Everyone Likes a Smackdown

By:  Rachel Marsden

Media trade publications are reporting that CNN execs are giving the network a makeover in light of being repeatedly thrashed in the ratings by their main rival, the Fox News Channel. They might want to start by not imitating the big networks.

The old news media’s problems can be summed up in two words: biased and boring.

People aren’t buying the idea that NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams — who worked in the Jimmy Carter administration — is just some lobotomized Bingo-calling desk jockey who objectively regurgitates all the news of the day.

Or that veteran ABC anchor Peter Jennings was Swiss boy scout neutral when he reported the following from Baghdad in January, 2003: “This week we were surprised to see several hundred artists and writers walking through the streets of Baghdad to say thank you to Saddam Hussein. He had just increased their monthly financial support … And whatever they think about Saddam Hussein in the privacy of their homes, on this occasion they were praising his defence of the homeland in the face of American threats.”

A Pew Research Center survey released last week supports the idea that the public views these snooze-inducing perma-grinners as ideologues peddling their biases from behind a thin veil of objectivity. According to the study, “cable news networks” like the openly opinion-heavy Fox News “are no more likely to be described as opinion-oriented than network evening news programs.”

To attribute Fox’s momentum, as Canada’s CBC and Maclean’s magazine have, to the network’s being “conservative” or “loudmouth” is too simplistic.

As bestselling author and media bias whistleblower Bernard Goldberg told me recently: “[The public] see[s] it not simply as conservative, but also as making common sense…. But in all fairness we have to acknowledge that yes, style counts. Entertainment values count. And if [conservatives] have them and Joe Liberal Blow doesn’t — that does work in favour of the former and against the latter.”

The fact that “common sense” is often attacked by its detractors as being “conservative” should tell you something about which side occupies the deeper end of the ideological pool.

In a competitive 24-hour news cycle, branding and publicity matter. A recent poll by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that more people (40%) recognize Fox’s Bill O’Reilly as a journalist than recognize reporter Bob Woodward (30%) of Watergate fame as one, with top-rated conservative talk radio host Rush Limbaugh (27%) coming in right behind and right-wing political columnist George Will trailing with a mere 7% recognition.

Will is a conservative, but the esoteric pontificator is drier than a mouthful of volcanic ash and lacks the personality and charisma of figures like O’Reilly and Limbaugh who owe much of their publicity to attacks from other media outlets.

Canada’s CBC was the latest to weigh in with a drive-by on high profile conservative commentators. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’m both a contributor to O’Reilly’s show and was featured by the CBC as the only Canadian apparently worth targeting in the “documentary.”)

When I asked O’Reilly what he thought of the CBC putting the feature into heavy rotation like it was an episode of Seinfeld, he said that he hopes the CBC “plays that thing 24/7, because it just proves that the CBC is a left-wing propaganda outfit. Left-wing nuts aren’t going to make a fair assessment of anything anyway, but the majority of Canadians are fair-minded people and will know blatant dishonesty when they see it. And it will get them checking out Fox News, which they will see as being much different from the way the CBC represents it.”

Similarly, Newsweek magazine cover stories and CNN’s roundtable discussions attacking Rush Limbaugh’s personal life have failed to dent his ratings.

The recently cancelled CNN program Crossfire never had more buzz than when comedian Jon Stewart played the class clown to conservative co-host  Tucker Carlson’s smart-mouthed, bowtied know-it-all debating club brat — verbally sucker-punching the annoying twerp on his own show. No doubt there were a lot of viewers living vicariously through that experience. Whether or not they’ll admit it, a well-deserved smackdown is refreshing.

Rather than attacking entertaining media personalities whose common-sense approach resonates with the public, maybe the stodgy traditional news media can figure out what it is they’re doing to turn people off.

ABC News president David Westin’s post-9/11 remarks to the Columbia University journalism school, as broadcast on C-SPAN, illustrate the problem. When asked whether the Pentagon was a legitimate military target, he replied, “I actually don’t have an opinion on that…. Our job is to determine what is, not what ought to be, and when we get into the job of what ought to be, I think we’re not doing a service to the American people. I can say the Pentagon got hit. I can say this is what their position is, this is what our position is, but for me to take a position this was right or wrong, I mean that’s perhaps for me in my private life…. But as a journalist I feel strongly that’s something that I should not be taking a position on.”

If you’re hoping to resonate with little people, connecting with them on an issue like the mass slaughtering of your fellow citizens might be a good start.