Cable bias

Posted: Jun 15, 2004 12:00 AM

 There is a reason why very few writers will tackle the issue of which TV broadcast news organization is viewed most favorably the public -- they know they may be blackballed from appearing as talking-head guests. But who cares? Let the chips fall where they may.

 The coverage of Ronald Reagan's death and funeral last week prompted some of his longtime supporters to scratch their heads in wonder. How was it that most network coverage during his presidency was slanted against anything he touched, but now that he's dead, he's suddenly seen in a kinder light? Well, time is the great healer of almost all political grudges. Nevertheless, the subject does create a perfect opportunity to discuss the surprising results of a recent InsiderAdvantage polling question about TV cable news networks. We asked:

 "Which of these cable news organizations do you think is least biased and most objective in their reporting?"

The results:
FOX News Channel:  31 percent
CNN:    30 percent
MSNBC:   14 percent
None, all the same:  11 percent
No opinion/Don't know: 14 percent

 The poll was conducted May 21-22 among 500 likely voters nationwide. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.

 First, MSNBC. The network has the fewest viewers, and therefore the lowest score. For my own money, I find their coverage to be extremely well-balanced. Of course, I closely watch all three networks, so I'm keenly aware of all three.

 As for the two most-watched cable news channels, I was initially shocked that FOX did not clean CNN's clock, given that they constantly point to their "fair and balanced" approach to the news. And while these results are good news for CNN, the InsiderAdvantage survey should give some comfort to the folks at FOX.

 Let me explain. A recent Pew Research Center survey reported that 29 percent of Republicans -- FOX News' core viewership -- "believe most or all" of what they see on that network. Twenty-six percent of Republicans put the same trust in CNN, according to the same survey.

 The InsiderAdvantage poll shows an entirely different picture that I believe is more realistic. In our survey, 46 percent of self-identified Republicans thought FOX the least biased and most objective, while only 23 percent said the same of CNN. Doesn't that make more intuitive sense? Surely no one at the two cable news giants is surprised. As for the Pew results, I'll only say that those in the polling industry probably won't be surprised at that pollster's curious findings.

 So where does CNN make up ground in statistically tying FOX for the crown of most objective and fair? Aside from Democrats -- no surprise there -- 35 percent of those describing themselves as political independents said they find CNN less biased and most objective, while only 21 percent said FOX.

 The overall results of our poll simply reinforce each network's idea of what makes them the best. FOX's red-white-and-blue, patriotic approach keeps Republicans and other conservatives happy. Not by Pew's ridiculously slim margin, but by as much as anyone armed with a TV Guide and a remote control could predict. And CNN's cool -- sometimes downright icy -- approach to news programming continues to broadcast an image that many viewers routinely accept as objective.

 Of course, as FOX's brilliant guru Roger Ailes would probably note, the proof is in the ratings. And that's a battle FOX has been winning (and proudly proclaiming on a billboard facing CNN's supposed "world headquarters" in Atlanta).

 The reality is that there are so many news outlets and so many TV copycats that all of the cable news networks and their broadcast news competitors seem to bleed into one. If you're like me, you routinely skip around; perhaps watching CNN's Judy Woodruff on politics, then maybe FOX's Bill O'Reilly, and then perhaps MSNBC's Chris Matthews, before skipping back to CNN's king of the interview, Larry King. For us news junkies, there is more than enough from which to choose. Personally, if I can start my day with CNBC's "SquawkBox," I'm a contented viewer. Today's media is about choice  -- your choice.