A Modest Proposal for Media Balance

The ratings success of the right-wing Fox News Channel has triggered a reflexive response from the station's rivals: imitation. Both CNN and MSNBC, the two cable news stations in direct competition with Fox, are seeking more viewers by hiring more right-wingers.

In January, the 6-year-old Fox News took the lead from CNN in prime time for the first time. According to figures from Nielsen Media Research, CNN averaged 815,000 prime-time viewers in February while Fox News averaged 1.21 million. Holding down the rear was MSNBC with an average audience of 296,000.

Both Fox News and MSNBC were created in 1996 to compete against CNN, which until that time was the only cable news channel operating 24 hours a day. At the time, most analysts considered MSNBC the most likely to succeed, since it was powered by the deep pockets of both NBC (General Electric) and Microsoft.

Fox, owned by global media baron Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., was considered an upstart.

Both Fox News and CNN worked hard at crafting a distinct identity--Fox as the conservative alternative and CNN as the purveyor of hard news--while MSNBC larded its schedule with stale documentaries and retreads from the NBC network. The terrorist attack of Sept. 11 found CNN perfectly positioned as the site to seek raw news and the patriotic aftermath favored Fox News' jingoistic coverage.

But MSNBC offered nothing special except a couple of telegenic news anchors. Clearly, this wasn't enough to lure viewers to the channel and the once promising station now is struggling to find a niche in the world of cable news.

To MSNBC, allow me to offer a modest proposal: Go left.

Fox clearly is winning viewers by wearing its ideology on its sleeve. The station, headed by former Republican operative Roger Ailes, has found a winning formula by appealing to the fans of conservative talk radio.

And, although CNN seems to be sticking with its hard news focus, the station still is trying to scoop up as many right-wingers as it can. Last year, news leaked out that CNN was trying to lure Rush Limbaugh into its fold. He declined. But the AOL-Time Warner-owned station recently added William Bennett, former education secretary and current conservative moralist, to its morning lineup.

Seeking to tap into that audience, MSNBC has hired Alan Keyes, the voluble black conservative and former GOP presidential candidate.

The narrow range of political discourse in the media frustrates many Americans. Seldom do pundits on the left get the kind of exposure routinely afforded those on the right. And the so-called left-right formats of shows like CNN's "Crossfire" or Fox's "Hannity & Colmes" are better described as center-right.

And although conservatives regularly put a leftist label on the media, most Americans have little exposure to truly progressive views.

The right-wing domination of most broadcast venues renders the American public ripe for another perspective.

The shibboleth that the mainstream media have a liberal bias is a smokescreen that obscures the ascendancy of the right. Washington Monthly editor Paul Glastris effectively refutes that tiresome argument in the magazine's current edition.

He argues that mainstream news shops may be somewhat liberal, but seldom proselytize for the left. Rather, Glastris writes, they tend to "take seriously the traditional journalistic strictures of fairness, accuracy and independence of judgment."

The boisterous, expanding right wing doesn't operate under those constraints, he argues. "It doesn't pretend to be in the business of presenting all sides fairly, but of promoting its side successfully." He contends that conservative pundits are "ideological warriors who attempt with every utterance to advance their causes."

Their "center-left" counterparts are not polemicists, and don't have the same kind of killer instinct. Thus the ideological debate is inherently unbalanced, with one side evangelizing for its worldview and the other devoted to analyzing the pros and cons of differing views. The search for nuance is bad for Nielsen ratings.

Were MSNBC to break that mold and boldly offer a steady diet of unapologetic progressives, not only would it provide more balance to our political discourse, but I predict it also would boost the station's sagging Nielsens.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times.


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