The cable news wars have been raging for years. But for the most part the combatants have been confined to the big three: Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC. Headline News and CNBC have been regarded as niche players that weren’t really on the front lines.
All of a sudden CNBC has become the most talked about cable news network, just as the nation has inaugurated a new president and tries to weather a fierce economic storm. Much of the attention is couched in ridicule. Rick Santelli’s rant, that cast a bunch of elite commodities traders as emblematic of average Americans, was only taken seriously by the likes of Michele Malkin and her mush-brained followers. Jim Cramer was exposed as the clown that he is by a much better and more professional clown, Jon Stewart.
The backwash of this publicity parade is a boost for CNBC’s ratings and visibility. But why is it happening now?
CNBC has long been a friend to the business community. Its reporting rarely alerted viewers to imminent crises (like the the one we are enduring now) or corporate malfeasance (like Enron and Madoff). The anchors were openly chummy with CEOs, whom they courted for access, and some, like Larry Kudlow, were overtly partisan. CNBC elevated the art of bloviating by introducing the Octo-Pundit, where as many as eight self-styled experts yelled at each other from their respective video cages.
But with a lineup like Fox News and current events that favored their niche, they still needed a little extra push to get the recognition they felt they deserved. So along comes Santelli and Cramer and a concerted effort to expand their conservative profile.
Despite the blathering of Bill O’Reilly, the NBC News division has never been left wing. MSNBC was once the cable home of Michael Savage, Oliver North, Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and it still features Joe Scarborough and Pat Buchanan. The rise of Keith Olbermann and Rachel Maddow occurred strictly because of their success, not ideology. Nevertheless, in the past NBC has demonstrated its cowardice in the face of criticism. They are the network that canceled their own number one rated program, Phil Donahue, for fear of being tagged anti-war.
By ramping up the rightist rhetoric on CNBC, NBC News is attempting to harvest popular outrage from both ends of the political field. They can continue to throw liberals a bone with their primetime MSNBC schedule, while cozying up to their natural right wing allies on the business-oriented CNBC. And neither network will have its programming muddied with ideological balance. As an ancillary benefit, NBC will try to tamp down the criticism they receive from the right by pointing to their new heroes of ham-handed conservatism.
In the end, CNBC just hopes to siphon a few viewers away from Fox News, and to smother the new born Fox Business Network in its crib. Unfortunately, the way they have chosen to do that is to emulate the Fox model which is focused on aggressive conservatism, and hysterical, paranoid personalities. That won’t work for CNBC in the long run because Fox viewers are too cult driven. They won’t abandon the comfort of that with which they are familiar for a subsidiary of that which their Fox masters have convinced them is evil.
Now, more than ever, CNBC needs to concentrate on providing responsible financial journalism. By making themselves truly indispensable in the field for which they claim expertise, they will be far more likely to succeed and to serve the interests of their viewers.