Cable news has never looked so idiotic. Fox News Channel is king, and MSNBC and CNN have done everything to compete short of hiring Bob Goen of Entertainment Tonight as a political analyst. It all began in 2000. Fox News’ ratings climbed over the course of the 2000 presidential campaign until they equaled CNN’s ratings for the first time in October. In another first that month, Fox’s “The O’Reilly Factor” beat CNN’s “Larry King Live” in the ratings battle. CNN still reaches more households than Fox –80 million and 54 million homes, respectively. Fox’s combination of showbiz flash and scorn for objectivity, however, continue to garner top ratings. In 2002, Fox News passed CNN to become America’s number one cable news network. In the third quarter of 2003, Fox increased viewership compared with the same period last year, while MSNBC and CNN were down 25 and 15 percent, respectively. In the 8 to 10 p.m. time slot, Fox News commanded by far the most viewers for the California recall election. Fox News has entered the mainstream, with serious consequences.
CNN has moved its only prime time political debate show, “Crossfire” into a late afternoon slot, shortened the show, and put “Anderson Cooper 360” in its former place. Even when it lasted an hour, “Crossfire” had a hard time promoting thought and not sound bites. The political veterans who host the show, including Robert Novak and James Carville, still cut quickly through prepared talking points in a way Tom Brokaw never can. But in the show’s new shortened format, they struggle to complete a sentence, let alone express a coherent thought in between the catchy flashes of color and “whoosh sounds” CNN provides to keep viewers interested. In the meantime, Anderson Cooper focuses on the important questions of our time. On Oct. 29, the day the U.S. postwar combat death toll surpassed the number killed during the actual invasion, Cooper focused on mind healing techniques as his top story. MSNBC, however, consistently places last in the ratings to the point of being irrelevant on the cable news landscape.
More important than any political bias, however, is these networks’ capacity to misinform, distort and cheat their viewers out of what they desperately seek: the truth.
In a series of polls from May through September of this year, researchers from the University of Maryland and Knowledge Networks’ Program on International Policy Attitudes have tracked the public’s misperceptions of several aspects of the Iraq war. As reported in The American Prospect, the Program’s findings show an epidemic of misinformation in the entire television news media. Forty-eight percent of those polled believed that the United States found evidence of a close link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. In addition, 22 percent thought the U.S. found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and 25 said that on balance, world opinion favored the Iraq war. Meanwhile, 60 percent of respondents believed at least one of these false statements. The Program’s researchers then asked where the respondents got most of their news. The findings: 80 percent of Fox viewers believed at least one of the statements, and 45 percent believed all three. Of CBS viewers, 71 percent believed one of the mistakes, and 55 percent of CNN and NBC viewers believed one of the statements.
The researchers conducting the polls also found that even for people with firm ideological biases, where they get their news has a big impact on what misperceptions they have. Steven Kull, director of the Program on International Policy Attitudes, concluded that “a Democrat who watches Fox News is going to have more misperceptions than a Democrat who watches PBS” and “a Republican who watches Fox News is going to have more misperceptions than a Republican watching PBS.” Kull concluded that oftentimes the more you watch television news, the more misinformed you are.
The Program’s study confirms that Fox News entertains, not informs, its viewers. It also has a corruptive influence on cable news as a whole, pushing CNN and MSNBC further away from hard news. The study reveals that while the traditional networks like CBS and NBC may dwarf cable in viewership, they are far from perfect. NBC can distort almost as well as Fox News. The American people are stuck with a lazy and yet self-congratulatory television news media. Rupert Murdoch’s vision of cable news with a showbiz sensibility attracts more adherents every month, and the rest of the news media would rather deceive their viewers than risk losing them to Fox News.
John Coggin is a junior in Silliman College. He is a member of the Yale College Democrats.