Ross Mackenzie

OK, kids. Let's all sit down for a status report on the American press...

The Second Iraq War, and 9/11 before it, were high press moments. The decision to "embed" reporters in American and British units at long last sensitized the press to the military and probably set the standard for how future conflicts will be covered.

Call the Iraq coverage whatever you like - judgmental, cynical, cheerleady, jingoistic - it and 9/11 briefly raised readership and viewership in realms where a disappearing audience is the fundamental concern. Since 1994, adult readership of daily newspapers has declined from 49 percent to 41 percent, and daily audience for TV news, including cable, plunged from 72 to 55 percent. In both cases, drops are steepest among young adults.

The reasons for this are many: lifestyle changes, women in the workforce, "me-ism," personal interests and goals - faster rat races and more frazzled lives. Even if Americans are not busier than they used to be, many THINK they are, and that perception means they will allocate less time to reading and watching the news.

Then, mentioned with increasing frequency, is the L-word. Among the vaunted top 10 or 20 dailies these days, hardly one is known for even the moderation of its news side, and certainly none - except The Wall Street Journal - for the conservatism of its editorial operation. The leftist bias of network and cable news television is well chronicled, with swells in both sectors (network and cable) reacting in near-horror to "the Fox Effect," about which more below.

Liberal talk-radio seems to turn off listeners on a landscape dominated by Rush Limbaugh, Laura Schlessinger, Mike Reagan and Sean Hannity. Concerned, some rich lefties are pouring millions into trying to change that - with meager prospects of success.

The big news is in cable. Begun in 1996, Fox News surpassed CNN in viewership in January 2002, and now is running away with the largest cable news audience by far. MSNBC, owned jointly by Microsoft and General Electric, and overseen by GE's NBC network news, performed comparatively well in Iraq but remains a distant third behind Fox and CNN. Having failed with the fatuous leftie Phil Donahue, MSNBC now is experimenting with two conservatives to leaven its ideological load - and thereby to attract the moderates and conservatives who constitute a heavy majority of the cable news audience.

Fox seems to have found a winning formula with its boast to be fair and balanced by airing both sides. And the inquiring mind has to wonder at the extent to which the networks and the other cable outlets and establishment press types get it - or don't.

Ross Mackenzie

Ross Mackenzie lives with his wife and Labrador retriever in the woods west of Richmond, Virginia. They have two grown sons, both Naval officers.

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