Friday, November 21, 2008

Foot Soldiers In The Cable News Wars

Pandering To The Choir: The three major cable TV news channels are backed into a corner reaching for niche audiences which in the broadest terms can be described as preaching to the choir: Fox for conservatives; MSNBC for liberals and CNN for those disgusted with the biases of the former two. The election of Barack Obama and strong Democrat majorities in both Houses has forced role reversals for Fox and MSNBC. Fox no longer voices the talking points of a Republican administration. The baton is handed to MSNBC. Not three weeks after the election and two months before inauguration, Fox is turning vicious on some of Obama's expected cabinet appointees and MSNBC is expressing a bitter conflict among the Democrat's far left and moderate wings of the party. All three cables are manufacturing entertainment under the guise of "news." It's the same game as sportswriters provide speculating on what team will win the Super Bowl. As for ratings, isn't it rather ironic that on election night, these niche audiences switched to CNN for polling results? When the news really mattered, they could care less what Karl Rove on Fox was explaining how McCain could win Ohio or Howard Fineman on MSNBC was extolling an expected Obama Electoral College landslide.
How Did We Get Here?: To appreciate the cable wars, a crash course in media history is necessary. Until Ted Turner launched CNN, Americans were spoon fed the news by newspapers, radio and the three major networks, ABC, CBS and NBC. The grandchild on the block, CNN inched its way forward emulating the three networks' 30-minute prime time broadcasts but at a 24/7 clip. In 1992 when media advertising, circulation and viewership started to slip, Rupert Murdock changed the playing field by launching Fox News. It was feisty, opinionated and adversarial while at the same time claiming to be "fair and balanced." The crown jewel of the network was Bill O'Reilly followed by conservative flamethrowers Sean Hannity, John Gibson, Neil Cavuto and a cast of other Neanderthals. The format worked. Fox catapulted to the top by 2000 and held that perch ever since. NBC launched its bastard child MSNBC after Fox but wallowed in obscurity for most of its first decade. Then, GE, the parent company, decided to play Fox's game by being its polar opposite. Three years after the hiring of Keith Olbermann and carried by the tides of viewer interest in the presidential campaign, the niche audience discovered MSNBC big time. MSNBC quickly added far-left liberal Rachael Maddow to the stable. Those two make Chris Matthews, the long-standing face of MSNBC political coverage, pale by comparison. CNN also jumped into the niche audience fray with the reincarnation of the former mild-mannered financial commentator Lou Dobbs. He now bills himself as the beacon for independent thinking on the airwaves.
Where We Are Now: Fox remains the undisputed leader in the prime-time block for the past 27 consecutive quarters. According to data from Nielsen Media Research, the last third quarter shows Fox averaged 2.2 million total viewers for the 8-11 p.m. time block, CNN ninth with 1.3 million and MSNBC 23rd with 867,000. Because of its low base, MSNBC managed a whopping 81% increase from the 2007 third quarter. For the month of September, which included the first presidential debate and the peak of the economic meltdown, CNN registered the biggest year-to-year growth, up 165% in prime time from September 2007. Of note, “Morning Joe” on MSNBC is the fastest-growing morning show in cable news, up 57% in total viewers year-to-year. The No. 1 rated show is “The O’Reilly Factor” (2.9 million viewers). CNN’s “Larry King Live” ranked ninth (1.3 million viewers) and MSNBC’s “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” ranked 11th with 1.24 million viewers.
What It All Means: Michael Grant is a former colleague on the Union and Tribune newspapers in San Diego and now a fellow co-blogger of mine with much more expertise in media marketing. In an item he wrote in Friday's daily email newsletter of former and current Copley employees, Grant notes that O'Reilly and Olbermann are "rabidly op-ed entertainers with very small but big-enough-to-be-lucrative niche audiences. ... As for which entertainment I prefer, I would add “Droppings” to the end of O’Reilly’s new book title. But I also get uncomfortable watching Olbermann the Doberman when he gets really snarly. I believe it is important here to remember the second law of media: “The media is an exercise in the power of small numbers.”
Bashing The Mushy Middle: Laurie Becklund also is a former colleague and contributor to the 919 Gang daily newsletter published by former and current employees of the Copley chain of newspapers. She takes a traditional, old-school approach in the media's role of dispensing news. Offered are excerpts of a letter she wrote to a Columbia Journalism Review article by Dean Starkman who lambasted the financial press for failure to address Wall Street corruption.
  • It has always seemed to me that one of the most dangerous errors of American journalism is mistaking the center for neutral. The center is a mid-point on a sliding scale. Its place is determined by opinions and prevailing winds. Neutral is, or should be, the radical willingness to find and communicate what's true, no matter whether that truth lies in the middle or to one side. ... Often, we don't know the facts. But, when was the last time you read a "for the record" from a news organization apologizing for tacitly reassuring the public, often over and over again, even after the facts were in, that it had missed reporting the very heart of the matter? That reporters/editors had allowed readers to assume scary truths weren't really scary at all because they had taken the easy road and let spinmeisters' quotes in effect cancel each other out? Or that we ourselves had failed to grasp the gravity of crises because we couldn't quite believe facts we reported could be so utterly in conflict with the ideals we grew up believing in? As Dean Starkman said in this piece, "Most journalists, I would argue, retreat to the mushy middle... " He was talking about Wall Street and a failure to take aim at "breath-taking corruption." But, he might just as easily have been talking about foreign policy or politics." ... The American public may never have needed clarity from its journalists as it does today -- not just to distinguish accurate political claims from inaccurate ones, but to distinguish what is certain from what is uncertain and separate the "esoterica," as Starkman puts it, from the "breath-taking." ... When we do not think clearly, or when we are not bold enough to find and put forward the facts, regardless of public opinion, we may be safe, but our readers and viewers may well wind up losing their savings, their homes, or even their lives. I like Dean Starkman's simple, intuitive term "The Mushy Middle." It sounds like a kindergarten sandbox, a circumscribed place where you can build all sorts of things in an afternoon that don't survive the next rain. I hope the term catches on as a sort of short-hand so it can be recognized as the public hazard it is. Maybe if we identify the default habits that lead to the Mushy Middle, we can stop ourselves before we step in it.

Ouch!: It is clear that what we on the inside of the media profession have are internal quarrels. Outsiders only see our results. What Ms. Becklund writes is true. But a moderate view on politics and current events is far from mushy. We understand yet abhor the entertainment side of what passes for news shows. We recognize the vile agendas from both the far left and zealous right. We are not ideologues whether we favor one political party over the other, nor are we locked in step with either Republicans, Democrats, Greens or Libertarians. It may sound smug, but common sense -- the rule of the pragmatic -- is a major player. At least in my thinking. I could be wrong.


Anonymous said...

"Fox is turning vicious on some of Obama's expected cabinet appointees"

Please provide an example of "vicious".

I think this is an example of equating FOX and MSNBC as being equally bias. Sure the opinion shows each have their own views (although I would argue that Bill O'Reilly is hardly a Republican lapdog), but I would challenge anyone who says that FOXNews's reporting isn't fair.

MSNBC's news reporting, on the other hand, is very slanted toward the left and Obama in particular. The recent PEW Research studies show that.

I take you at your word that you are an independent commenter, but please don't fall for the cliche that FOXNews and MSNBC are EQUALLY guilty in their bias.

Jerry Remmers said...

My "vicious" reference to Fox News was a segment from the Hannity and Colmes show. In it, Hannity and his guests derided the integrity and character of proposed Attorney General Eric Holder.