Like newscasts, interview programs also come in a variety of formats. The most overtly ideological structure features a left versus right debate by guests orchestrated by left-vs.-right questioning by anchors. CNN has its half-hour "Crossfire" and FNC has the hour-long "Hannity & Colmes". MSNBC has no debate-format interview program.
The debate format - two contrasting interviewees in point-counterpoint argument - is not unique to these two dual-anchor programs and is not confined to left-versus-right debate. Many of the debate style interviews were handled by a single anchor rather than the "Crossfire"-style pair. Because the John Walker Lindh case was so newsworthy during the week analyzed by this study, the same debate format was frequently used when the guests were lawyers. Lawyer guests were typically a former prosecutor and a defense attorney dueling over the merits of the case. They did not have to be liberal or conservative to see the case from opposing points of view.
In the dual-anchor format, it is explicitly promised that each interviewer will be open and aggressive about his or her political ideology. While no such explicit promise is usually made about solo interviewers, they nevertheless often enter into direct debate with their guests. The style of interviewing which abides by traditional rules of journalistic objectivity prefaces even an ideologically loaded question with conventional forms: "How do you respond to the charge that your opponents might say?" and so on. FNC's Bill O'Reilly and MSNBC's Chris Matthews and Alan Keyes deviated from this tradition. They adopted an explicitly opinionated interviewing style even though they were not involved in crossfire.
This study monitored three interviewing characteristics. First, how combative was the interviewer? We measured how frequently an interviewer interrupted their guests to ask a question. Second, how opinionated were the interviewer's questions? We measured how frequently interviewers offered their own opinions on the topic before soliciting their guest's response. Third, how fast-paced was the exchange? We measured the frequency of questions and answers.
Taken together, FNC's Bill O'Reilly scored highest on the combination of these three attributes. He prefaced over half of his questions with his own opinion, even more than his colleagues Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes, who were explicitly advertised as being opinionated. In contrast, on CNN only the "Crossfire" hosts - Bill Press on the left and a conservative combination of Tucker Carlson and Robert Novak on the right - offered opinions and interruptions. A bombastic style, interestingly, appears to signify a conservative outlook. The questions by FNC's Hannity are more opinionated than those of his lefty cohort Colmes. CNN's Press interrupts and shares his own opinions less than Carlson or Novak. Keith Olbermann of "The Point" and Jeff Greenfield of "At Large", the anchors of CNN's two other half-hour interview programs, were at the opposite end of the scale: courtly, leisurely and unobtrusive.
O'Reilly devoted more of his program to commentary than any other anchor except Keyes, his more dogmatic right-wing competitor on MSNBC. On many issues, O'Reilly's politics happen to be to right of center. On one evening's edition of "The O'Reilly Factor", for example, he characterized the income tax as "socialist" and refused to concede that economic, sociological and demographic factors led many immigrants to work in this country without Green Cards. To him, they are merely breaking the law. On the other hand, he is a populist, endorsing "socialist" taxation as long as it is approved by referendum rather than legislation. He also has libertarian views, for example, he has said that illegal aliens should benefit from public support as long as it is philanthropic rather than governmental.
O'Reilly's signature interviewing style amplifies his opinions. An ideology that would be revealed only by nuances in a program with the format used by Brit Hume or Aaron Brown or Brian Williams becomes telecast at full volume on O'Reilly's show.
FNC's format decisions make its interviewing strategy a megaphone for underlying differences in its political worldview compared with that of CNN. These decisions include choices in format, guests, expertise, topic and in-house analysts.
Interviews can be divided into three formats. The point-counterpoint debate format presupposes two guests with vocal opposing views. The one-on-one format can turn into an interview versus guest debate if the interviewer's style is full of interruption and opinion. The third format is the least opinionated and argumentative: we call it a panel interview, in which two or more guests discuss an issue mutually rather than oppositionally. FNC uses the panel format least. CNN and MSNBC use the debate format least.
Second, this report characterized each interview guest's appearance according to his or her ideology. This excluded interviews consisting entirely of the network's own reporters or analysts. Guests appearing in multiple interviews over the analyzed week were counted as many times as they appeared. Guests were designated as partisans, lawyers, national security experts or other non-partisans. 'Partisans' were those affiliated with a political party or representatives of a politically aligned non-governmental organization. Examples of such organizations include the National Organization for Women and Human Rights Watch on the left, and the Cato Institute and the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research on the right. Interestingly, none of the three networks invited noticeably more left-wing or right-wing partisan guests. FNC, however, included the fewest nonpartisans: almost everybody invited as a guest had an ideological axe to grind. Also, six of seven appearances by radio talk show hosts, in general a highly opinionated group, were on FNC.
Third, almost everyone appearing in an FNC interview was a politician or so-called 'public intellectual'. There were almost no so-called 'real people', individuals talking authentically about their own experiences, on FNC. This partially undercuts its populist rhetoric. Celebrities were also absent from primetime cable news. CNN's "Larry King Live", an hour-long in-depth interview show, was the sole exception. King's program featured Patty Hearst, Elton John, "America's Most Wanted" host John Walsh, Pat and Debby Boone and Hollywood anti-Taliban activist Mavis Leno during the analyzed week. Women accounted for less than 25 percent of guests on each of the three networks.
Fourth, even though post-September 11 topics were the biggest single topic category for interviews on all three networks, they dominated FNC's agenda the least (35 percent, CNN 50 percent, MSNBC 47 percent). Picking up the slack, FNC led political coverage (83 min v CNN 34, MSNBC 45), including the debate over energy policy, a preview of the State of the Union address and the prospects for Campaign 2002 congressional races. In addition, FNC puts the highly-charged topic of race and immigration high on its agenda (76 min v CNN 10, MSNBC 5), covering illegal aliens, affirmative action and racial nationalism among African-Americans.
Fifth, FNC uses in-house analysts more frequently than CNN and MSNBC combined. In the week under analysis, 17 separate FNC analysts were interviewed either in a roundtable panel with colleagues or in a debate-style format with an outside expert. In contrast, MSNBC used four analysts and CNN only one. A network not only gives authority to its experts' analysis in hiring them as in-house analysts, but also implicitly endorses their opinions. During the week studied, FNC deployed five analysts who were national-security veterans: one ex-CIA, one ex-Green Beret, two former generals, one former colonel. Of the six in-house journalists from the print media, three were from middle-of-the-road publications (Roll Call, Newsweek, Fortune), and three were from explicitly conservative publications (Washington Times, Weekly Standard twice).
|Content Analysis: Highlights | Introduction | Newscasts | Interviews | Conclusion|
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