Action and reaction, particularly in cable news

Posted: May 01, 2003 12:00 AM

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.

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen says Rupert Murdoch, who started Fox News, merits an award "listing his sins and a bucket of slime with his name on it." CBS news president Andrew Heyward, oh so high-tone, says, "There is a longstanding tradition in the mainstream press of middle-of-the-road journalism that is objective and fair. I would hate to see that fall victim to a panic about the Fox effect." But NBC News president Neal Shapiro may be getting the message of the medium when he says, "If you have a range of opinion that leaves out a whole part of the country, you're unintentionally sending a message that 'you are not welcome here.' "

It could be that American readers, listeners and viewers are not the idiots the supercilious left thinks they are. They are basically moderate conservatives who see the liberalism in so much of the coverage and "analysis" in mainstream journalism comprising newspapers (and newsmagazines) and network news. Tuning them out, they turned on to talk-radio and cable news, and now they are flocking to Fox - seeing it as fair and balanced, predominately conservative though it may be, as a counterpoise in an otherwise lopsidedly leftist media world.

"The Fox effect" may be defined as a blurring of traditional notions of "objectivity" via a seamless interlacing of news with analysis and opinion - or opinion masked as analysis. But what is possibly revolutionary about it is not that it is new but that the opinion is conservative.

Newspapers have been injecting opinion - almost entirely liberal - into news columns for decades. (Keats said marvelously, "Let any man write six words and I can hang him for it" - i.e., in just six words the writer's bias or slant will be clear.) Some newspapers are blurring the distinction between news and opinion by running analysis or opinion pieces, frequently by reporters, in the news columns. The New York Times sort of sealed the deal when it named its adamantly leftist editorial page editor as editor of the news department.

The rise of Fox News may be the latest response to the liberalism in the press first heralded by the rise of conservative syndicated columnists, who long have dominated the op/ed pages. Leftism permeates newspapers and television. In his book Coloring the News, William McGowan - a reporter published widely - finds at key major dailies "an invisible liberal consensus." Civil libertarian and press observer Nat Hentoff concurs.

In television, network coverage generally supported the American enterprise in Vietnam - until Walter Cronkite editorialized against it. That opened the floodgates. Today network television is drowning in blatant bias evident in bites such as this Lesley Stahl tilt with Colin Powell March 25 on CBS' "48 Hours":

Stahl: There are now criticisms, we're beginning to hear, that this force (in Iraq) isn't massive enough.

POWELL: It's nonsense....

Stahl: Yeah, but our, the rear is exposed.

POWELL: It's not. Exposed to what? Exposed to small -

Stahl: Exposed to fedayeen, exposed -

POWELL: Fine. So? We'll get them in due course....

Stahl: Are you saying you're not worried or concerned about guerrilla warfare?

POWELL: Of course we are and that, and we're trained to handle this. ... They're not threatening the advance.

Stahl: But you can't get your supplies -

POWELL: Who says?

Stahl: - can't get the humanitarian -

POWELL: Who says?