"In contrast to the vitriolic rants you'll find on some political blogging sites, Palmer gives in-depth analysis and commentary." --Dan Cook, The Free Times

5/27/2008

The Future of Cable News

(Note: This is a continuation of my previous post examining what "fair" and "balanced" mean. This post examines their impact on cable news.)

In the case of MSNBC, Keith Olbermann's "Countdown" draws the highest ratings of any show on the network. Liberals may call this show "fair," but it is certainly not "balanced." Conservative guests are rare, so the show comes across like a liberal political echo chamber at times. His show has an obvious liberal bent, especially towards Barack Obama. But does Olbermann come across as sympathetic to Obama because he believes Obama has made fewer major gaffes in comparison to Hillary Clinton and John McCain? Or does Olbermann come across as sympathetic to Obama because he actually agrees with Obama's political beliefs? And when was the last time Olbermann has had anything positive to say about Republicans or the President?

What will happen to Olbermann's show if Obama wins the election? Countdown has drawn rave reviews from liberals who view his show as a sort of watchdog ready to expose the excesses and improprieties of the Bush White House to the masses. But will he continue to serve as a tenacious watchdog against an Obama White House and call Obama out when he reneges on a campaign promise or engages in unseemly political behavior? What if Obama runs an administration that is so squeaky clean compared to the current administration's that Countdown simply runs out of material? Could this show really survive as an Obama cheerleader?

How about MSNBC in general? A McCain presidency would probably keep Countdown on the air in its current form. McCain and his advisers would likely routinely make Olbermann's "Worst Persons in the World" list, and the likelihood of staying in Iraq under McCain's stewardship would allow him to continue to rail against the war.

A Clinton presidency would likely do the same because of the "say anything" nature of her campaign and the sleaze that has come to define the Clinton brand. But unlike a McCain presidency, a Clinton presidency would give Olbermann a chance to present himself as an honest broker because there likely wouldn't be any shortage of avenues of impropriety for him to investigate and criticize. Calling Olbermann and MSNBC liberals would lose a bit of its potency because how often do liberals criticize liberals?

As for the Fox News Channel, Bill O'Reilly's "The O'Reilly Factor" is the most watched cable news program and regularly trounces CNN and MSNBC in the ratings, although Countdown has occasionally beaten O'Reilly in in the demo (adults aged 25-54) as of late. O'Reilly's show has an obvious conservative bent, as is evidenced by his use of conservative icons such as Michelle Malkin as his substitute hosts. Liberals on this show are commonly treated like pinatas, and extending invitations to fringe left elements only makes the rhetorical slaughter easier while making O'Reilly look reasonable by comparison.

Fox's 9pm show, "Hannity and Colmes," is even more partisan. Even though the show is called "Hannity and Colmes," it is clear that Sean Hannity, the conservative, controls the show and dominates the discussion while Alan Colmes, the liberal, sometimes offers what can only be described as token opposition. Conservatives may view both of these shows as "fair," but they too are not "balanced."

O'Reilly, Hannity, and Fox would love to have a Hillary Clinton presidency because she is familiar and she can drive up Fox's largely conservative audience. But her chances of winning the nomination are slim. Barack Obama is more of an empty slate. Jeremiah Wright will be looming in the background, but to what end will his name be invoked? If Wright trumps President Obama's day-to-day governance as far as Fox or other media outlets are concerned, then that would be neither "fair" nor "balanced." A President McCain would maintain the status quo, especially given the fact that Democrats control Congress, but at what point will the status quo become tired? Fox News came to prominence as a result of the failings of Bill Clinton and the early successes of George Bush. Fox has thrived on these foils, but both political families might be completely removed from the White House after this year's election. What next?

In short, cable news needs to develop contingency plans in the event that a candidate who forces them to change their business model ends up winning the election. Kicking George Bush around and blaming Democrats for everything can only get you but so far.

8 comment(s):

DB said...

if reporting on polls is only "fair" when it makes one's preferred politician look good, then it's not really "fair" at all and the quest for "balance" when it's not necessary only further erodes the idea of "fairness."

Couldn't have said it better myself. What confuses people regarding media bias is that they think pundits are actually journalists. They will complain about Olbermann, yet turn around and defend O'Reilly and Hannity, trying in vain to prove they are fair and balanced. Some people are so blinded by their own views that they are unable to decipher what is actually "fair" in the first place as everything against their views are "unfair."

Dominic said...

This is something that few are acknowledging publicly (however, if you have to renegotiate for your job every election cycle, you'd probably try to fight/forget about that part too).

As much as I love and enjoy Olberman, I can only tolerate so much of him decreeing, almost nightly, "George Bush, You're a Very, Very, Very, bad man!"

I've enjoyed Countdown since it's inception, even if it used to be a modest but blatant attempt to make a one hour version of the Daily Show with real journalists, I still enjoy it.

I wonder if Fox will switch formats like it did when King Bush came into the White-Castle. (For those unaware, Fox used to be a liberally biased station under Clinton. I swear. I used to tolerate Cavuto in early 2001...at least until he got a graphics department, a fat head and a fat-aspiration to become a yellow journalist.)

Brett said...

With an Obama Presidency, or even a Clinton Presidency, "Countdown" would probably go down the route it has been going down as the Democratic primaries drag onward (and is why I stopped watching the show): critiquing and getting outraged over ever-smaller and less significant pieces of news. Just compare Olbermann's Special Comment on Hurricane Katrina (which I think is one of the best pieces of media dialogue that I've heard in a long time) back in 2005, to his most recent Special Comment in the wake of the idiotically misinterpreted RFK comment by Clinton.

Personally, I think "Balance" is over-rated. It has come to mean the epitome of the Golden Mean Fallacy - that if you have two extremists on either side of a spectrum, then the right policy must be in the center, a compromise. No, it's not. It is entirely possible for the Left or Right to be simply wrong on something.

Carter was obviously wrong when he thought that pushing the Iranian Shah to be more democratic would lead to a democratic Iran - instead, it started a chain of reactions that led to the rise of fundamentalist Iran, although of course you can't blame him for everything. Similarly, the Right has been arguably wrong on a number of issues.

Anthony Palmer said...

DB,

This (the quote you cited) is the reason why debates become arguments and that's why one can't discuss politics with just anyone. This does not mean one person is automatically right or wrong, but the inability to debate honestly and properly is very off-putting to a lot of people. Of course, "honest debate" is in the eye of the debater.

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Dominic,

I like Countdown because it serves a public advocacy purpose. But I tend to tune out when I hear Olbermann rail against Bush and/or Republicans because he does it in such an exaggerated way. It's probably the best show on at 8pm, but it risks losing its sense of purpose if it doesn't change with the times.

I like intelligent political discussion with only an occasional bit of bombast and bomb-throwing. Campbell Brown's show definitely has the former, but it's a little too sterile because it has none of the latter. Bill O'Reilly's show has very little of the former and too much of the latter, so it's more of a shoutfest. Nobody wants to be put to sleep when they talk politics, but nobody wants to get angry when discussing it either. Keith Olbermann's show seems to have the best balance of the three.

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Brett,

I'm familiar with the concept of the golden mean fallacy, but never knew the actual term for it. Thanks for teaching me something new!

It seems the golden mean fallacy is alive and well on cable news. I remember watching Bill O'Reilly debate some guy from the New Black Panther Party. Good gracious, that was a ridiculous interview. Obviously, the two agreed on NOTHING. I think O'Reilly even cut his mike at one point. But because they had opposite views, O'Reilly could claim afterwards that it was "balanced" and therefore "fair." Whatever. Olbermann does it too with the way he frames his questions to left-leaning guests. Talk about softballs...

It is entirely possible for the Left or Right to be simply wrong on something.

I'm glad you mentioned this because this is what makes political debate in Washington, on cable news, and on blogs so irritating at times.

Everyone wants to say their megaphone is just as big as everyone else's. Everyone wants to say their opinion is just as important as everyone else's. But at some point, everyone (including me!) should be willing to accept the fact that they are "simply wrong" about something sometimes, as you put it.

This is happening with the Scott McClellan bombshell. A lot of people on the right are attacking his motives. His motives! The administration talking point seems to be the word "puzzled" or "disgruntled" while they dismiss his allegations as an attempt to sell books. But none of them are addressing the validity of the actual charges McClellan makes. Where is the outrage? And how are the media letting these people get away with this? Chris Matthews called Ari Fleischer out on this yesterday, by the way.

It sounds like you know a bit about psychology. Have you heard of the fundamental attribution error? That's what's at work with the McClellan fallout. Basically, it means that when something good happens to you, it's because of your own merit or good traits. When something bad happens to you, it's because of an adverse situation that was beyond your control. When something bad happens to your adversaries, it's because they are lousy people. It's dispositional. When something good happens to them, their successes are minimized because "they got lucky" or "they had help." It's situational.

So for McClellan, he's "disgruntled." He's "out to sell books." He "doesn't know what he's talking about." The possibility that he is actually "right" does not enter the equation. Instead, the Bush clan is portraying itself as the surprised victim. ("That's not the Scott we knew." "We are shocked and saddened by these surprising and off-base revelations.") The reason why this book even came into being, however, goes ignored. They don't want to talk about that. Classic fundamental attribution error.

Thank you all for the great comments.

Anthony Palmer said...

I just found this excellent summary of Keith Olbermann and his potential downfall on the TV Newser site. Highly recommended.

Key graf:

"Maybe the experience of being annoyed by someone you used to constantly agree with could teach political audiences something about how they have appeared all along to their adversaries."

Thomas said...

Why is it so wrong for a news organization to admit that it has a particular leaning? Before the 20th century, weren't newspapers widely seen to be partisan?

Anthony Palmer said...

Thomas,

The problem is not that media entities are partisan, it's that they are often partisan even though they claim they play it down the middle.

Fox has its "fair and balanced" mantra, but a lot of their anchors editorialize and ask loaded questions to the advantage or disadvantage of certain guests.

MSNBC has Keith Olbermann doubling as a liberal commentator and an anchor. He and Chris Matthews have even moderated debates even though Matthews had "that thrill going up his leg" courtesy of Obama.

The BBC and PBS probably the least partisan media entities out there, but they don't draw the ratings that advertisers crave.

Anthony Palmer said...

The LA Times seems to have picked up on this as well. The author even used the phrase "echo chamber" in regards to Olbermann's show.

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