On tube, stars+stripes=ratings

Guest column

Many in the media biz love to trash Fox News Channel for being outrageously conservative, but the truth is, all the TV news nets are acting like good patriots as the war rages Iraq.

This stars-and-stripes attitude was clearly in play this week when NBC News severed all ties with veteran war correspondent Peter Arnett for stating during an interview on Iraqi TV that the Bush administration’s war plan had failed.

“It’s just inappropriate and arguably unpatriotic for an American to be communicating these things to the Iraqi government and the Iraqi people,” MSNBC prexy Eric Sorenson told a reporter.

“When you go on state-controlled television after Iraq’s vice president promised to send terrorists into your country, I do think some patriotism is appropriate in this instance.”

There is no doubt that Arnett, one of the more eccentric figures in TV news, exercised poor judgement. As a journalist, it probably wasn’t his place to make such a declaration. Also, Iraqi TV is a pretty scary operation.

But unpatriotic? Is it the role of a journalist to put country first? And what about a correspondent like Arnett, who was born in New Zealand before becoming an American citizen?

Several factors are driving the nationalistic mood so predominate at TV news nets, particularly cable nets. The first reason, obviously, is the success of Fox News, which over the last year has consistently drawn more average viewers than either of its news cable rivals.

Both CNN and MSNBC have scrambled to emulate Fox, hiring more right-minded hosts.

Arnett, who signed on with Britain’s Daily Mirror within hours of being dumped by NBC, credited “the right-wing” media and politicians for his abrupt demise.

Initially, NBC stood by Arnett, but then changed its mind. In the time between, the Peacock received thousands upon thousands of e-mails protesting Arnett.

“I’m not angry. I’m not crying. But I’m also awed by this media phenomenon,” Arnett wrote in a column appearing Tuesday in the Mirror. “I don’t blame NBC for their decision, because they came under great commercial pressure from the outside.”

Another factor contributing to the conservative turn is Sept. 11, which shook Americans to the core and ushered in a rare spirit of cooperation in fighting the war on terrorism, including at news orgs. Sometimes, though, objectivity — journalism’s cardinal rule — seemed to get lost behind the American flags gracing news networks’ screens.

When the U.S. press began reporting civilian casualties in Afghanistan, former CNN topper Walter Isaacsoon dispatched a memo instructing that footage of the World Trade Center wreckage be shown whenever a correspondent or anchor talked about U.S. troops accidentally killing innocent Afghanis. Imagine if Isaacson’s memo had been penned by Fox News prexy Roger Aisles.

Isaacson’s memo barely got a mention in major papers such as The New York Times, where just this past Sunday, columnist Frank Rich dismissed Fox News for putting a happy face on the war.

Rich is right, of course. Fox is unabashedly smitten with the troops and puts a positive spin on even the most dismal circumstances, but at least viewers know exactly what they will get when they tune in.

Ask most liberals about Fox, and they will rant; mention CNN and MSNBC, and watch tempers soothe. But are they getting hoodwinked?

Last week, one of the all-news cable nets did a spot on the bias of the Arab press, and whether the Qatar-based Al Jazeera — which is not state-controlled — is a mere propaganda arm for the likes of mastermind terrorist Osama bin Laden. The segment talked about the implications of Al Jazeera running footage of American POWs captured by the Iraqi government, as well as footage of dead American and British soldiers.

The story didn’t appear on Fox News, it appeared on CNN, and it clearly left viewers with a sense that Al Jazeera was sinister and not to be trusted.

Yet CNN, along with all the other news nets, hasn’t seemed to hesitate in running footage of captured Iraqis, or in some instances, dead Iraqi soldiers.

Patriotism, it seems, is in the eye of the beholder. Just don’t try to call it something else.

Pamela McClintock covers the television news for Daily Variety.

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