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The following are the results of a NewsHour-commissioned study on the content of the three all-news cable networks. Analysis by ADT Research.
"The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer" commissioned a detailed analysis of the primetime content of the three 24-hour cable news channels: Cable News Network, Fox News Channel and MSNBC. The study examined one week of programming at the end of January 2002.
CNN was primarily a newsgathering network. It:
Relied on its corps of correspondents in the field
Concentrated more on the top stories of the day
Adhered to an objective and restrained interviewing style
FNC was primarily an opinion network. It:
Staged most interviews in a confrontational format
Asked questions in an opinionated and combative style
Selected interview guests with partisan, forensic and military backgrounds
Relied on a panel of in-house analysts for interpretation
Evidence that CNN and FNC occupy different points on the ideological spectrum (FNC to the right of CNN) includes:
The composition of FNCs panel of in-house analysts
The content of anchor Bill OReillys commentaries
Contrasting story selection over Enron and race relations stories
However, these differences are mere nuances that inflect content during the course of primetime programming. They do not dominate the tone of either network. Of much greater impact are the stylistic differences between CNN and FNC. FNC has a breezy, irreverent, opinionated, combative style that serves as a megaphone to exaggerate underlying ideological differences.
All three cable news channels present a male-dominated worldview. At the time of this study there were only two female anchors. Fewer than 25 percent of all interview guests were female. Many news beats that have traditionally been thought of as interesting female audiences: health and medicine, education, arts and culture, for example, were under-covered by all three networks.
Televisions three 24-hour cable news channels are in the throes of a modern-day version of that old-fashioned journalistic tradition: a circulation war. The battle for viewers includes talent raids, publicity stunts, juggled line-ups and insinuations of ideological bias. At the same time, the national news agenda is beginning to revert to its normal priorities after the crisis coverage of the attacks of last September and the subsequent U.S. war in Afghanistan.
Amid this flux in audience, content, line-up and personalities, this project took a snapshot of primetime cable news programming on Cable News Network (CNN), Fox News Channel (FNC) and MSNBC at the end of January 2002. We selected one week of programming from January 21st (Martin Luther King Day), through Friday, January 25th. That week saw the premiere of MSNBCs new show "Making Sense" with anchor Alan Keyes and CNNs announcement of its hiring of new primetime anchor Connie Chung. Two weeks after the sample week analyzed here, FNC too changed its line-up, introducing CNNs former anchor Greta Van Susteren.
Each network mixes interview shows with newscasts during the course of the evening. All three networks were still running special programs devoted exclusively to crisis coverage of the war on terrorism. In the week analyzed, that crisis saw two major developments: the legality of the military detention camp for terrorist suspects at Guantanamo Bay under the Geneva Conventions and John Walker Lindh, the Californian Muslim man found fighting for the Taliban at Mazar-e-Sharif, arriving in Virginia to face trial for conspiracy.
CNN made use of half-hour shows; FNC and MSNBC used an hour-long format throughout the evening. We studied the content of each networks news reporting on the first four days of the week and their interviews on all five days. FNC runs its flagship newscast, "Special Report" anchored by Brit Hume, early in the evening, so we started monitoring FNC at 6 p.m. each evening (7 p.m. for the other two networks). CNN ran one of its flagship half-hour interviews, "Greenfield At Large" anchored by Jeff Greenfield, at a later hour so we finished monitoring CNN at 11:30 p.m. (11 p.m. for the other two networks).
This study was produced for "The NewsHour" by ADT Research, an independent non-partisan news monitoring organization that publishes the Tyndall Report, a weekly faxsheet that monitors the content of the network nightly newscasts. ADT Research started its news monitoring database in 1987 and also analyzes the broadcast networks morning programs, "Today", "Good Morning America" and "The Early Show". For this project, a total of 67.5 hours of programming was videotaped and analyzed by a staff of three for story selection and format. Interview segments were isolated and given special scrutiny to measure guest selection and interviewing style.
All three networks feature a flagship hour-long newscast with their senior anchors: CNN has "NewsNight with Aaron Brown"; FNC has "Special Report with Brit Hume"; MSNBC has "The News with Brian Williams". These programs are reminiscent of the traditional half-hour early-evening newscasts on the broadcast networks. They have a prominently promoted anchor as a lead newscaster but nevertheless devote the majority of their coverage to pre-taped reports filed by the networks own correspondents. These packages account for the largest single component of each newscast.
True to CNNs reputation for global newsgathering reach, "NewsNight" devoted more time than the other two newscasts to correspondents packages. FNC is the most opinionated of the three networks, a trait that was evinced by Brit Humes nightly two-part roundtable of in-house political analysts that ends each newscast.
The crisis sparked by the events of September 11, 2001 and the resulting war dominated the entire cable news network schedule for the first few months after it began. That domination is waning now, but its effects were still seen in January 2002, more than four months later: CNN ran "War Room", a half-hour report anchored by Wolf Blitzer; FNCs Laurie Dhue anchored an hour-long "War on Terror" update; MSNBC has "A Region in Conflict with Ashleigh Banfield". In a cable-news primetime environment populated almost entirely by men, these latter two programs had the only female anchors.
Their content, too, is an anomaly. All other programs in cable news primetime use either the interview format or the newscast format. These programs contain a balance between the two. They are not anchor-driven or news-driven but single-issue-driven. As such, they are an exceptional format, which will presumably disappear as the news agenda reverts to non-crisis norms.
Dhues program especially was uncharacteristic for FNC, where interviews are usually opinionated and combative. Hers, instead, adopted a measured, neutral tone, which was similar to Blitzers and other CNN anchors. FNC still showcased its own staffers with attitude. As was the case with Humes hour earlier each evening, Dhues neutral questioning was complemented with heavy use of in-house analysts as interview guests.
"A Region in Conflict" was the least interview-heavy of the three, emphasizing Banfields skills as a correspondent rather than an anchor. Similar roles are played by Christiane Amanpour at CNN and Geraldo Rivera at FNC but neither of them was assigned a primetime hour during the week of the study.
There were two other newscasts on the networks primetime schedules, each with a format not found elsewhere. CNNs "Live from..." showcased the networks global reporting reach and its commitment to in-depth news coverage of the top stories of the day. During the week of this study, the half-hour "Live from..." originated from Guantanamo Bay (on the military detention camp), Houston (on Enron), the Congo (on the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo), Afghanistan (on al-Qaida training bases) and the Philippines (on the U.S. military joining the counter-insurgency against Abu Sayyaf).
CNNs "Live from Houston" was extended to one hour and anchored by the networks Moneyline veteran, Lou Dobbs. Curiously, while the Enron collapse was the story of the week on the broadcast networks nightly newscasts, FNC and MSNBC both relegated the bankruptcy below coverage of Guantanamo Bay, American Taliban John Walker Lindh and the War in Afghanistan. Economic coverage in general accounted for 10 percent or less of their total news coverage, while on CNN the economy accounted for almost 20 percent. None of the three cable news networks spent a significant amount of time on a series of domestic social beats, including health and medicine, education, science and technology, and arts and culture.
Stories are ranked in order of total coverage in taped packages, other reports and anchor read-only stories on the first four days of the week: January 21 to January 24, 2002. These rankings exclude interviews, in-house panels and commentaries.
In contrast with CNNs "Live from...", FNCs "Fox Report" with anchor Shepard Smith is an hour-long survey of a broad array of the days developments. CNN and MSNBC were top-heavy in their story selection. Both spent much more non-interview time on the top ten stories of the week. FNCs newscasts instead devoted more time on the weeks 120-or-so less-newsworthy stories than on the top ten. In addition, "Fox Report" unusually showcases its anchor. As much time was spent on Smiths newscasting as on stories filed by correspondents.
The studio-based newscast was in large part a compilation of videotape clips narrated in a jaunty style. Smith, for example, dubbed the top newsmaker of the week in question, John Walker Lindh, the young Californian accused in an al-Qaida conspiracy, as "Jihad Johnny." A breezy collation of worldwide clips is labeled "Round the World in 80 Seconds." And a show-business report on the movie "The Mothman Prophecies" identified Laura Linney as actress and her co-star Richard Gere as Buddhist. It is normal for an anchor to be responsible for setting the tone of programming on cable news television FNC uses Bill OReilly or Sean Hannity, for example, to impart a plainspoken, even iconoclastic mood. Those, however, are interview programs. Shepard Smith is an irreverent newscaster.
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. FNCs Bill OReilly and MSNBCs 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 interviewers questions? We measured how frequently interviewers offered their own opinions on the topic before soliciting their guests response. Third, how fast-paced was the exchange? We measured the frequency of questions and answers.
Taken together, FNCs Bill OReilly 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 FNCs Hannity are more opinionated than those of his lefty cohort Colmes. CNNs 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 CNNs two other half-hour interview programs, were at the opposite end of the scale: courtly, leisurely and unobtrusive.
OReilly devoted more of his program to commentary than any other anchor except Keyes, his more dogmatic right-wing competitor on MSNBC. On many issues, OReillys politics happen to be to right of center. On one evenings edition of "The OReilly 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.
OReillys 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 OReillys show.
FNCs 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 interviewers 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 guests appearance according to his or her ideology. This excluded interviews consisting entirely of the networks 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 non-partisans: 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. CNNs "Larry King Live", an hour-long in-depth interview show, was the sole exception. Kings program featured Patty Hearst, Elton John, "Americas 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 FNCs 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).
Fox News Channel has brought a bombastic, opinionated and breezy style to each of its primetime programming formats. At each turn Brit Humes panel of in-house analysts, Shepard Smiths disdain for politically correct speak, Bill OReillys opinionated abandonment of the codes of journalistic objectivity, Sean Hannitys aggressiveness compared with his partner this distinctive style exaggerated a right-of-center tilt compared with CNN.
Cable News Network, by contrast, was simultaneously harder-edged and softer-edged. It was more committed to covering major stories and to correspondents reporting rather than anchors opining. However, its interview formats and guest selection were less ideologically charged. "Crossfire" is an aberration, with a courtly style. And at the center of its primetime schedule is Larry King, as non-ideological and unopinionated as OReilly is his opposite.
MSNBC also presented a mixture. It had the most explicitly right-wing of all anchors, former Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes. "Hardball"s Chris Matthews had a bombastic, opinionated interviewing style that was more similar to an FNC anchor than one on CNN. However MSNBC has decided not to include a "Crossfire"-style debate in the center of its line-up, choosing instead a traditional network-style newscast anchored by Brian Williams followed by CNN-style in-the-field reportage by Ashleigh Banfield.
Cable news networks appeal to two distinct audiences: highly ideological so-called news junkies whose daily entertainment derives from the overheated debates of the political class; and a less-committed group who rely on experienced newsgathering when a global crisis hits the headlines. CNNs operation is designed as a resource for the latter; FNCs for the former. The course of world events will determine which network is better suited for the times.