Last December 10 was a big news day. U.S. Senate negotiators announced they had agreed to a compromise on health care reform, final preparations were being made for a global conference on climate change, President Obama accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, and new details emerged on five young American men who had been arrested in Pakistan on suspicion of plotting terror attacks. Not to mention that America was involved in two wars and was still in the throes of the worst recession in eighty years.

That night, the main news programs on the three cable news networks—CNN Tonight on CNN, Fox Report on Fox, and The Big Picture on MSNBC—all led with approximately five minutes of coverage of Obama, cutting between video of his acceptance speech and reports from on-the-ground reporters in Oslo. CNN and MSNBC also included on-air analysis of the speech by a variety of commentators. Fox had no such commentary on its news show, just a more-or-less straightforward report on the speech.

This might seem surprising, given the charges of bias leveled against Fox by members of the Obama administration. Charges, for example, like this from Anita Dunn, then the administration’s director of communications, speaking last October on Howard Kurtz’s CNN program, Reliable Sources:

The reality of it is that Fox News often operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party. And it is not ideological. . . . What I think is fair to say about Fox, and the way we view it, is that it is more of a wing of the Republican Party. . . . They’re widely viewed as a part of the Republican Party: take their talking points and put them on the air, take their opposition research and put it on the air. And that’s fine. But let’s not pretend they’re a news organization like CNN is.

Dunn’s strong talk set off a round of finger-pointing that hasn’t abated since. Her statement was attacked by political professionals for its form, and by Fox adherents for its content. The pols said the form of the complaint was too overt and thereby bad political tactics, somehow raising the news channel to equal standing with President Obama. The basic advice from this quarter was a president should never stoop to conquer.

Apart from the wisdom of the White House tactics, the content of the criticism was said, mainly by Fox, to be mistaken in that it failed to differentiate between Fox’s news programming and its opinion programming.

A close look at Fox’s operations seemed an obvious way to examine the claims and counter-claims. When I approached Fox to gain access to their studios and staff for a story about the nature of their news operations, I was told that if I wanted to do a piece on Fox, I should do a profile of Shepard Smith, their main news anchorman. I should be careful, they told me, to distinguish between Smith, a newsman, and their bevy of more notorious personalities—Bill O’Reilly, Neil Cavuto, Glenn Beck, and Greta Van Susteren*. They aren’t really news people, I was told; they are editorialists and ought to be analyzed as such. They are analogous, Fox suggested, to the editorial and op-ed opinion pages of newspapers, which ought not be confused with the straight news coverage.

The proposal to do a story on Smith was fair enough, but would not in any way address the central issue: Was Fox a political operation? I declined. A Smith profile would be a wonderful story for another time, I told Fox, but it wasn’t the story we felt relevant at the moment. That being the case, Fox “declined to participate” in my reporting, which is another way of saying I should go do something to myself and possibly the horse I rode in on, too.

I’ve been told worse, so I wasn’t offended, but this put the story in a bind. I had thought a reported story on how Fox assembles its daily programming would be useful. Doing a story on Fox without access and cooperation necessarily changes the nature of the story. So in lieu of talking to Fox, the main thing I did was let Fox talk to me. That is, I watched a lot of Fox News, and I must report the Fox spokeswoman was absolutely correct. Shepard Smith is an interesting guy. He is far and away the most charming personality on Fox. Not that this takes special effort. Generally speaking, Fox doesn’t do charm. O’Reilly, for all of his considerable talents, blew a fuse in his charm machine years ago, and it’s not clear Beck ever had one to blow. Let’s not even start on Sean Hannity and Cavuto.

Smith’s show—or, rather, shows; he hosts two of them every weekday—are absent much of Fox’s usual cant. They are odd in Smith’s own ironic, idiosyncratic way, but not so unusual that you couldn’t imagine them appearing on one of the other cable news networks. In sum, they seem a perfect rebuttal to Dunn’s critique.

Now Dunn is no political naïf. She’s a seasoned, winning political operator. She didn’t wander accidentally into this thicket. She strode straight to it with nary a side step. Neither are Fox’s leaders naïve. In particular, Fox CEO Roger Ailes is a seasoned, some might say marinated, political operator. One or the other of the two sides to this discussion about the true nature of Fox News is being disingenuous. Or perhaps both are. Shocking, I know.

There is no shortage of people eager to comment on Fox and the nature of its news. We thought it simpler and potentially more valuable to just watch its programs and see what they said. We decided to examine and compare the prime time cable news programming of a single day, and we picked December 10, a Thursday. The newscasts that day and the programming that surrounded them offer some clear testimony on the question: What is Fox News?

The big event of the day was Obama’s Nobel prize speech, and its coverage provides a handy schematic for the three networks’ typical modus operandi. As noted above, all three led their nightly newscasts with the speech. The speech occurred early in the day, our time, so it was a subject of comment throughout the day and into the prime-time big money shows.

CNN had, as it almost always does, by far the most diverse array of commenters, including partisans from each side as well as others regarded as centrists. Their reaction contained by far the broadest range of the three channels, ranging from Jack Cafferty—“a great speech . . . . mesmerizing” and David Gergen—“transcendent quality”—to Alex Castellanos, a GOP consultant who thought it too self-absorbed—“It was I, I, I all the time”—and Michael Gerson, the former George W. Bush speechwriter, who termed it a “complex, intellectually rich, impressive speech.”

MSNBC offered generally effusive praise. Chris Matthews called the speech “a morally powerful speech worthy of a Jack Kennedy.” Chuck Todd labeled it “realistic idealism.” Cynthia Tucker thought it was “a very powerful speech . . . a speech for grown- ups . . . that embraced complexities.” Lawrence O’Donnell and Howard Fineman agreed it was humble. Historian Michael Beschloss said it was “elegant as always.” Rachel Maddow summarized it as “an eloquent speech on the nature and responsibilities of war.”

Fox News—in its hour-long news broadcasts—generally praised the speech or quoted others who did so. Major Garrett, the network’s White House correspondent, reporting from the scene of the award in Oslo, termed the speech a “muscular defense of war.” Others invited to comment on it during the news show were generally favorable. Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives, termed it a “very historic speech. And the president, I think, did a very good job of representing the role of America.” Charles Krauthammer demurred somewhat, saying “it was the best speech he has ever given on foreign soil,” implying that other prior speeches were limited in their effectiveness.

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.

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?)

Even on news shows like Wolf Blitzer’s The Situation Room on CNN, the ratio of news to everything else is preposterously tilted toward everything else. During high news events, Blitzer will often have not one but two separate panels of analysts/commentators in the studio. The result is that even when there is news to be broadcast, more time is spent assessing it than reporting it.

Over the course of an average day, all this talking on the three channels adds up to more than half a million words spilled on cable-news air. That’s a phenomenal amount of verbiage—by volume, a new War and Peace every single day. It does not, as you might guess, approach anything like the art and coherence of a novel. Rarely does a single sentence rise to that level.

What are they talking about all the time? Usually, they’re talking about what a particular little morsel of news means. What is that bit of news good for? Whom is it good for? Who’s up, who’s sideways, who’s selling the country down the river? There is a very large measure of performance involved in all of this. The studio hosts typically play some amped-up, over-the-top version of themselves. They bring to mind nothing so much as one of the vibrant monologues from the Howard Beale character in the movie Network: “Television is a Goddamned amusement park! Television is a circus, a carnival, a traveling troupe of acrobats, storytellers, dancers, singers, jugglers, sideshow freaks, lion tamers, and football players. We’re in the boredom-killing business!”

If you talked all day every day you’d say some pretty stupid stuff and, no surprise, the cable talkers are no exceptions. Much of what gets said, in fact, is just barely above gibberish. On his December 10 show, O’Reilly led with an attack on Dick Wolf, the creator of the Law & Order television franchise, for allowing a character on one of his shows to criticize O’Reilly by name. To buttress his rebuttal of Wolf, O’Reilly quotes—who better?—himself. Later in the show, he interviews fellow host Glenn Beck about President Obama’s Peace Prize, which Beck says was given as a sort of affirmative action award.

Beck: I used to believe in a meritocracy. I used to believe you would. . . .

O’Reilly: Earn things?

Beck: You would earn things. I have no problem with the president winning a Nobel Peace Prize.

O’Reilly: No, I agree he didn’t earn it, but so what? It’s Norway. You know? It’s Norway. You know what I’m talking about?

Beck: Well, now that you put it in that context.

O’Reilly: Right. And I love Norway.

Beck: You’re exactly right. Who doesn’t love Norway?

O’Reilly: I love the fjords.

Beck: Sure.

O’Reilly: I’ve been to Oslo.

Beck: I have never.

O’Reilly: Right. I believe I have some Viking blood in me.

Beck: Do you? I think you do.

O’Reilly: OK. So. . . .

Beck: I want him to wear the hat with the horns. Don’t you? Seriously.

O’Reilly: It’s Norway.

Beck: Send him the hat with the horns. He’ll wear it. But [singing] la la la la. [speaking] He’d do it.

O’Reilly: Easy, Mr. Fascination. Calm down.

There’s a loopy self-absorption to this that is peculiar to Fox and that derives from its origin narrative as the network for the unrepresented, for the outsiders. There is a strain of resentment, of put-upon-ness that pervades almost everything Fox puts on the air. Beck, in particular, was born to play this part. He would be Beale. On his own show that night, Beck spent fully two-thirds of his time in an agitated defense of himself against charges few would ever had heard of had he not spent so much time defending them.

No reasonable person would sincerely deny that Fox has a distinct bias favoring Republicans, and conservative Republicans especially. Even Fox used to admit as much. When he started the network, Ailes was straightforward in talking about his desire to redress what he saw as ideological bias in the mainstream media. He wanted to address the same “silent majority” his old boss Richard Nixon had sought to serve. This is nowhere more apparent than in the guests who appear on the network. On the day in question, other than short video clips of news conferences or other public appearances, Fox didn’t put a single Democrat on the air except as a foil for Republican or Fox commentators.

This appears to be politically motivated, but that could be just an artifact—the content seems political but the primary aim is much more likely commercial. Cable news is not literally a broadcast business, but a narrowcast. At any given moment, there are a relative handful of people (in peak hours less than five million and in non-prime hours half that, out of the U.S. population of 320 million) watching all of these networks combined. American Idol, in contrast, routinely draws 30 million. Although cable news is a comparatively small market, it is a small market with a much larger mindshare, mainly because the media are self-reflective, creating a kind of virtual echo chamber. It is also lucrative. Advertisers want exactly the sort of educated, higher-disposable-income audience news programming tends to attract.

Ailes has proven an extraordinarily acute businessman who has, according to an excellent piece by David Carr and Tim Arango in the January 9 New York Times, turned a fledging news operation that barely existed a decade ago into the runaway market leader in cable news and a profit engine that turns out more than $500 million annually for Rupert Murdoch’s global News Corporation.

Ailes’s most valuable insight was that sharp opinions do not necessarily chase an audience away. In fact, they seem to have created one. There is no worry of offending a broad audience, because there is no broad audience to start with anymore.

It’s worth noting that MSNBC languished in the cable news ratings competition until becoming more sharply opinionated, in that way becoming a left-leaning analog to Fox. It’s highly doubtful this change was due to political considerations. In other ways, though, MSNBC is not a Fox analog at all. Although its overall operation is sharply to the left of Fox, it offers a wider array of guests and doesn’t completely shut out Republicans. Matthews, for example, on the day in question conducted a friendly interview with two Tea Party Republican activists. The existence of Morning Joe, starring outspoken conservative Joe Scarborough, on MSNBC’s morning air offers further evidence.

Ailes, by his programming choices, sees no need to have a liberal counterpart to Scarborough on Fox. Why should he? He’s got the ratings, the money, and a political operation that is nearly pure in its adherence to contemporary populist Republicanism.

But is it an arm of the GOP? Not unless you think Roger Ailes would actually work for Michael Steele. It is more likely the other way around. Steele, in some broader cultural sense, works for Ailes, who is without close contest the most powerful Republican in the country today. The national Republican Party has shrunk to a narrow base with no apparent agenda other than to oppose everything the Obama administration proposes. This extends even to opposing policies Republicans either created or once supported. In explaining these reversals, Republicans frequently say that their changes of position—for example, on deficit-reduction measures that they routinely dismissed when in the majority—owes mainly to changes in national circumstances. But the main circumstance that seems to have changed is their loss of formal power in Washington. This suits Fox perfectly, and gives heft to its self-definition as an insurgency.

*CLARIFICATION: A Fox News spokeswoman says she never mentioned Neil Cavuto or Greta Van Susteren as being among the network’s opinion-driven personalities. She says both host news shows.

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Terry McDermott spent thirty years at eight newspapers, most recently at the Los Angeles Times, where he reported from more than twenty countries. He is the author of the upcoming The Hunt for KSM: Inside the Pursuit and Takedown of the Real 9/11 Mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed.