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3 nets: News, Views, Confused

In a blurb: "CNN is a newsgathering network. Fox is an opinion network. And MSNBC is a confused network."

That's the Cliff Notes version of a report by Andrew Tyndall, who studied the three cable news networks for PBS's NewshourWith Jim Lehrer.

Tyndall, media analyst for ADT Research and publisher of the Tyndall Report, suggests Fox's strategy may be rooted more incombativeness than in conservatism. "We're not saying all the opinions are conservative or right-wing. Critics point to those instances where Fox appears to be to the right of CNN and draw the conclusion that that's Fox. The conservative view gets more time, but opinion of all sorts gets more time. Fox programs tend to be more argumentative, more opinionated.

"It's pretty good television," he added.

Commissioned for a report that aired last week, Tyndall's research was drawn from a single January week of prime time programming. But CNN's and Fox's styles, he said, "are so distinct it's difficult to imagine they don't spill over into the other dayparts."

He saved some of his most descriptive analysis for Fox, which, he said, "has brought a bombastic, opinionated and breezy style to each of its prime time programming formats. At each turn—Brit Hume's panel of in-house analysts, Shepard Smith's disdain for politically correct speak, Bill O'Reilly's opinionated abandonment of the codes of journalistic objectivity, Sean Hannity's aggressiveness compared with his partner—this distinctive style exaggerated a right-of-center tilt compared with CNN."

At another point, he noted that, while other news nets refer to accused al-Qaida sympathizer John Walker Lindh by name, Fox's Smith called him "Jihad Johnny."

MSNBC, he said, offers elements reflecting both its competitors' approaches —Brian Williams's traditional newscast, talk shows hosted by conservative Alan Keyes and "bombastic" Chris Matthews—while carving out no particular niche. MSNBC was not interviewed by Newshour
and had no comment on the report.

"We had taken a look three years ago at the competition among the cable news networks," Newshour
reporter Terence Smith told BROADCASTING & C ABLE . "At that point, CNN was head and shoulders above the other two. As we watched, it changed. We watched Fox pull up and move ahead. We began to ask ourselves, 'Is it the programming, or is it the politics of the network?'"

Tyndall found that the makeup of Fox's in-house experts, the content of commentaries and, in particular, what he found was the downplaying of the Enron story that week—in contrast to its play on other networks—adds up to a right-of-center slant. The Enron story, he said, tended to make capitalism look bad, and Fox is clearly marketing to a conservative audience.

Said PBS's Smith, "I think it is in contrast to the corporate view as expressed by Fox: 'fair and balanced.' I think Tyndall's content analysis demonstrates there is a right-of-center perspective."

In the Newshour
report, Fox anchor Brit Hume said his network's audience appreciates that it's fair and balanced, even if it's perceived within the media as right-wing. Hume noted the public's long perception of most TV news as tilting left.

"The public believes in the validity of the left-wing slant," said Carl Gottlieb, deputy director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and a former news director at a Fox-owned station. "The Fox attitude may be more in line with what they believe. The only news that is not opinionated is the news we agree with," he observed.

A Fox spokesman said it was hardly news that Fox offers a lot of opinion.

In fact, Tyndall does suggest that the conservative perspective could be merely that some of the better-known conservative commentators are more excitable. Even on CNN, conservative hosts Robert Novak and Tucker Carlson interrupt far more than liberal Bill Press, and CNN's Keith Olbermann and Jeff Greenfield, liberals both, are described as "courtly, leisurely and unobtrusive."