Not long ago, one of the cable news networks aired the following headline when doing a story on dangerous elements in Iraq — “Target Scumbag.”
And it wasn’t Fox News Channel.
The vitriolic headline appeared on CNN’s “Lou Dobbs Moneyline.” After the show, Dobbs said he had nothing to apologize for. “What else would you call them?”
The state of the cable news biz seems to turn on such patriotic sentiment these days, in part because of the wild success of Fox News, which has drawn accusations of having a conservative slant to its coverage.
Fox News, launched less than 10 years ago, has enjoyed a steep rise in ratings over the past several years that has coincided with President Bush’s popularity. Net caught up with CNN last year, and just completed the May sweeps nearly doubling its lead over CNN. MSNBC remains in third.
Fox News doesn’t like the suggestion that it’s biased in its reporting, i.e., that it’s right wing.
“There’s absolutely no doubt that there are more conservatives on our net than on any other. Before us, George Will and Robert Novak were the only two conservative voices on television,” says Bill Shine, Fox News exec producer.
But that doesn’t mean Fox News is any less dedicated to good journalism, Shine argues. Indeed, he says it was entirely inappropriate for “Moneyline” to air the “Target Scumbag” headline.
‘It was wrong’
“I don’t know how it ever got on air. It was wrong. It’s just not a good word to be describing such a serious story. A number of Americans died in Iraq last week. It sounds like one of their graphics people is unhappy.”
News execs elsewhere scoff at the notion that Fox News is anything but strident, pointing to such shows as “The O’Reilly Factor,” anchored by Bill O’Reilly.
But industryites say MSNBC and, to a lesser extent CNN, are clearly trying to ride on the coattails of Fox News by hiring more conservative voices.
Earlier this year, for instance, MSNBC hired conservative radio host Michael Savage, who once called Third World nations, “Turd World nations.” Net also has brought on ultraconservative Joe Scarborough. MSNBC execs have defended such hires by saying that it’s important to expand the range of voices on the news net.
Shine says the strategy wouldn’t work for CNN and MSNBC.
“They think they can just hire some right-wingers, but it’s not true. They don’t understand what we do over here. We are trying to give news that is fair and balanced.”
The war saw ratings soar for all three cable nets. Fox News, however, is the only one whose ratings haven’t dropped back to prewar levels. “That has kind of been our m.o. for years. What happens is that when there is a big story, we spike and then we tend to keep more of the spike,” Shine says. “What tends to happen is that people sample us, then stay. It becomes appointment programming.”
The good times for Fox News coincide with bad times for CNN. Considering its performance during the Persian Gulf War, CNN was confident it could beat out Fox News in covering the recent Iraqi war. But CNN was wrong, and Fox News dominated.
Under the leadership of longtime CNN exec Jim Walton, the news net is in the process of trying to redefine itself and return to its hard-news roots. Walton took over when former CNN topper Walter Isaacson abruptly left the net earlier this year.
One of Isaacson’s biggest moves was to bring Connie Chung aboard to host a primetime interview show that would go up against “The O’Reilly Factor.” When the war broke out, Walton told Chung they were taking her show off the air, but that she could stay on in another capacity. Chung decided to leave.
Shortly thereafter, CNN announced that morning anchor Paula Zahn was going primetime. The two-hour show, “Live From the Headlines,” had no exec producer and no format.
Several weeks later, CNN exec VP Teya Ryan announced that Hollywood writer-producer James Andrew Miller would join the net to develop Zahn’s newscast. The show will be formally launched this summer and renamed “American Evening.”
“Miller’s broad background in communications and his boundless creative energy make him an ideal choice for this important position,” Ryan says. “We’re delighted that he’s joining CNN and will be developing Paula’s evening program.”
Despite their woes, CNN execs say they have plenty of patience, and give Walton high marks for putting an emphasis on the long-term, versus short-term fixes.
When CNN hit the scene more than 20 years ago, it was the only cable news network around. Now, it faces formidable competition and must find a way to out-fox the new star in town — quite a tall order indeed.