The debate over whether Fox News is a legitimate news enterprise has seized many in the press and academia. But the transparently partisan presentation in their reporting should make for a short and dull debate. Now, an uncharacteristically honest depiction of Fox News can found in an unlikely place.
TV Guide publishes the industry’s most widely read magazine of program listings and this is how they categorize news programming for their readers:
Note that according to the legend on the top right of the page, the purple highlighting designates a program as “news”. Then, scanning down to the listings, you will see that TV Guide does not consider The O’Reilly Factor to be a news program. However, glancing down a little further reveals that TV Guide does view Keith Olbermann’s Countdown as news. Dig even further than that and you’ll see that the entire Fox News schedule is not designated as news with the exception of Studio B with Shepard Smith. Even Special Report, the program anchored by Brit Hume, Fox News’ managing editor and chief Washington correspondent, is apparently not really news. On MSNBC, Countdown and MSNBC Live are the only programs tagged as news. But CNN’s entire broadcast day is identified as news except for Lou Dobbs and Larry King. (Source: TV Guide September 17-23, 2007)
Now, on a cursory level, that may just appear to be an obvious and objective evaluation of the content on these networks. CNN has always been a dedicated news programmer, just as Fox has always been a propaganda vehicle for the Republican National Committee. But there may be something more to this than just the labeling of program content.
Gemstar-TV Guide International, Inc., the publisher of TV Guide, is owned by … wait for it … Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation. Murdoch sits on its Board of Directors along with News Corp. president and COO, Peter Chernin. The Board is chaired by Anthea Disney, a News Corp executive VP. So why would Murdoch’s own publication seemingly disparage the cable network he is working so hard to establish as a source of reputable journalism by declining to identify it as news? Could it have something to do with the fact that news programming routinely under-performs entertainment programming and that intentionally mislabeling Fox broadcasts could result in driving more viewers to their network? By extension, they could also be attempting to suppress viewers for their main competition, Countdown, by coloring it purple and diverting the broader interest entertainment viewers away from the program.
By owning both the networks and the publications covering them, News Corp. can circle the PR wagons around itself and effectively manipulate viewers, coverage, and potentially, ratings. TV Guide presently has almost 3.3 million subscribers. Although that is a 12% decline from the previous measurement period, it is still a significant audience. They also operate electronic TV Guides on cable, satellite, and the Internet, that expose them to another 82 million viewers. That reach allows them to define the market in ways that accrue to their own benefit. For example, look at how TV Guide describes the O’Reilly/Olbermann match-up:
The Factor: The bestselling author mixes news, interviews and analyses, and some of his most passionate commentaries, not surprisingly, deal with liberals (such as, to pick one name at random, Al Franken). The conservative guru’s `No Spin Zone’ has been the major factor in Fox News’ climb (past CNN) to the top of the cable-news chart, with some three million viewers nightly.
Countdown: The nightly news program ranks the day’s top five stories by what will likely be the next morning’s hottest topics for discussion. `It’s a hard-news broadcast produced and hosted by people who are uncontrollably silly,’ quips the wry Olbermann, who also conducts newsmaker interviews.
In short, The Factor is the number one show hosted by a popular and passionate bestselling author, while Countdown is a hard-news broadcast that is also regarded as “silly.”
This state of affairs is just another reason for rolling back the consolidation that has occurred in the media since the abominably irresponsible Communications Act of 1996 (thanks Bill Clinton). But in the short term, Murdoch and TV Guide need to be called to account for their abject dishonesty and their efforts to deceive the public.