Cable nets take aim at one another

Newsies go for the gut with criticisms

The gloves have come off.

The cable news wars are getting more personal as Fox News, CNN and MSNBC increasingly take aim at one another, feeding off controversies, real and imagined.

The latest salvo took place Thursday morning when Fox News’ “Fox and Friends” crew threw a slap at CNN’s “God’s Warriors” series.

Two days after calling the series “anti-Semitic,” Fox News’ morning crew piled on the series, which first aired in August.

“There have been a number of religious organizations who said that CNN absolutely got this story completely wrong,” said co-anchor Steve Doocy.

Gretchen Carlson crowed that one group “is asking people to call CNN, even urging them — they are giving out the phone numbers of one of the top people of CNN, president of CNN Worldwide.”

The CNN series, part of an ambitious slate of docs rolled out at the TCA press tour over the summer, provided the news net with a rare ratings bright spot, beating Fox News all three nights it aired.

The series, whose three segments were “God’s Jewish Warriors,” “God’s Muslim Warriors” and “God’s Christian Warriors,” averaged 2 million viewers per night.

Since then, Fox News has reported on criticism of the series for implying a moral equivalency between acts of violence committed in the name of Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

The news hook for the most recent attack was an ad criticizing the series placed in the New York Sun by the pro-Israel Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.

“CNN strongly disagrees with some criticism that there was a ‘moral equivalency’ between the three programs,” a rep said, noting that the network segregated the three pieces to avoid putting them on equal moral footing.

Call it reporting, debunking or simply attacking, it’s become par for the course in cable news. Even CNN, which doesn’t air opinion shows and doesn’t typically engage with its opponents on the air, is increasingly getting into the act.

Rick Sanchez, who took over Paula Zahn’s normally sedate 8 p.m. show in August, targeted Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly last week following comments the latter made during a radio show on race.

The dust-up, which began when Media Matters circulated quotes from O’Reilly’s radio show, served as ample programming grist for both O’Reilly and Sanchez, who each brought on “experts” with various opinions on the issue.

“We reacted because Bill O’Reilly is a huge name — it had nothing to do with competition,” said Victor Neufeld, who has left CNN but was exec producer of the show when it reported on O’Reilly.

“People like Bill O’Reilly, Lou Dobbs or Wolf Blitzer are household names, and they have as much stature as major political figures. If any of these individuals say anything that’s controversial, it’s equal to Sen. Biden calling Barack Obama ‘articulate.’ ”

Far from trying to kill the issue, O’Reilly kept it alive, scheduling the Rev. Al Sharpton, who admitted he hadn’t listened to the original radio show, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who hadn’t appeared on “The O’Reilly Factor” in 11 years.

O’Reilly went on to call out reporters he felt had treated him unfairly on the story. On his radio show, he played a recording of a conversation he had with the Washington Post’s Paul Farhi, who told him, in what he believed to be an off-the-record aside, “You are getting so dragged into something you don’t deserve. … It’s ridiculous.”

For Olbermann, it was the gift that kept on giving. The MSNBC host, who has staked out a position as the anti-O’Reilly over the past year, spent more than eight minutes on the controversy the following night.

Part of O’Reilly’s persona is the “No Spin Zone” and the view that the mainstream media skews against conservatives.

MSNBC emulated and inverted that approach with Olbermann, who boosted his ratings 73% over the past year by using O’Reilly as a foil and offering scathing commentary on the Bush administration.

Far from hurting O’Reilly, the latest attacks simply drew crowds to the tube, like kids to a schoolyard fight.

In fact, on Tuesday night, “The O’Reilly Factor” rang in 2.7 million viewers, its highest total in three months. In the third quarter, O’Reilly averaged 2.1 million viewers, more than the combined totals of MSNBC’s Olbermann (744,000), CNN’s Zahn/Sanchez (649,000), and Headline News’ Nancy Grace (468,000).

For its part, CNN has plans to reair “God’s Warriors,” the first in a new series of expensive and highly promoted docs, numerous times over the next few months.