It was all downhill after that. On Fox’s array of hosted opinion shows—O’Reilly, Beck, Cavuto, Hannity, and Van Susteren, the speech rode the down escalator through the evening. Said Hannity: “President Barack Obama joined the likes of Yasser Arafat, Jimmy Carter, and Al Gore earlier today when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in a ceremony in Oslo, Norway.” Hannity later said Obama, whom he called the “anointed one,” had appeased the crowd with criticism of the U.S. “Obama just can’t seem to give a speech overseas without bashing America,” he said. Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard praised the initial portion of the speech but said, “the second two-thirds was filled with typical Obama rhetorical flourishes and excesses.” John Bolton, Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, wrapped up the night’s commentary by telling Van Susteren the speech “was a pretty bad speech—turgid, repetitive. I thought it was analytically weak, sort of at a high school level. It’s like he didn’t have any lead in his pencil left after his speeches at the U.N. and the speech on Afghanistan. So all in all, a pretty surprisingly disappointing performance.”
The same pattern repeated itself through the three networks’ coverage of the other events of the day. The formal newscasts for all three networks were fairly straightforward but the commentary that came before and after was anything but. MSNBC, in its commentary, tended to love whatever the Democrats had done that day. CNN has so many commentators it almost can’t help but be on all sides of every issue. Fox, meanwhile, was raising an army to overthrow the government.
Here are some more representative examples. They might seem chosen to make a point; they were not. They are admittedly impressionistic, but we think a fair sampling of what was on the air that day.
On the Senate compromise on health care reform:
MSNBC—Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon called it “a godsend.” Howard Dean said “the Senate bill really does advance the ball.”
CNN—Representative Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, called it “the type of coverage that they [her constituents] deserve.”
Fox—Neil Cavuto posed this question to independent Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut: “Senator, they just didn’t put lipstick on a pig? It’s still a pig, right?” Lieberman was noncommittal on the porcine nature of the compromise, but assured he would vote against it. Hayes of The Weekly Standard said, “it is absolutely insane.” Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee said, “It is the lump of coal in our Christmas stocking.”
On climate change:
MSNBC—Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, addressing Sarah Palin’s claim that climate change is not necessarily the result of human activity: “Her bigger problem, if she wants to be a candidate, is that she’s on the wrong side of history. She’s on the wrong side of science. She’s on the wrong side of politics here.”
CNN—Kitty Pilgrim, CNN correspondent: “The United States is falling behind the rest of the world in what some see as the cleanest energy option available, nuclear power.”
Fox —Amy Kellogg, Fox correspondent: “. . . stolen e-mails suggest the manipulation of trends, deleting and destroying of data, and attempts to prevent the publication of opposing views on climate change . . . .”
We could go on, but the pattern would not change.
The three networks are, of course, all in the same television business, but even apart from expressions of ideology each approaches its business differently, each seeking its own distinct niche in the modern television ecology. One large difference is apparent in their staffing structures. Of the three, CNN produces and broadcasts much more news content and has many more reporters reporting from many more places. It has a total staff of about 4,000 people, according to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism’s latest available report. On December 10, for example, it was the only one of the three networks to feature on-the-ground reporting from both Pakistan and Virginia on the case of the five Americans arrested in Pakistan. CNN’s newsgathering superiority was even more striking in the aftermath of the January earthquake in Haiti.