(This week The Curmudgeon is taking a look at the myth of the liberal media. On Monday he outlined what the issue is and looked at the degree to which newspapers and newspaper columnists are or are not biased toward the liberal perspective. Yesterday he looked at newspaper endorsements and magazines. Today he considers television news and what he calls “opinion television.” Thursday is devoted to talk radio and web sites. And on Friday he concludes by looking at what he considers a special situation and offers a brief conclusion.)
Next we turn to television news – real news, not the opinion-news of networks like Fox News and MSNBC; we address that separately below.
Here we run into a potential problem: The Curmudgeon rejects the idea that the news operations of NBC, ABC, CBS, and CNN are biased. You, obviously, may disagree. They’re critical of everyone, that’s their job, and especially those who hold office. When Republicans occupy the White House they’re hard on the Republican president and when Democrats occupy the White House they’re critical of the Democratic president; the same is true of Congress. Yes, they’ve given Obama a bit of a pass, but The Curmudgeon doesn’t think that’s because he’s liberal; he thinks it’s because they’re afraid to be critical of an African-American president.
Just like many on the right, when you think about it, whom The Curmudgeon believes dislike Obama primarily because he is African-American.
Also, a difference between Republican and Democratic administrations that The Curmudgeon has observed over the years that affects how the press treats them is that since the Reagan administration learned how to work around the mainstream media and speak directly to its followers, Republican presidents have been less accessible to reporters than Democratic presidents. White House reporters, The Curmudgeon has long felt, are naturally inclined to be sheep: feed them what they’re looking for and they’ll be happy and content and won’t go looking for anything else. Deny them their sustenance, however, and they have no choice but to go looking for things, and if you look hard enough you’re bound to find something, even if only by accident. In this sense, The Curmudgeon thinks Republican administrations invite more critical reporting by not giving the press enough to enable it to live its preferred, lazy ways.
Even though The Curmudgeon thinks this barely matters, let’s take a quick look at the numbers. The following were the major network numbers for their nightly news broadcasts for the week of March 7, 2016:
- NBC – 8,742,000 viewers
- ABC – 8,665,000 viewers
- CBS – 7,427,000 viewers
What about CNN? As far as The Curmudgeon can tell, CNN no longer has a traditional evening news broadcast. The closest it comes is afternoon news programs, when the audience is much smaller, so it’s not a fair comparison.
And Fox News? Please: they can call it “news” until they’re blue in the face but we all know it isn’t news. To the degree that people tune into Fox expecting “news,” this is the most biased aspect of the media today and it’s biased in favor of conservatives.
As far as The Curmudgeon is concerned, television news borders on the irrelevant. Except when its cameras are trained on a live event, in which case it often does very fine work, television mostly regurgitates what newspapers have already reported. It’s too afraid of alienating viewers – specifically, it’s worth noting, those on the right – to offer any perspective at all. In addition, the balance between hard news and soft continues to shift toward the soft. Today, television news’s biggest influence is in how effectively it is cultivating a less-informed public.
Where The Curmudgeon thinks television is seriously influential is in its prime-time television news-opinion broadcasts, and that involves three networks: Fox News, MSNBC, and CNN. In The Curmudgeon’s eyes, Fox News is conservative; MSNBC is liberal; and CNN is not in the middle but leans clearly left when it is talking about public affairs, as opposed to when it is reporting on those affairs, when it seems pretty much middle of the road.
So who’s watching what these days? The Curmudgeon took a look at Thursday, March 17, and here’s what he found.
- Greta Van Susteren (Fox) – 2.017 million viewers
- Erin Burnett (CNN) – 983,000 viewers
- Chris Matthews (MSNBC) – 1.019 million viewers
Bill O’Reilly (Fox) – 3.205 million viewers
- Anderson Cooper (CNN) – 1.141 million viewers
- Chris Hayes (MSNBC) – 1.113 million
- Megyn Kelly (Fox) – 2.426 million viewers
- Anderson Cooper (CNN) – 1.114 million viewers
- Rachel Maddow (MSNBC) – 1.453 million viewers
- Sean Hannity (Fox) – 2.356 million viewers
- Don Lemon (CNN) – 1.089 million viewers)
- Lawrence O’Donnell (MSNBC) – 1.131 million viewers)
Before proceeding, yet another quick note: The Curmudgeon doesn’t watch any of these folks; he finds them all insufferable. When someone puts you on television four or five nights a week and tells you to share your opinions and then you learn that people are actually watching you, how can you possibly avoid becoming insufferable? Yes, yes, The Curmudgeon knows: just like bloggers.
The numbers don’t exactly suggest a bias toward a liberal perspective, do they? In two of those four prime time periods the conservative Fox program drew more viewers than the very-left MSNBC and the somewhat-left CNN combined. In one of those hours it was virtually a dead heat. And in the fourth, the conservative Fox program had about 100,000 fewer viewers than the other two combined.
Now, consider this: of all of the individual broadcasters listed above, whom do you consider to be the most influential? The Curmudgeon would argue O’Reilly, Hannity, Maddow, and Matthews – in that order. Do you agree? Disagree? From his own perspective, The Curmudgeon never even heard of Megyn Kelly until the Republican presidential debate she moderated and he had to look up the first name of MSNBC’s Chris Hayes; before doing so, he thought the guy’s name was the same as that of the former Will and Grace star. As for Chris Matthews, well, whenever The Curmudgeon sees Chris Matthews he just laughs and wonders how anyone can take that guy seriously.
So if anything, the television news opinion industry, in The Curmudgeon’s view, leans pretty clearly and hard right, not left.
But since these programs are purely opinion, The Curmudgeon doesn’t think we’re talking about bias at all. It’s just television programming and viewers expressing their preferences through their viewing choices. As long as no one’s keeping any particular point of view off the air for ideological reasons it’s not bias. Other than that, it’s all about ratings: conservatives watch these kinds of programs so there are more of them and liberals don’t, so no one’s lining up to air programs with no real audience. But opinion television leans pretty strongly conservative, making claims that the media is biased toward liberal perspectives seem pretty silly – and empty.
But if you need any proof of the influence of opinion television, and that this influence is more conservative than liberal, The Curmudgeon has to offer only one word: Benghazi. Without Fox News, barely anyone has ever even heard that word.
Tomorrow: We look at talk radio and web sites.