Half-True
Pitts, Jr.
"America’s least-trusted news sources are also its most popular."

Leonard Pitts, Jr. on Saturday, November 1st, 2014 in a column in the "Miami Herald"

Liberal columnist says the least trusted news sources are the most popular

Conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh at a 2007 Michigan event. A recent survey found his show broadly mistrusted among 36 news sources. (Getty Images)

Many words have been said and many numbers crunched to explain political polarization in America. One theory is that liberals and conservatives swim in different waters when it comes to news and information. Liberal columnist Leonard Pitts, Jr. offered a new spin on this theme. In a Nov.1 op-ed, Pitt said most of the fault lies on the right end of the spectrum. He blamed conservative hardliners who "are more rabid in support of those who validate their views than the rest of us are in pursuit of simple truth."

To prove his point, Pitts cited a recent report from the Pew Research Center that explored the level of trust enjoyed by 36 news sources, ranging from television networks to partisan blogs. Pitts focused his column on two sources, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. In the Pew study, 39 percent of respondents said they distrusted Limbaugh, and 37 percent voiced the same misgivings about Fox News.

Pitts noted that Rush Limbaugh "hosts the number one show on radio and Fox is the highest-rated cable news outlet." His conclusion?

"America’s least-trusted news sources are also its most popular."

A reader asked us to check that statement and we are happy to oblige.

There are two elements to check: Are Limbaugh and Fox News the least-trusted? And are they the most popular with Americans?

‘Least-trusted’

Yes, the Pew survey found that more people distrusted Limbaugh and Fox News than any other outlet.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the two outlets are the "least-trusted" as Pitts claimed. To find that out, you need to account for the percentage of people who say that they trust Limbaugh and Fox News.

For instance, while 39 percent of respondents said they distrusted Limbaugh, 12 percent said they trust him. And for Fox News, more people (44 percent) said they trust the network then said they distrust it (37 percent).

Factoring that in, Limbaugh has the biggest trust gap of any of the 36 outlets polled. But Fox News is in the middle of the pack.

Here’s the calculation for each outlet in the survey.

News Source

Pct. Trust

Pct. Distrust

Net trust

CNN

54%

20%

+34

ABC

50%

17

+33

NBC

50%

19%

+31

CBS

46%

17%

+29

BBC

36%

7%

+29

PBS

38%

12%

+26

Wall Street Journal

31%

10%

+21

NPR

29%

9%

+20

USA Today

33%

13%

+20

New York Times

34%

17%

+17

MSNBC

38%

22%

+16

Google News

25%

11%

+14

Washington Post

27%

14%

+13

Economist

12%

2%

+10

Fox News

44%

37%

+7

New Yorker

14%

10%

+4

Yahoo News

20%

16%

+4

Blaze

6%

3%

+3

Guardian

7%

4%

+3

Bloomberg

11%

8%

+3

Politico

7%

5%

+2

Huffington

18%

17%

+1

Slate

4%

3%

+1

Mother Jones

6%

5%

1

Breitbart

4%

4%

0

Think Progress

2%

2%

0

Drudge Report

8%

9%

-1

Daily Kos

2%

3%

-1

Colbert Report

15%

16%

-1

Daily Show

16%

18%

-2

Ed Schultz

3%

5%

-2

BuzzFeed

2%

8%

-6

Al Jazeera

9%

16%

-7

Hannity

12%

21%

-9

Glenn Beck

10%

24%

-14

Rush Limbaugh

12%

39%

-27

 

So while it’s largely correct to conclude that Limbaugh’s program is the "least-trusted," the same cannot be as easily said about Fox News. Within cable news, Fox News rates last, but in a broader pool, it fares better. (We noted the Pew findings and called Limbaugh the "least trustworthy" news source in an Oct. 21 article. We did not do the same with Fox News.)

‘Most popular’

As for measuring popularity -- by the number of listeners, viewers or readers -- that can be complicated. For starters, the Pew survey includes newspapers, broadcast TV networks, cable TV networks, websites, radio organizations and individual radio shows.

Pitts expanded upon his claim in terms of comparing Limbaugh to other radio programs and Fox News to other cable networks. We think that’s a fair metric.

We’ll take Limbaugh first.

Rachel Nelson with Premiere Networks, the company that distributes the Rush Limbaugh Show, said it is the No. 1 talk radio program in America.

"The Rush Limbaugh Show is heard on nearly 600 stations by up to 20 million people each week and is the highest-rated national radio talk show in America," Nelson said.

However, it’s hard to find objective confirmation for the size of the Limbaugh audience. In radio, the Arbitron/Nielsen Audio service is the leading source for independent data. In order to get firm statistics for Limbaugh, one would need to look at how his show performed in all of the markets where stations carry it. That has not been done.

The closest approximation to Arbitron ratings comes from Talkers Magazine. In October, the magazine estimated Limbaugh’s audience at 12.5 million or more each week. But as the magazine notes, "these figures are non-scientific projections based upon a significant sample and do not represent exact Nielsen Audio or any other rating service totals."

What might compete with Limbaugh? NPR’s Morning Edition.

It airs on about 660 stations and according to NPR, in the Spring 2014 survey, 12,267,800 listeners tuned in each week, using Arbitron data. (In the Pew survey, 29 percent of people said they trusted NPR, 9 percent said they distrusted the public radio broadcaster.)

Bob Thompson is a professor at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. Thompson said the Arbitron numbers are themselves estimates based on statistical models. Thompson said that Morning Edition and the Rush Limbaugh Show could have similar-sized audiences.

"Those Arbitron numbers put NPR reasonably in the range of 12.5 million people who listen that show," Thompson said. "It’s silly to look at them as exact, but they get us into the neighborhood."

In summary, most everyone agrees that Limbaugh is near the top. But a definitive figure of listeners is elusive.

On the television side, Pitts’ claim about Fox News popularity is right when compared to other cable news networks.

Based on Nielsen data, in 2013, about 1.77 million viewers tuned in Fox News during the prime time hours between 8 and 11 p.m. That is more than the viewers for CNN and MSNBC combined.

But we should note that all of the network news programs beat out Fox News many times over. On an average night, 8.4 million viewers chose NBC Nightly News, 7.7 million viewers picked ABC World News, and 6.5 million viewers tuned in CBS Evening News.

"Cable news carves up a tiny slice of the population of this country," Thompson said.

Our ruling

Pitts said America’s least-trusted news sources are also its most popular ones and focused on the Rush Limbaugh Show on radio and Fox News on cable. According to the survey Pitts used, Limbaugh’s program is indeed the least-trusted news source. However, comparing the size of the gap between people who trust to those who distrust a source, Fox News falls in the middle of the pack.

In terms of popularity, Fox News clearly is the most popular channel in its genre and the Rush Limbaugh Show is likely the most popular radio talk show (or at least very close to it). Pitts’ assessment also obscures the enormous reach of network television news. The lowest-performing network, CBS, has an audience three times that of Fox News.

Pitts makes some valid points but he leaves out information that might lead someone to reach a different conclusion. We rate his claim Half True.