CNN's Reliable Sources: Fox News and MSNBC are Bad for America

Are the Fox News Channel and MSNBC bad for America?

Such was implied on CNN's "Reliable Sources" Sunday when host Howard Kurtz invited the Baltimore Sun's David Zurawik, "USA Today Live's" Lauren Ashburn, and the BBC's Matt Frei on his program to discuss the "increasingly partisan nature of cable news."

By the end of the conversation, Ashburn said "[T]he bottom line is this is not good for society," and Zurawik agreed: "That's absolutely right...The effect on society and on this democracy of this angry, polarizing, bitter kind of putdown conversation is dangerous."

Not surprisingly, Kurtz and his guests didn't include CNN amongst the partisans, with the host making sure to regularly inform his audience that "CNN, by and large, tries to play things down the middle, with liberal and conservative guests taking each other on." 

Despite the obvious bashing of competitors while falsely holding his employer up as the model of impartial journalism on cable, the discussion was actually quite interesting (video embedded below the fold with partial transcript, relevant section begins at 11:44 with commentary to follow):

(Video available here for Internet Explorer users.)

HOWARD KURTZ, HOST: Anyone with a remote control can see the polarization of cable news on just about any night. President Obama is routinely bashed on Fox News Channel and just as routinely defended on MSNBC, where the Republicans are often portrayed as the villains. In politics, it would be called playing to your base.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HANNITY: The water is creeping up towards the head of the speaker of the House tonight as it becomes more and more clear that Nancy Pelosi isn't being forthcoming about what she knew and when she knew it.

BILL O'REILLY, FOX NEWS: We haven't seen many Democrats stick up for Pelosi. Now the loons, the far-left loons in the media, you know, of course.

RACHEL MADDOW, MSNBC: At the same time that Newt Gingrich was grandstanding against the philandering President Clinton, Speaker Gingrich himself was cheating on his wife with a House staffer more than 20 years younger than he was.

KEITH OLBERMANN, MSNBC: One question that has not been asked of former Vice President Cheney on his seemingly endless "anything but true confessions tour," did you use torture in hopes of producing false evidence justifying the invasion of Iraq? (END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: CNN, by and large, tries to play things down the middle, with liberal and conservative guests taking each other on.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HILARY ROSEN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Did she have the power to change it? Did she have the power to do anything about it?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's her own (ph). Why didn't she try?

ROSEN: No. Nancy Pelosi was the biggest advocate against the war among anybody.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Why didn't she try? By her own admission, she did nothing, Hilary. She did nothing.

ROSEN: By her own admission, she asked...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She used it for political purposes.

ROSEN: ... the Democratic leader of the House Intelligence Committee to register objections.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

KURTZ: That effort may fall short at times, but some critics are questioning whether it even makes sense as a ratings strategy. "The New York Times" recently wrote the following: "With its rivals stoking prime time with high-octane political opinion and rant, can CNN compete effectively with a formula of news delivered more or less straight?"

Joining us now to talk about the increasingly partisan nature of cable news, in Baltimore, David Zurawik, TV media critic for "The Baltimore Sun." And here in Washington, Lauren Ashburn, managing editor and executive producer of "USA Today Live"; and Matt Frei, anchor of "BBC World News America" on BBC America.

Matt Frei, when you look at Fox and MSNBC in prime time -- we'll get to CNN in a moment -- do you see opinion journalism or do you see people pushing an agenda?

FREI: I see a bit of both, actually, to be honest. I mean, in broad terms, what seems to have happened is that the stiff upper lip of journalism has been replaced by the quivering lower lip.

Now, whether you're quivering over emotion, whether it's Glenn Beck in torrents of tears over the TARP program, or whether it's Ed Schultz banging the table because he doesn't like people being angry with President Obama, emotion has become information, insinuation has become information on the whole. And you get -- you know, you just get the kind of stuff that, quite frankly, we weren't supposed to be doing when we started doing this a few years ago.

KURTZ: I'll get a little more emotional later in the segment. But David Zurawik, you also see this in the guests because, of course, on Fox you see Karl Rove and Newt Gingrich, and they've just hired as contributors Dana Perino and Tucker Carlson. And MSNBC has a lot of liberal columnists.

Is it a smart ratings strategy for having O'Reilly on one hand and Olbermann and Maddow on the other and play to their core audience?

ZURAWIK: Howie, it might be a smart ratings strategy, and that's exactly what is so troubling about this argument and the "Times" piece that you cited. Everybody in the media is feverishly trying to find a business model that'll work for us. And when the mainstream media, people like "The New York Times," come out and say essentially you need to do opinion journalism, not "journalism" journalism to survive, as that piece really implied, that's very dangerous because everybody says, oh, that's the model we need to go to.

That model works for MSNBC and Fox because they don't have to cover news when they don't want to. We saw MSNBC last week...

KURTZ: Let me jump in, David, because I want to get Lauren Ashburn, who is shaking her head off camera.

ASHBURN: No. I mean, this is ridiculous.

Mainstream media -- "USA Today" reaches 5.8 million people every single day. Al Neuharth's mission, which he wrote 25 years ago, was that "USA Today" hopes to be a forum for better understanding and unity. And we still have a mass reach, despite the fact that nobody is reading newspapers.

KURTZ: But is there a different set of challenges for cable news, where the argument that the president of MSNBC makes is that people hear the headlines all day long and at night they want raw meat?

ASHBURN: Yes, but how many of them do? I mean, how many really do?

What are the ratings compared to other prime time shows? They're minuscule compared to the other shows that people are watching like "American Idol" or "Dancing with the Stars".

KURTZ: Well, who can compete with "American Idol"?

ZURAWIK: And Howie...

KURTZ: Go ahead, David.

ZURAWIK: Howie, that's so convenient for MSNBC's general manager, Phil Griffin, to be able to say that. Oh, we won't cover on the weekends, we will show years-old documentaries about prison abuse inside a prison, and missing children, and we don't have to spend the money to staff bureaus and cover real news.

Isn't that convenient to say, oh, they get news everywhere, they get it from other people, it's their job, not ours? We'll just put on Keith Olbermann making faces at a camera, here talk radio with a camera, and rake in the bucks. That's outrageous for MSNBC to be making that claim.

KURTZ: Matt Frei, so here's CNN, trying to play things down the middle with slogans like "No Bias, No Bull," and "The New York Times" says this is a questionable strategy. And given the fact that MSNBC has closed the gap in prime time with CNN, maybe it is.

FREI: I guess you have to decide what you are. You know, if you've got people crying -- anchors crying on television, if you've got them pushing agendas, if you've got them getting in touch with their emotional side rather than they're kind of cerebral side, that's fine. It's therapeutic, it's very entertaining but it's not news, but it's not news.

Don't call it news. News is something else.

KURTZ: On the other hand, Lauren Ashburn, if you have Democratic and Republican strategists squaring off, as often happens on CNN programs, you know, it's Paul Begala or Donna Brazile against Leslie Sanchez...

ASHBURN: Or Tucker Carlson.

(CROSSTALK)

KURTZ: ... and Alex Castellanos. Do you ever get to the reality of the situation, or does it become opposing people citing talking points?

ASHBURN: I think that you could argue right now that we don't have true debate in America. We have people on cable who are telling you what they think and trying to get you to believe it.

Now, I don't think that a true debate show exists right now where you pit one person on one side of the issue and the other on the other, and then you have a host actually asking intelligent questions. Imagine that.

KURTZ: Why do you think that is?

ASHBURN: Because people don't want to watch it. I mean...

KURTZ: You're saying there's no ratings percentage in having actual substantive debate, but it is a ratings goal to have entertaining, flamboyant people who will...

ASHBURN: Of course.

KURTZ: ... kind of shout at each other?

ASHBURN: It's like rubbernecking on the highway, right? You know, you watch, you look, you sort of go by. It's eye candy, and then you forget about it the next day. But it is entertaining while you're there.

FREI: I think it doesn't need to be like that. I mean, maybe the problem is that when we've had that kind of debate in the "CROSSFIRE" format, it's been too formulaic. You know exactly what you're going to expect from either side. Maybe from a slightly more surprising about it, jumble different people together, it might actually have more of an impact.

KURTZ: Well, I have often argued that the important thing is to have -- no matter what your strong views are -- and it's fine if you're a host, if you're a commentator, to have strong views -- to have people, guests on who have opposing views. I think Keith Olbermann would be more interesting and I think Sean Hannity, now that he's lost Alan Colmes, would be more interesting if he had, they had people who flatly disagree with them. On rare occasions they do.

You've been talking about anchors getting emotional. We've compiled some videotape to make that point on all the different cable channels.

Let's roll some of that.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

O'REILLY: You want anarchy! You want open border anarchy! That's what you want!

GERALDO RIVERA, FOX NEWS: What I want is fairness. We have lured...

O'REILLY: Fairness? Bull!

JIM CRAMER, CNBC: Then these firms are going to go out of business! And he's nuts, they're nuts! They know nothing!

NANCY GRACE, HEADLINE NEWS: You know what, Kevin? I'm so glad they didn't miss a lacrosse game over a little thing like gang rape.

GLENN BECK, FOX NEWS: I just love my country and I fear for it.

OLBERMANN: You saved no one, Mr. Cheney. All you did was help kill Americans.

In the name of God, go.

(END VIDEO CLIP) KURTZ: David Zurawik, what do you make of a cable culture where some of these anchors and hosts get really, really mad, or upset or emotional, and it seems to work for them?

ZURAWIK: Howie, they're speaking for a visceral response. And honestly -- I don't want to overstate this, Howie, and you know from time to time I do -- risk that. But it's really that path lies fascism.

I mean, what we need as a democracy is reliable information. This is the opposite of it.

And by the way, that clip of Olbermann just really, I think, encapsulates it. This is a bizarro world or cartoon version of Edward R. Murrow with the cadence and this arch rhetoric and all this, but he is saying madman stuff.

KURTZ: Well, he would say ...

(CROSSTALK)

ASHBURN: But I don't think any of us are disagreeing here. I mean, this isn't a debate.

FREI: No, absolutely. But I think -- and here's the point -- you can actually turn it around. You say this is really good for democracy because it's therapeutic, it's cathartic.

So if you're really mad, you watch these guys who are even madder than you, and you think, you know what? I'm going to -- it's like my kids. When my kids bawl in public, they see another child crying, they stop crying and they watch.

KURTZ: You're saying it's a therapeutic potentially for the audience, Lauren?

ASHBURN: No. No, I think I completely disagree.

ZURAWIK: Howie, it's not...

KURTZ: Let me get Lauren in.

ASHBURN: Hey, I think it completely riles everybody up, just like this. I mean, the more emotional you are, and the more passionate you are, the more you're crying, the more you're yelling, the more people...

FREI: I thought we were always like this.

ASHBURN: You and I are.

ZURAWIK: It's not therapeutic. They really target people, their opposition.

Even Rachel Maddow, who is the nicest, with her snide smile and arched eyebrow and mocking, they target people and hold them up for ridicule. It's exactly what happened in propaganda in the '30s in Europe. I'm not kidding you.

KURTZ: Some would say that the old model of -- you used the phrase stiff upper lip -- the anchorman who looks into the camera and doesn't show a lot of emotion, and just does the news, that that can't exist anymore in a world where the blogosphere is inflamed with all kinds of opinion.

FREI: I think that's precisely why it has to exist. And, you know, you still get ABC, CBS, NBC, despite the fact that they are all trying to compete for slices of a diminishing pie, they still have the big audiences out there.

And I think audiences want news, they want a certain degree of judgment and sobriety. Some people don't, some people want to be emoted with, they want to be entertained, but not everyone.

ASHBURN: And I think that's true. I also think that the bottom line is this is not good for society. I mean, this constant inflammation and fighting on issues, you learn in kindergarten that this is the way you're supposed to behave.

ZURAWIK: Howie, that's absolutely right. I couldn't agree more with that.

The effect on society and on this democracy of this angry, polarizing, bitter kind of putdown conversation is dangerous. And it's from the very people who say they're news channels.

So are Ashburn and Zurawik right? Is the partisanship on display on cable -- and let's be fair and include CNN!!! -- bad for society?

Or is it a red herring to limit this discussion to just these three networks?

After all: what news outlet today IS straight down the middle and TOTALLY impartial?

If you can't think of any, or had to really strain your brain to come up with one, weren't Howard and his guests kidding themselves and their audience by only mentioning CNN's competition?

The sad fact is we now live in a society absent real journalism, for everyone on television, radio, and with a byline is advocating something. 

When Howard and his guests finally understand that, maybe they'll offer a solution, for they certainly are right about all this partisanship from so-called journalists being bad for society.

Physicians, heal thyselves.

Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard
Noel Sheppard, Associate Editor of NewsBusters, passed away in March of 2014.