden e-mail story was engineered to be an “October surprise,” it’s pretty safe to say that it’s fallen flat. It appears to be only getting traction with an audience who probably didn’t need all that much convincing: Those watching Fox and Fox Business.
In order to look at the relative coverage across different TV news networks, I turned to GDELT’s Television API, which uses data from the Internet Archive’s Television News archive to let users search the closed captions generated from prominent television networks in the US. The captions come from 15 second clips and values reflect what percentage of clips the story appeared in. I looked for mentions of “Hunter Biden” in the context of “email” at CNBC, CNN, Bloomberg, MSNBC, Fox News and Fox Business. (The API also tracks CSPAN, CSPAN2, and CSPAN3 — but it would be hard to call any of those three “mainstream.”) There’s a lot of research arguing that people consuming Fox’s content are in a unique media environment, and that being in this environment is strongly correlated with polarized positions on a number of salient issues, so I was expecting at least a bit of asymmetry going in.
But these is more than a bit. There’s only one place giving the story any airtime and it’s giving a lot of airtime. During the coverage period, Fox spent an average of 3.6 % of their hourly coverage talking about Hunter Biden while Fox Business spent 3.2 % of their coverage on the topic. For context, that average is higher than the maximum value of 2.9 % of hourly coverage given by MSNBC. At max, they were spending up and over 10% of their hourly news coverage on the topic.
But one thing that’s noticeable aside from the differences in volume is consistency. Most of the time, the story isn’t on the other stations’ radar. Fox and Fox Business, however cover the story frequently. This means that viewers tuning in have a higher chance of hearing about the story and those watching for extended periods are having the message frequently repeated and reinforced.
To some degree, this makes sense: Fox has been the most prominent mainstream player in promulgating the conspiracy theory that Ukrainian officials coordinated with Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration (and therefore Joe Biden) to prevent President Trump’s victory in 2016. Rumblings could be felt last fall after the quid-pro-quo story broke and efforts were in full-swing during the President’s impeachment trial. (I say conspiracy theory because, again, it’s been thoroughly and repeatedly debunked.) But the extent that this story persists and does so in such a starkly asymmetric way says a lot about our current media environment.
It’s understandable why the Trump camp would try to contrive an October Surprise. While the electoral college is currently biased in favor of Republicans, that wall cannot withstand an overwhelming Joe Biden popular vote victory. Persuasion is often a difficult task in high-profile elections — and this one doubly so; there are very few undecided voters left in this election and most of those are probably not guaranteed to be engaged enough with politics to cast a ballot. On top of that, it’s unclear how many of them are all that tuned-in to the few places really driving this story home.
An argument can be made that this effort was less aimed at Democrats and more at Republicans veering on the edge of voting Biden, voting third party, or not voting at all. That would probably be the most receptive audience to this “report” as they are: 1) more likely to watch Fox; and 2) predisposed to be more sympathetic to Trump than most others by dint of their partisan identities. However, if they were going for a bona fide surprise, it probably would’ve been better if they went for a topic with a little more reach.
Peter Licari is a data scientist and social scientist specializing in American political behavior. He received his PhD in American Politics and Political Methodology from the University of Florida in the Fall of 2020. The opinions expressed are his own. He can also be found on YouTube and on Twitter(@PRLPoliSci). What little spare time remains is dedicated to long-distance running, video games with his ever-patient wife, Stephanie, playing with his daughter, Rosalina, walking his dog, Dude, and holding oddly productive one-sided conversations with his cat, Asia.