Tim Rutten is the media columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He is rare bright light in a dark media sky. I have written approvingly of his insight on several occasions.
That’s why I’m somewhat surprised at an article he published this weekend. Much of it accurately portrayed some of the media’s obtuse gyrations to mold itself into whatever they think the audience wants, but on one point he was so far off the mark that the mark became a microscopic speck in a distant universe. Here is Rutten attempting to describe the current cable news landscape:
“…we now have a situation in which the three all-news cable networks each have aligned themselves with a point on the political compass: Fox went first and consciously became the Republican network; MSNBC, which would have sold its soul to the devil for six ratings points, instead found a less-demanding buyer in the Democrats. Now, CNN has decided to reinvent itself as the independent, populist network cursing both sides of the conventional political aisle — along with immigrants and free trade, of course.”
Indeed, Fox was first, but it didn’t become the Republican network. It was conceived and hatched as such. There was never any intention for the network to be anything other than a voice for rightist rhetoric and a counter balance to what their delusions told them was a “liberal media.” Their air is dominated by Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, John Gibson, Bill Krystal, Geraldo Rivera, Charles Krauthammer, Ann Coulter, etc. Even their managing editor for news, Brit Hume, is overtly dismissive of Democrats and liberal points of view.
But Rutten stumbled when he wrote that MSNBC has assumed a Democratic posture. The only support he gives for that view is the presence of Keith Olbermann. It doesn’t take much observation, however, to erase the image that Rutten is painting. Countdown is a one hour daily program. Conversely, Joe Scarborough, the former Republican congressman, hosts three hours every morning. Tucker Carlson, the conservative son of the director of the Scooter Libby Defense Fund has his own hour. Chris Matthews, although he was an aide to Tip O’Niell, has become a reliable basher of progressive policy. And the guests on all of these programs run the gamut from neo-caveman Pat Buchanan to Pat Buchanan (seriously, is he the only number in their Rolodex?). And there is nothing notably liberal in their handling of straight news.
Rutten similarly tags CNN as reaching for a “populist” stance based solely on the blathering of Lou Dobbs. Beyond that the only identity CNN achieves is as a boot-licker for any symbol of political power. And if you extend the CNN profile to include it’s little sister, Headline News, you’ll find law and order priestess Nancy Grace, and the stupidest man on television, Glenn Beck.
Rutten cites a PEW study on the partisan make-up of viewers for the three cable news nets as proof that they are being divided by ideology:
“Republicans outnumber Democrats by two-to-one (43% to 21%) among the core Fox News Channel audience, while there are far more Democrats than Republicans among CNN’s viewers (43% Democrat, 22% Republican) and network news viewers (41% Democrat, 24% Republican).”
But all this really proves is that Fox News is wildly out of touch with mainstream America by attracting such an imbalance of Republicans. The viewership of CNN and the other networks actually are closer to representing the nation’s political mood as revealed in another survey by PEW:
“Today, half of the public (50%) either identifies as a Democrat or says they lean to the Democratic Party, compared with 35% who align with the GOP.”
Therefore, the fact that more Democrats than Republicans watch CNN and MSNBC is simply because there are more Democrats than Republicans. The fact that the numbers are reversed for Fox News is because Fox blatantly solicits Republican viewers via the conservative agenda planted in their reporting.
Rutten does make some good points including that CNN has become a “traveling wreck of a journalistic carnival” (Good one, Tim). But he closes his column by tying together Olbermann, O’Reilly and Dobbs as “the three points of what amounts to an ethical Bermuda Triangle.” The problem with that analysis is that there are many O’Reillys and Dobbs’ across the TV dial, but there is only one Olbermann. Nowhere on any of the news channels is there a such a reliably left-of-center voice – even on MSNBC which Rutten characterizes as the liberal point in the triangle.
The big question then is…Why not? Since we know that Democrats outnumber Republicans; we know that a majority of Americans rate Democrats higher on every major issue including Iraq, health care, the environment, the economy; we know that the Republican president’s approval rating has sunk to historic lows; knowing all of this, why is there only one program that serves the majority of the viewing audience? Some media critics claim that the partisan slant of the media is due solely to the marketplace and that if the public wanted more liberal views, the media would supply them.
Oh yeah? By any objective standard, that doesn’t appear to be the case.