Americans divided on Williams return

| Tom Jensen

PPP’s annual TV News poll finds that Brian Williams’ recent problems haven’t had any impact on overall perceptions of NBC News. Voters are evenly divided, with 40% saying they trust NBC News and 40% saying they don’t. Those numbers are virtually identical to what we found on the 2014 iteration of this poll, when 39% said they trusted NBC and 39% said they didn’t.

Even though the controversy hasn’t affected perceptions of NBC much overall, it’s definitely impacted feelings about Williams. 31% of voters have a positive opinion of him to 39% with a negative one. There’s close division about whether he should be able to return- 39% say yes while 36% think he should be fired. There are big partisan divides in attitudes towards Williams. Among Democrats 52% think he should be allowed to come back to just 24% who believe he should be fired. But among Republicans only 32% support his return with 45% saying he should be let go.

In a sign of how much the American TV news landscape has changed over the years, Williams is the only evening news anchor who a majority of voters even have an opinion about. Scott Pelley has 43% name recognition, it’s 38% for David Muir, and it’s 37% for Bret Baier. These aren’t the big personalities of a generation or two ago. Also speaking to the shifts in how people consume their news, Baier beats out all the network anchors for ‘favorite’  honors with 24% to 19% for Williams, 14% for Pelley, and 13% for Muir. That’s a measure of how partisan Americans have become in their news consumption- 36% of Republicans say Baier is their favorite while Democrats are more divided with no one rising above 27% with them, putting Baier in first overall.

If NBC does decide to replace Brian Williams with Lester Holt they won’t see much of a drop off in popularity. Holt’s favorability rating of 30% falls just below Williams’ 31%, but he doesn’t have near the quantity of voters who dislike him with only 15% giving him a negative rating to Williams’ 39%.

Interestingly the current roster of Sunday show hosts is much better known than the evening news anchors these days. 3 out of 4 of them have more than 50% name recognition- George Stephanopoulos at 72%, Bob Schieffer at 58%, and Chris Wallace at 56%. Stephanopoulos wins favorite Sunday show host honors with 26% to 20% for Wallace, 17% for Schieffer, and 12% for Chuck Todd. That’s because Stephanopoulos wins out with both Democrats and independents, while Wallace is ahead just with Republicans.

When it comes to who people trust and distrust the most overall in TV news the answer is the same as it is every year- Fox News on both counts. 32% of voters say they trust Fox the most in TV news to 14% for PBS and CNN, 10% for ABC News, and 9% for CBS News. NBC News at 5%, and MSNBC and Comedy Central at 4% rate lower.

Fox News also wins out when it comes to who viewers trust the least though. 30% pick it on that front to 20% for Comedy Central, 15% for MSNBC, and 11% for CNN.  No one else polls above 5% for least trusted.

The extreme polarization in what media outlets people trust continues this year. Fewer than 25% of Republicans trust ABC, CBS, Comedy Central, MSNBC, CNN, and NBC. They’re closely divided on PBS with 37% trusting it and 39% distrusting it. But really they just trust Fox News and nothing else with 66% saying they put their faith in it to just 25% who don’t.

It’s almost the opposite story when it comes to Democrats. Majorities of them trust ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC, NBC News, and PBS. And more of them than not (44/30) trust Comedy Central as well. The only outlet they don’t trust is Fox News, although 33% who do trust it is still more than the share of Republicans who trust any of the major networks.

You can really see the disparate ways in which Democrats and Republicans consume news by which outlet they say they trust the most. 56% of Republicans say Fox to 10% each for ABC and CNN. There’s really no competition at all. For Democrats on the other hand there’s a pretty wide distribution of outlets winning ‘most trusted’ honors- CNN gets 21%, PBS 18%, ABC 14%, and CBS and Fox 11%. Only 6% of Democrats say MSNBC is the outlet they trust the most, perhaps showing one reason it’s struggling so much in the ratings- it really just isn’t the go to place for Democrats in the way that Fox is for Republicans.

Republicans actually hate MSNBC more than Democrats like it. 28% say it’s their least trusted TV news source to 18% for Comedy Central, 15% for Fox News, and 14% for CNN. Fox News unsurprisingly easily wins out as the least trusted news source for Democrats at 48% to 22% for Comedy Central with nothing else registering in double digits.

The only news outlet a majority of Americans trust overall is PBS- 52% say they trust it to 26% who don’t. That’s because it’s the only one that has overwhelming trust from one party (Democrats at 69/13) and at least comes close to breaking even with the other (Republicans at 37/39).

Full results here

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