While execs at Fox News Channel, CNN and MSNBC deny political favoritism, the ratings for the recent Democratic and Republican conventions tell a different story.
Fox News, which critics say tips to the right, fared dramatically better at the GOP confab than it did at the Democratic event in Los Angeles, while MSNBC and CNN — both accused of being too liberal — flourished at the DNC.
For conservative media watchdog orgs like the Media Research Center, the networks covered the conventions as they do every other event: with a liberal bias. “Look at it as a sports metaphor,” MRC director of media analysis Tim Graham said. “The Republicans are always the away team. The Democrats are always the home team.”
The one exception, according to Graham, is Fox News Channel, headed by Roger Ailes, a former campaign strategist to Republican presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
Marty Ryan, executive producer of FNC’s political coverage, drew his own conclusion from the Nielsen numbers: “About 25% of Fox’s viewers are conservative. Maybe they don’t like watching Democratic conventions.”
CNN attributes its increased DNC ratings to the fact the Democrats held their convention shortly after the Republicans, thus benefiting from momentum and built-in viewer awareness. Also, CNN execs said, the Los Angeles locale helped to draw a TV-friendly Hollywood crowd, including Gore’s former college roomie, Oscar winner Tommy Lee Jones. A rousing speech by President Clinton and the selection of Sen. Joe Lieberman, the first Jew to run on a presidential ticket, also created significantly more buzz around the DNC.
But critics snipe that just as Ailes wears his Republican stripes on his sleeve, CNN execs Rick Kaplan and Tom Johnson sport their political badges. “CNN has a news division run by a golfing buddy of the president,” said MRC’s Graham, referring to Kaplan, president of CNN/U.S., a longtime friend and occasional informal adviser to President Clinton. Some conservatives deride the news cabler as the “Clinton News Network.”
“We are not in the bias business,” retorted CNN spokeswoman Sue Binford. “Objectivity is not only a requisite in this profession, but it is good and smart business. If you’re a news network, all you have at the end of the day is your credibility and the trust you establish with viewers.”
MSNBC reads a bit more into the Nielsen numbers. “It’s obvious that Fox’s audience is very conservative,” said the NBC-owned cabler’s spokesman Mark O’Connor. “They found a niche audience, and it happens to be conservatives. Our audience is a bit more broad, and our niche is news.”
It’s understood that anchors are meant to comment on news events, and the conventions are no different. But at what point does analysis veer into an opinion piece?
When FNC anchor Brit Hume commented on how awkward Democratic presidential nominee Al Gore looked hugging his daughter Karenna Gore Schiff after her speech to the DNC, competitors said he was leading viewers. “I think he was just pointing out the obvious,” FNC’s Ryan said.
Since assessing bias can be a highly subjective affair, the amount of time that the networks respectively devoted to each convention may be the best way to measure their political leanings.
A lot of fuss was made in the press about GOP chairman Jim Nicholson’s letter to the big three networks in which he asked them to air “not a minute more” of the Democrats’ gathering than they did of the Republican event in Philadelphia.
But the final numbers don’t find Nicholson’s fear warranted. The supposedly liberal-leaning CNN devoted the most time of the three news nets to the GOP convention — nearly an hour more than it gave to the DNC. Fox News also devoted more time to the GOP convention; only MSNBC allotted more time to the Dems.