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STREET LEGAL! Fox can (pretty much) do what it wants, Maddow oddly proclaimed: // link // print // previous // next //
WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 28, 2009

It’s all about the benjamins: In Tuesday’s New York Times, Bill Carter reported the latest cable news ratings, which show CNN sinking in prime time. That said, we were struck, as we often are, by one part of Carter’s approach: http:

CARTER (10/27/09): Fox dominates the news channel ratings in prime time, with its opinion-based programs, hosted by Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity, at the top. But its newscasts are also far ahead of CNN programs. Its 7 p.m. show, anchored by Shepard Smith, regarded as a nonideological program, dwarfs every CNN show in prime time.

In October, Mr. Smith averaged 465,000 viewers among the 25- to 54-year-old audience that news sells to advertisers. Lou Dobbs on CNN was fourth in the hour, with 162,000, edged by Ms. Velez-Mitchell on HLN with 166,000. MSNBC's Chris Matthews and ''Hardball'' was second with 179,000 viewers.

At 10 p.m., Mr. Cooper had 211,000 viewers, to 223,000 for Mr. Olbermann's repeat. Ms. Van Susteren had 538,000 viewers, and Ms. Grace averaged 222,000.

For the month, CNN averaged 202,000 viewers, ages 25 to 54. That was far behind the dominant leader, Fox, which averaged 689,000. But it also trailed MSNBC which had 250,000 viewers in that group and HLN, which had 221,000 viewers.

The only CNN program from 7 to 10 p.m. that did not finish last was Larry King, who was third. Mr. Hannity was first and Rachel Maddow on MSNBC second.

There’s some very weak editing there. (What time is Larry King on? CNN “averaged 202,000 viewers” when? All day? Throughout prime time?) But we were struck by Carter’s (conventional) decision to report these programs’ ratings only “among the 25- to 54-year-old audience that news sells to advertisers.”

The suits—the money-changers—care most about them, because they’re most likely to buy worthless products. But why should Carter adopt that preference? In fact, “the 25- to 54-year-old audience that news sells to advertisers” represents a surprisingly slender slice of these programs’ overall audience. For example:

This Monday evening, 330,000 viewers in that age group watched Countdown. But the program’s overall audience was much larger: 1.1 million. Ditto for Monday’s O’Reilly Factor. The program had 998,000 viewers in “the 25- to 54-year-old audience that news sells to advertisers.” But the program’s overall audience was 3.6 million. (For full data, click here.)

Money-grubbing network suits care about the prize demographic. So do anchors ,who want to maintain the pleasing salaries which reflect their societal worth. But why should Carter adopt that preference? Why should Times readers be so directed? That preference is all about selling products. What about the larger societal interest? What about the way these programs move news and information?

The people Carter focuses on are most likely to buy worthless products. For that reason, the suits—and the anchors—prize their eyeballs. But the people Carter omits from his story are in some cases more likely to vote. What is cable news mainly about in the mind of a scribe like Carter?

Is cable news about the spread of information to voters? Or is it about the sale of soap products? Carter, in a conventional move, walks through that second door.

Special report: Opinion kills!

PART 2—STREET LEGAL: In the beginning, we all got the word. And the word came to us straight from Fox.

The White House had said that they weren’t a real news org. In the New York Times, Brian Stelter reported their push-back. “Fox contends that the administration is confusing its news programs with its opinion programming,” Stelter reported:

STELTER (10/12/09): Fox argues that its news hours—9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 6 to 8 p.m. on weekdays—are objective....

“The average consumer certainly knows the difference between the A section of the newspaper and the editorial page,” [Fox spokesperson Michael] Clemente said.

And so verily, we got the word from Fox. Their news reports are objective, Fox said. And the rest of the programs are just opinion! It’s just opinion! Who cares?

By last Sunday, on Reliable Sources, the whole wide world was taking turns reciting this utterly foolish distinction (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/27/09). Everybody seemed to say or imply the same thing: It doesn’t really make sense to criticize opinion programs. This is an utterly ludicrous claim—and it came to us straight outta Fox. But everyone—the liberal, the professor and the host—seemed to endorse what Fox said.

Are opinion programs ripe for criticism? Of course they are! Except when the whole world is channeling Fox, such programs operate under most of the rules which govern straight news reporting. Indeed, people criticize opinion programs—and opinion columns—all the bloomin’ time. They do this because opinion programs can commit a wide range of sins:

Opinion programs can break many rules. But go ahead! Find the person, on Sunday’s show, who showed any sign of knowing.

Alas! It’s hard to build a serious critique of Fox when everyone traffics in silly FoxThink. But go ahead! Read Sunday’s transcript! See if you can find a place where anyone stated what’s blindingly obvious:

Opinion shows, just like news shows, are subject to basic journalistic rules about accuracy, fairness and sensible focus.

Opinion shows, just like news show, can destroy the public discourse.

Sunday’s discussion was stunningly weak. But then, on Friday night’s Rachel Maddow Show, Maddow also seemed to be getting her theories about these matters straight from Fox. Maddow devoted a complete segment to her views about why Fox ain’t a news org. Some of what she said made sense. But in many ways, it was pure primal FoxThink.

“Is Fox a news station?” Maddow asked. (To read the full transcript, click this.) In this, the start of her rumination, her statements still made basic sense:

MADDOW (10/23/09): Is Fox a news station? The answer to that is unrelated to the question of whether and which Fox hosts and correspondents express their opinion about the news. It is possible to express an opinion about the news and still cover the news responsibly.

That is correct. Individual journalists can express their opinions—and still report the news responsibly. A news station can present opinion in one part of the broadcast day—and present good news reporting elsewhere. Opinion and news can even be mingled in a single program! But then too, there are about a million ways in which a news channel can produce poisoned opinion programming—programming which traffics in bogus facts, trivial topics, hysterical frameworks and language. Maddow never said a word about any of these basic problems—problems which often obtain on her program. Instead, she moved ahead to her own nuanced view of why Fox ain’t a news station:

MADDOW: Expressing an opinion about the news does not negate one’s status as a news reporter or as a correspondent or as a news anchor. The expression of opinion about the news is not the difference between Fox and the rest of the news media. The difference between Fox and news is that Fox is now actively organizing and promoting a protest movement against the U.S. government.

GLENN BECK (videotape): Celebrate with Fox News. This is what we’re doing next Wednesday.

MADDOW: That was a promo run on Fox in advance of the tax day tea party protests. I say it was a promo, not an ad, because no one paid Fox to run that. The network produced it themselves, promoting as a news network protests against the government, and helping to organize them both on their Web site and on the air.

Maddow is right. It was unusual when Fox, and Beck, played such an active role in promoting a political protest. (We’ll avert our gaze from Maddow’s repeated odd phrase, “against the U.S. government.”) But in this passage, Maddow said her last words about any other offences which are committed by Fox’s opinion programs. As she finished her analysis, you might think that Fox would be A-OK if it would just drop the Tea Party bull-crap:

MADDOW: The difference between Fox and news is not that Fox has hired personalities and executives and producers who share and express an opinion about the news, that they share an ideology. Opinion has always been a kissing cousin to news, and one man’s ideology is another man’s objective passion.

The difference between Fox and news, the way in which one of these [news organization] is not like the others, is that only one of these organizations is organizing anti-government street protests. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s perfectly legal as far as I know. It just makes Fox an opposition political outlet to the Democratic Party and the Obama White House rather than a normal news channel.

[...]

This is a story that most of the media has gotten wrong so far. By not only defending Fox as if Fox is just a news network that has a right-wing point of view, but by ignoring what Fox does as a network that has nothing to do with the news.

It’s a free country and Fox can do what it wants. God bless them and keep them. But it would frankly be strange, it would be weird for the White House, for the U.S. government to treat a group that is organizing protests and rallies against it as if that group is just covering the news. It’s not. One of these things is really not like the other.

Maddow returned to her weird complaints about “anti-government street protests.” But good grief! “It’s a free country and Fox can do what it wants?” This was a thoroughly hopeless “analysis,” offered at the very top of the alleged “progressive” news world.

Fox of course can do what it wants—as long as what it does is “legal.” But surely, no one would claim that opinion programs—or opinion columns—can only be criticized when they break the law! But in her presentation, Maddow presented no standard for judging an opinion program as long as it doesn’t break the law or promote “anti-government” protests. This was a remarkably weak analysis—an analysis which largely furthered the utterly silly distinction initially put forward by Fox.

Sorry. The liberal world will never create a winning critique of Fox as long as we’re burdened with analyses like this—like that which seemed to rule the day on Sunday’s Reliable Sources. “Opinion has always been a kissing cousin to news?” Yes, that’s true—and that’s why opinion journalism must play by most of the same basic rules which regulate news reporting. Of course, Maddow herself enjoys breaking those rules, which may have tilted her theoretic.

We’ll return to that awkward point on Friday, as we scan some recent opinion programming on MSNBC. Tomorrow, a look at Fox, on a night when it wasn’t breaking the law—when it wasn’t “promoting a protest movement against the U.S. government.” We’ll look at Fox on a night when Sean Hannity may have been pushing a pile of pure crap.

No, he wasn’t breaking the law. Can that really be our sole standard?