In this era of political division, which cable news network you watch can reveal a lot about your political preferences.
For Republicans, it’s Fox News. For Democrats, it’s CNN or MSNBC.
But for a major retailer that serves the military, it’s simple: Don’t get involved.
The retailer, the Army & Air Force Exchange Service, which operates general and convenience stores and food courts on military bases in 34 countries, emailed locations this week recommending that they move away from playing news on public televisions and instead show a less partisan alternative: sports.
“As a federal entity, we remain neutral on political issues,” the message said. “News channels should not be shown on common area TVs due to their divisive political nature.”
In a second message to stores this week, the retailer removed its comments about news and politics but continued to suggest that televisions be tuned to sports. “This guidance allows flexibility to make adjustments based on the ‘news of the day’ and local needs,” it said.
Stars and Stripes reported news of the first message on Wednesday.
The Army & Air Force Exchange Service, which is part of the Department of Defense and one of the largest retailers in the country, is the latest group to try to tiptoe around the question of what to do with televisions in shared spaces, at a time when partisan identification has grown to be one of the biggest wedges in America.
In recent years, people have complained about Fox News playing in doctors’ offices and hospitals, leading one waiting room in California to block the network temporarily. Dozens of airports across the country show CNN to the chagrin of those who see the network as biased. Thousands of people signed an online petition to “remove CNN’s airport monopoly.”
One fitness chain decided it was best to get rid of cable news entirely. The chain, Life Time, a Minnesota-based gym with locations across the country, removed cable news — both left- and right-leaning stations, including CNN, Fox News and MSNBC — from the large-screen televisions in its gyms last year as part of its commitment to a “healthy way of life.”
T. Franklin Waddell, an assistant professor of journalism at the University of Florida, said that people tend to make assumptions about overall public opinion based on which news network is shown on public televisions.
“If you walk into a store or a restaurant and all the televisions are tuned to Fox News, you might make assumptions about the climate of public opinion and that can affect how likely you are to express your own political opinions,” he said.
“Those might be issues we can sidestep entirely if something more neutral was put on,” he added.
Chris Ward, a spokesman for Army & Air Force Exchange Service, said the emails this week were a general reminder, not a new policy, and were not prompted by any particular incident.
“We, of course, periodically do get complaints from customers,” he said. “If they are a CNN person, they don’t want it on Fox. If they are a Fox person, they don’t want it on CNN.”
The recommendation to turn to sports in food courts and other commons areas, he said, was a way to “appeal to the masses,” but he said it was just that: a recommendation.
“It’s not a hard and fast policy,” he said. “No one is going to get their hands slapped if they put the news on. It was more just guidance, like, hey, when in doubt, you can’t really go wrong with sports.”