With the exception of Larry King’s interview show in the evening, it runs news programming more or less all day long. CNN includes opinion and analysis as feature inserts on its news shows, an adjunct to its news operations, but its great strength is news. The commentary often feels forced and superfluous. Fox is the opposite. It includes the news operations as an adjunct to opinion and analysis. It is much more of a talk-show network than a news network. In fact, it mimics one of Ailes’s first ventures into television news programming, an NBC-owned all-talk channel called America’s Talking. Fox News uses this model much more than it does CNN’s news model.
The perceived problem is not that Fox’s straight news is relatively bias-free and its opinion programming overwhelmingly conservative. The problem is that the news portion is very small and the opinion portion very large. It would indeed be like a traditional newspaper opinion-news division if the ratios were reversed.
Fox has a reporting and editing staff about one-third the size of CNN’s. Fox has many fewer bureaus, both domestic and international (again, about one-third CNN’s total). From personal experience covering news around the world, you almost always run into a CNN crew or stringer. You almost never run into a Fox reporter, and never one from MSNBC.
In essence, MSNBC has no news operation whatsoever. It has about half the total staff that Fox employs, roughly one-sixth that of CNN, but none of these people are reporters. It is almost purely a talk network. It regularly runs even less news content than Fox. In primetime, it runs none at all. At 7 p.m., when Fox and CNN are running hour-long newscasts, MSNBC airs a re-run of Chris Matthews’s interview show, Hardball. Even when it puts news on the air, the content is almost entirely drawn from its corporate big brother, NBC, and NBC’s news operation pales compared to that of CNN. From a business standpoint, MSNBC is useful as a means to amortize the costs of NBC’s newsgathering. This can produce genuinely awkward moments—as it did frequently during the 2008 election campaign, when NBC’s relatively straight news staff joined its more opinionated studio hosts in covering election results.
Ironically, Ailes left NBC because he was piqued that NBC in 1995 had gone into partnership with Microsoft to create MSNBC, infringing on his authority as president of CNBC, he thought. He then went to Murdoch and established Fox News. And now MSNBC, having long since divorced itself from Microsoft, has essentially copied the model Ailes established at Fox—a little news, a lot of opinion, and theatrical presentation of it all. It’s no accident that one of MSNBC’s most outsized personalities—Matthews—was promoted by Ailes when he was at CNBC.
Yet as striking as are the differences among the channels there is one overwhelming similarity: whatever it is that dominates cable news, it is largely not journalism.
There is, as has been remarked upon often, an awful lot going on on-screen all the time. There is the central image that is being broadcast at the time; plus a chyron, or label, identifying the scene and/or the people in it; plus the ever-present scrawl at the bottom of the screen, sometimes commenting on the scene being broadcast, sometimes referring to something utterly different. But for all of this hyperactivity cable news is surprisingly old-fashioned. There is much less use of moving pictures than one would think, and very few actual images of news events.
Mainly, what is going on instead is just talking. Studio hosts talk to reporters and sometimes to themselves. If there are multiple hosts, they talk to one another. The hosts talk to guests, either gathered in the studio or at another studio or occasionally by telephone. The guests are a familiar collection of politicians, political operatives, journalists, some experts, and a group we could call expert commentators. (What, for example, is David Gergen’s expertise beyond commenting?)