Chuck Norris and Michael Moore as news analysts

The once heavily-policed border between celebrity and news analyst has become porous. This trend progresses slowly, but Fox News and MSNBC have vaulted ahead, daringly if also sparingly welcoming celebrities as news analysts.

Figure 1: Chuck Norris and Gena O'Kelley on "The O'Reilly Factor," September 11, 2012.

Figure 1: Chuck Norris and Gena O'Kelley on "The O'Reilly Factor," September 11, 2012.

In the latest issue of The Evolutionary Review, I apply moral foundations theory to understand how Fox News and MSNBC align themselves with viewers’ moral intuitions. In my article I say only a little about the use of celebrities as news analysts, a practice that Fox News and MSNBC seem to have openly embraced. Here I’ll review and elaborate my comments regarding how Chuck Norris is deployed by Fox News and Michael Moore by MSNBC.

News triggers moral intuitions

Moral foundations theory posits that humans have innate moral intuitions related to care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, authority, and sanctity (the Wikipedia entry for Moral Foundations Theory provides an adequate summary, and of course Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind is the go-to popular account of the theory). These intuitions helped early humans thrive as social animals. The behavior related to these intuitions is so important that these intuitions are often triggered automatically rather than arise as a result of reasoning.

For those who study TV news, the discovery that conservatives and liberals differ in terms of the intuitions on which they rely most heavily provides a promising way to explain the appeal of partisan political news. Most news stories seem designed in part to trigger moral intuitions of one sort or another, even if news producers rely on professional values rather than moral foundations theory when selecting stories. Fox News and MSNBC engage in a kind of moral-niche broadcasting. Instead of aiming for the broadest possible news viewership, Fox News and MSNBC target viewers at the right and left ends of the political continuum. This leaves off the table a large portion of the audience for TV news. But it enables Fox News and MSNBC to better tailor news coverage to trigger viewers’ moral intuitions.

Chuck Norris targets cheating intuitions

In my article, I note that Norris targets most of the intuitions identified in moral foundations research (p. 44): “On Fox News, actor Chuck Norris is a recurring guest, and his politically oriented blog posts are sometimes cross-posted on the Fox News website. Known for his martial arts skills and roles in law-and-order television and film entertainment, Norris is a good fit for a news network that aims to trigger viewer intuitions regarding authority and loyalty. Norris frequently calls attention to the dangers of free riding associated with taxation. His occasional mention of Christian values likely appeals to viewers’ intuitions regarding sanctity."

On September 11, 2012 (after my article went to press), Norris made an appearance on Fox News to warn Americans about threats related to the upcoming presidential election. The O’Reilly Factor covered as news the release of a video in which Norris issues the following statement: “If we look to history, our great country and freedom are under attack. We're at a tipping point, and quite possibly, our country, as we know it, may be lost forever if we don't change the course our country is headed (sic)”. 

As Figure 1 shows, Norris issues this statement from what seems to be a dojo. Norris’s wife, Gena O’Kelley, holds his hand throughout the statement. She does not speak. She nods her head in agreement. Norris and O’Kelley maintain the solemn demeanor appropriate for the ominous message.

Figure 2: Michael Moore participates in MSNBC coverage of election results, March 7, 2012.

Figure 2: Michael Moore participates in MSNBC coverage of election results, March 7, 2012.

After the video, host Bill O’Reilly interviews Norris on the set of The O’Reilly Factor, inviting Norris to be more specific about his warning. The ensuing discussion focuses primarily on the threat that, if re-elected, President Obama would unfairly redistribute wealth, and that this would constitute socialism. To reassure viewers that Norris and he are compassionate despite their concerns about taxes, O’Reilly tells Norris “you have a foundation, I have a foundation. And we give a lot money privately to charities that we know, like the Wounded Warriors, The Fisher House.” Both Wounded Warriors and The Fisher House serve military personnel and their families. Haidt surmises that Wounded Warriors is a charity likely to enjoy support among those who rely relatively heavily on moral intuitions regarding loyalty.

Michael Moore targets fairness intuitions

On the other side, filmmaker Michael Moore appears occasionally as a guest on MSNBC. Figure 2 shows Moore participating in MSNBC live coverage of 2012 presidential primary election results in Ohio and elsewhere. In this particular appearance Moore warns that Republican Rick Santorum is a tangible threat because Santorum could win the election if nominated: “He’ll lead a religious crusade. Tens of millions will come out of the woodwork for him.”

I note in my article (on page 44): “As famously liberal as Norris is conservative, Moore built his career documenting the greed and callousness of political and business elites. On MSNBC, Moore’s blunt diagnoses of news events as evidence of political power-mongering, corporate malfeasance, and religious bigotry seem likely to trigger viewer intuitions regarding fairness and care. Notoriously disheveled, Moore dresses more casually even than the informally dressed hosts on MSNBC, a visual reminder that MSNBC cares relatively little for traditions related to authority.”

Celebrities engage viewers

Norris and Moore are clearly aligned with the moral intuitions shared by viewers of the newscasts on which they serve as analysts. As celebrities, Norris and Moore bring to the newscast a seemingly personal bond with viewers.

Mainstream TV news has long maintained a firewall between celebrity and news personnel. A reporter can cover celebrities, but a reporter cannot aspire to attain celebrity status. Of course, some former anchors and reporters have become celebrities (e.g., Katie Couric). Many more succeed as anchors and reporters in part by cultivating celebrity-like fandom among viewers. Fox News and MSNBC have cut to the chase, employing celebrities as news analysts. In doing so, Fox News and MSNBC provide viewers with a more personal and perhaps more visceral connection to stories that target moral intuitions. This cultivates viewer engagement with the news.

Works cited

Evans, William. “Television News Audiences as Tribes, Television News as Moral Alliance.” The Evolutionary Review 4 (2013): 37-48.

Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. New York: Pantheon, 2012.